Can the women’s movement in both India and Pakistan learn from each other, and ultimately join forces to fight patriarchy?
On a cold Delhi winter night in December 2012, Nirbhaya, 23-year-old female physiotherapy student and her male friend were returning home after catching a late night show of Ang Lee’s Life of Pi in a cinema downtown. Shortly after boarding an off-duty charter bus carrying six men, both the passengers were assaulted. The woman, who had recently migrated to the bustling capital of India for her studies, was dragged to the end of the bus and raped by the men.
The next day could have been an ordinary day for a country where a woman is raped every 20 minutes according to conservative government figures. Yet, thousands of Indians across the country marched in their cities, towns and villages, demanding justice for the fearless Nirbhaya and punishment for the perpetrators. For the next 48 hours and more, Indian TV channels forgot the country’s economic slowdown and focused entirely on the plight of an unconscious young woman sustaining 13 critical injuries.
The results of their efforts changed the landscape of women’s rights in India forever.
A three-member committee chaired by former judge of the Supreme Court of India Jagdish Sharan Verma in the aftermath of the brutal gang rape produced a 630 page report in less than 29 days that recommended sweeping changes in India’s criminal justice laws. It eventually led to the successful passage of India’s groundbreaking 2013 Criminal Law (Amendment) Act.
Rights activists working for gender justice in Pakistan, India, and the rest of South Asia would say that patriarchy is an enemy familiar to the region at large. Unfortunately, however, the public and political will to fight gender-based violence has historically varied across borders.
On September 12, 2013, a five-year old girl in Lahore was reported to be missing from her neighbourhood. As the sun set on a Friday evening, she was found by a security guard at Ganga Ram Hospital after being brutally raped by unidentified men.
According to her doctors, her condition was critical with parts of her organs badly injured.
The next day’s events were nothing short of disappointing. Mughalpura police had no clue about the person that carried out the assault, as the CCTV footage of that day was mysteriously missing. To compensate for their poor investigation, the police arrested more than 50 suspects and later released them after a round of interrogation. The father of the minor girl pleaded for justice for his daughter to no avail. Those watching the media’s insensitive coverage were told that the provincial and federal government would soon introduce and enact legislation protecting rights of Pakistani children.
No commission, no special court to try the case, no punishment for the assaulters, and less than a 100 protestors on the streets of the country’s urban metropolis.
A year later, the social acceptability of child marriage, in other words rape by adults, got its milestone moment as the Council of Islamic Ideology issued a statement on March 11, 2014 that declared that laws related to minimum age of marriage were un-Islamic and that children of any age could get married if they attain puberty. An amendment to Pakistan’s colonial 1927 Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, drafted by PML-N MNA Marvi Memon, along with other parliamentarians from the party, called for a raise in the minimum age of consent for a girl to 18 years was opposed by members of the Council.
Even though the Council has no power in law-making, legislators in both the National Assembly and the provincial assemblies withdrew into the dark.
In India, meanwhile, the women’s movement has been able to capture government attention unlike in its neighbour. Recently, the Indian Minister for Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi prepared amendments to the 1990 National Commission for Women (NCW) Act which would expand its powers to that of a civil court and bring it at par with the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) of India, which has been a strong and effective body. The amendments would empower the Indian National Commission for Women to investigate, search, seize, and issue warrant and arrest in matters of domestic violence, police apathy and sexual harassment at workplace, in addition to appointing a Director General of Police (DGP) level officer in NCW to "improve its quality of investigation".
Speaking of these developments under the newly-elected government with TNS, All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA) Secretary Kavita Krishnan says the proposal to confer on NCW the powers of a civil court is a welcome development. "These powers will be very relevant in the context of the huge mass of pending grievances of women in matters of domestic violence, property disputes, marriage and divorce and so on. In these matters, the NCW will be able to issue arrest warrants if parties refuse to answer summons."
In Pakistan, the National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW), a statutory body similar to India’s NCW established by former President Pervez Musharraf by a special ordinance in 2000, is largely focused on being an independent watchdog on women’s rights violations. As the country enters a dark period of Talibanisation that has significant repercussions for popular discourse on gender, it can be argued that India’s proposed amendments to its Commission may be needed across the border.
"Added powers to investigate these cases and issue arrest warrants in case of negligence would make NCSW more effective and beneficial for women in the country," states Bushra Khaliq, Executive Director of Women in Struggle for Empowerment (WISE), a Lahore-based NGO.
Responding to a need for similar measures to India, presiding Chairperson of NCSW Khawar Mumtaz says the Commission in Pakistan has no desire to be yet another law enforcement body among hundred others, adding that it was originally envisioned to monitor law enforcement machinery and ensure compliance with the laws protecting women. Still, the veteran women rights activist and NCSW chairperson states, the relevant government departments can be markedly ‘slow’ in cooperating with the Commission.
With a zero conviction rate of all accused of rape over the last five years in Pakistan, tougher laws for sexual crimes and enhanced powers for NCSW could overcome the weaknesses of law enforcement bodies including criminal courts in the country. It is pertinent to note however that these measures require support from elected representatives in the assemblies and of course their electorate -- the general public aka ordinary Pakistani citizens.
Speaking of the difference between women’s movements in Pakistan and India, Krishnan notes the difficulties faced by Pakistan’s women’s movement in applying pressure on their government.
"I think while the social challenges in India and Pakistan are similar, the political scene has been rather different. In the absence of the overwhelming nexus of army and fundamentalist forces in India, the governments have not always been able to successfully mobilise conservative orthodox patriarchy in their favour, and have had to concede to the demands of the Indian women’s movement."
Indian human rights lawyer Shruti Pandey, however, notes the shrinking space for women rights in her own country with the change in political leadership this year.
"The situation is fast changing with the new government in India. Today, the Indian women’s movement is also rapidly losing its public spaces to convene, protest, mobilise and pressurise the government. As those spaces shrink for the civil society in general in the name of security, development, nationalism and so on, and as fears mount about being able to express one’s views freely, women’s movement would be among those that would be especially affected adversely. Also, the culture and morality brigade is rising sharply in India, clearly targeting the women and religious minorities the most…now Indian civil society would need to learn survival strategies from societies like Pakistan, considering their experiences with repressive regimes," she says in an email communication.
Former President of the Global Fund for Women, Kavita N. Ramdas adds while talking to TNS that public mobilisation on women’s rights can be rather selective in India.
"I concur with Shruti -- we may be facing times in which we will have a lot to learn from Pakistani feminists -- but I do agree that India has used public mobilisation more effectively on the women’s rights issue. But be aware that this was primarily in the case of the Nirbhaya case and a few others -- often Dalit and lower caste rapes are not the ones for which mass mobilisation in urban areas happen."
Their counterparts and prominent feminist activists affiliated with Pakistan’s Women Action Forum, Neelam Hussain and Rubina Saigol point to a history of interrupted civilian democratic rule in Pakistan as the reason behind lack of large scale mobilisations on women’s issues. Whereas Hussain believes Indian PM Jawaharlal Nehru’s government encouraged the emergence of civil society in India, Saigol says India’s strong tradition of political movements including the Communist Movement of the late 1960s in West Bengal is a major factor contributing to the rallies and protests taking place across the border today. Hussain also blames a growing culture of consumerism and the middle-class thirst for upward mobility for turning out less and less people willing to challenge the status quo in Pakistan.
Nonetheless, as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif pledged his support for improved Indo-Pak relations on his recent trip to Delhi, opportunities to open channels of cross-border collaboration should be availed.
"Women on both sides should press for changes that make it possible for us to have more active debate, discussion and exchange -- we may not always agree on the analysis or the solutions, but both our movements would be better off with more robust connections," adds Ramdas.