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November 3, 2008

Women, lawyers & democracy


November 3, 2008

It is generally acknowledged that in Pakistan women’s rights activism in the 1980s was a catalyst for the broader movement for democracy pitted against Gen Zia-ul-Haq’s military dictatorship. So, too, the 2007 lawyers’ movement for the restoration of the Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, came to be associated with and represent the pro-democracy interests of the nation against Gen Musharraf’s regime. There are important similarities in the historical relevance of both movements. It would be useful to examine these to understand the importance of the relationship between civil society, political parties and their roles in our democracy.

Both the rise of women’s activism in the ’80s and the lawyers’ movement of ’07, pivoted around a personality-based incident that caught the imagination of civil society. It was not just that Safia Bibi and Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, respectively, were individual victims of dictatorial abuse of power. More importantly, their cases represented the ills of authoritarianism and injustice. Ironically, Safia was literally blind while the chief justice represented blind justice, and yet both became first victims then challengers of an oppressive state power. That their cases ignited the conscience of civil society should not be subject to reductionist arguments that these incidents were about the person(s). What should be the focus is how the attendant activism represented a people’s protest—against the political expediency of dictatorial regimes which seek legitimacy by eliminating challenge and alternative voices and decimate institutions and democratic rights in the process.

Clearly, the courage, heroism and sacrifices of the women’s and lawyers’ movement is indisputable, but are they commensurate with their successes? Certainly, not only did they challenge, dilute and redefine dictatorial power but also they strengthened themselves and injected a faith in people’s power. So why did they not

succeed in achieving their immediate causes? The women’s movement did achieve some tangible results which included rescuing many women from zina cases, getting justice for victims of violence, diluting the proposed Law of Evidence through protest and even the removal of misogynist Israr Ahmed from television, amongst others.

However, the fact is that even after 1988 the Hudood Ordinances remained part of the legal and social structures. It was an electoral promise of Benazir Bhutto in 1988 to rescind these Ordinances, and one of the first acts of her government, through then Minister of Justice Aitzaz Ahsan, was to release women in jails who had been convicted under the Hudood Ordinances to redress this wrong. However, subsequently, Bhutto’s government never repealed the law, arguing they did not have a majority to amend the Constitution.

This proved a major setback in the impulse and politics of the women’s movement subsequently. Women’s Action Forum in Lahore actually split on this issue; such that those who threw their weight behind democratic political parties and became apologists for and associated themselves primarily as party affiliates, formed a separate chapter. The more politically experienced members, who were unwilling to allow the woman question to be appropriated by the parties’ broader political agenda, retained the original uncompromised agitation against any government that did not meet their demands.

The lawyers’ movement is also a casualty in many ways of political capture, first by a dictator and then by the People’s Party. Political expediency and lack of will means that while the PPP will make symbolic and populist changes against dictatorial wrongs, there is no intention of mending structural or even constitutional fractures. The ethics of the New PPP is that political expediency is, in fact, part of transitional values and short-term fixes are revered over principles, democratic longevity or structural changes.

So here’s the lesson that seems to be emerging from these movements. Movements seem to gain more substantively through their resistance and agitation against dictatorial regimes than through our democratically elected governments. I have argued consistently that all perceptions of rights granted under Musharraf’s liberal dictatorship, including seemingly progressive ones, are flawed in principle and reality because they do not challenge patriarchy or class interests. In other words, they are not owned by the people nor represent them, but most importantly, they are not the outcome of debate or contention.

However, the People’s Party is choosing to ride the crest of dictatorial methods for their own survival and not respond to the consensus that emerges from pro-democracy pressure groups and civil society movements. So, then, no matter how much policy and symbolic progress the government sells us, such groups and movements will continue to feel, rightfully, cheated. This does not bode well for when the next round of threat to democracy arises. There is already tremendous debate in civil society over the question of faith in political parties. A growing trust deficit is gaining momentum because of this government’s unwillingness to distinguish itself as truly democratic, rather than as opportunist appropriators of democratic power. It took over over long years to build a meaningful momentum. Next time, civil society, which includes professional groups, may not be so convinced of the need to fight for democracy so quickly. After all, you have to own something in the first place in order to feel its loss.

The simplistic defence of the PPP has been that they merely represent the issues of the masses. This thinking betrays a view that considers citizens as passive recipients of democracy rather than actors who are looking for fulfilment of their visions and constitutional rights. The win of Ali Ahmed Kurd in the SCBA elections is significant. It signals that the lawyers’ movement has not given up its institutional cause to the whims of the PPP government. Unlike the women’s movement which retreated in its confrontationist attitude simply because a progressive woman leader was in power, the lawyers’ movement has remained more resolute in its uncompromised stand despite a liberal democratic dispensation. Howsoever this contention ends, it will have redefined relations between civil society and political parties, and perhaps the nature of democracy in Pakistan.

The writer is a sociologist based in Karachi. She has a background in women’s studies and has authored and edited several books on women’s issues Email: [email protected]

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