Monday December 04, 2023

Fantastical fears

By our correspondents
March 17, 2016

The degree of frenzy stirred up by the Protection of Women Law passed unanimously by the Punjab Assembly last month is unexpected and rather alarming. Under pressure from religious parties, the Punjab government has stopped the notification of the law while its top brass contemplates what to do. What is unclear is whether the religious right has the political power to force the government into changing the law. The claims of religious parties, led by the JUI-F and the Jamaat-e-Islami, are widely exaggerated. The law has been labelled an ‘attack on the Muslim family system’, a promotion of ‘Western immorality’, an attempt at ‘secularising’ Pakistan and an attack on the ‘rights of men’. The Punjab Protection of Women Law aims to protect women against domestic abuse and harassment in public spaces. Both are systemic issues prevalent in Pakistani society. This is as such not different from other laws passed to protect women against physical harm at both the federal and provincial levels. The Protection of Women Bill of 2006 is an example, with religious parties apparently un-threatened by the Musharraf-era legislation which amended Hudood Ordinance provisions. Even the most narrow-minded of critics of the recent law have shied away from arguing that husbands have a right to beat their wives or that men have a right to harass women.

So the question is: if it is acknowledged that these practices are not desired in society, then why are the religious parties protesting a law that aims to put an end to them? The answer is simple: political expediency. The religious parties appear to have decided to construct an issue out of a non-issue simply to gain political mileage. One must remember that the law to regulate marriage in the Ayub Khan period was also opposed while religious parties attempted to thwart the rise of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s PPP by using the rhetoric of a ‘threat to Islam’. The fact is that the law to protect women poses no threat to Islam. There appears to be nothing in the law that is either un-Islamic or violates cultural practices. After all, no culture and no religion – especially not Islam – sanctions violence of any kind against women. It seems the religious right is trying to remain relevant to the country’s politics by raising the slogan that somehow Islam is in danger because of this law. In a post-NAP Pakistan, religious parties have not been able to raise support in favour of their usual causes. That the execution of Mumtaz Qadri and passage of the women’s protection law are being condemned in the same line of argument suggests that our religious parties are trying to counter their own irrelevance to the politics of Pakistan. The Punjab government deserves praise for tabling the law and defending it as well. It must not give in to these demands. Otherwise, it will open itself to being held hostage over and over again. It would be unfortunate if a measure aimed at safeguarding a large proportion of the population had to be altered on the basis of whims expressed by the right wing.