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Misogyny and the law


April 23, 2016

A differently-abled, 22-year-old woman was recently raped by a hospital worker at a known hospital. This heinous crime was not committed in a public hospital in rural Sindh or southern Punjab – it took place in the federal capital. It is pertinent to acknowledge and appreciate the fact that the victim’s medical tests were conducted almost immediately.

Furthermore, Dr Tariq Fazal Chaudhry, minister of the Capital Administration and Development Division, established a three-member committee to look into the occurrence. The hospital’s administrator also confirmed that the crime had indeed occurred. It is important to highlight because a redressal of violations cannot take place in an environment hostile to the victim. The manner in which the complaint was dealt with demonstrates a shift in attitude, resulting in heinous crimes, such as this, being taken more seriously than before. Or at least, it seems that way at face value.

It is no secret that women in this country fight every day to survive. Living in Islamabad, it is no wonder that one takes safety for granted – but women in the rest of the country must fight their battles every day. Whether the battle is for the right to education or the right to marry someone of her own choosing, women in this country are vulnerable to all kinds of abuse and violence. What makes the situation of women even worse is the issue of double vulnerability, ie when a woman is also disabled, when she belongs to a minority group or both, etc.

It is clearly necessary to ensure that those in need of strictly designed protections are given exactly that. In 2014, the Aurat Foundation reported that more than 7,010 cases of violence against women had been recorded. In fact, the Aurat Foundation’s Violence against Women report demonstrated that in the first six months of 2015, 2,926 cases of violence had been reported. If one were to assess the progress of Pakistan, these statistics would demonstrate that whatever little progress has been achieved is neither indicative of a long-term solution nor can it accurately be termed as progress.

The fact remains that we are often fooled by the glare from shiny legislative initiatives and grand commissions with wide-ranging powers mandated on paper. Meanwhile, misogynist politicians attempt to weaken the baby steps being taken by other provinces, completely exploiting the 18th Amendment. Imran Khan’s decision to submit the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) women’s protection bill to the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), a step not required under the constitution or any other law of the land, is not a move that one can or should brush aside.

It is a defining feature of politics in this country: men will only stand up for women’s rights when they do not fear backlash from the religious right. But the more important question here is: what did the women in Khan’s party do to fight against the misogyny of their leader? If women themselves cannot stand up, then I’m afraid no legislation can ever safeguard our rights and liberties.

Since Imran Khan’s politics of hypocrisy is mainly confined to KP for the time being, let us turn towards the apathy of the other provinces. We can have a hundred more women’s protection bills in all the provinces but until we amend or repeal the existing laws that perpetuate inequality and discrimination, they will have little to no positive affect on the situation of women. Let us take a quick glance at the legislative landscape.

The Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929 remains in place, with Sindh being the only province where the minimum age has been raised to eighteen, through the Child Marriages Restraint Act (2014). Disparity between the federation and the provinces, and between the provinces themselves, ensures that the overall protection afforded to young girls remains weak and inconsistent.

Moreover, the mere passage of legislation will not counter the firmly embedded societal notions regarding the acceptability of child brides. It is not enough for laws to be promulgated; prior to their enactment, the respective governments must take it upon themselves to launch social campaigns, promoting a counter-narrative to challenge the misinterpretation of religion by right-wingers.

In fact, it seems that the federal government and various provincial governments have, through their recent attempts at legislative innovation, created a far more complicated situation than what is understood by the rest of us. The Qisas and Diyat Ordinance is not only still intact but is readily enforceable – and no one is talking about repealing it. The ordinance permits a victim’s heir to receive compensation from the killer in exchange for a pardon.

Considering that many instances of rape, domestic violence and all instances of ‘honour killing’ occur within the family itself, granting the victim’s family the right to pardon a killer defeats the purpose of any and all legislation meant to prevent the occurrence of such crimes.

As aforementioned, the redressal of violations cannot occur in an environment hostile to the victim. Thus, while one appreciates the attempts at creating a protective environment for the female victims of heinous crimes, there is no reason why we should not be fighting to ensure that these crimes are not implicitly sanctioned by the state itself.

The basis of discrimination, rooted in prejudiced societal attitudes and reflected in legislation, must be shattered. Indeed, in order to do so, one requires stringent laws and monitoring commissions – but surely none of these can succeed without the development of a comprehensive counter-narrative.

The writer is a lawyer.

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