Is the domestic violence bill a conspiracy?

It must be realised that putting a law on the statute book, though extremely important, is one small step

Is the domestic violence bill a conspiracy?

In recent years, there has been a growing recognition that domestic violence against women is more prevalent in the society than previously recognised and is a grave public health issue. Globally, one out of three women experiences some type of domestic violence at some time in their life.

To put it in perspective, 87,000 women and girls were murdered around the world in 2017. The murder of roughly 30,000 women by their partners is a tragedy of epic proportions and calls for urgent interventions.

Like many other indicators, the situation of women in Pakistan regarding their experience of domestic violence is much worse than their counterparts in many other parts of the world. While the percentage of women who suffer domestic violence in eastern Europe and Central Asia is less than 20 percent, around 40 percent of the women in South Asia experience domestic violence of some type. So the issue of domestic violence cannot and should not be pushed under the rug for whatever reasons.

Given the vulnerability of the women in Pakistan, legislation against domestic violence in Pakistan is long overdue. However, the proposed legislation has become controversial. The prime minister‘s referring the Bill to the Council of Islamic Ideology has sharply divided public opinion. Recognising that there has been hardly any legislation that would serve the ends of justice for all times, and the proposed Domestic Violence Bill is no exception to this rule, the debate is mainly misinformed.

The religious right in Pakistan sees the proposed bill as a conspiracy to destroy the institution of the family in Pakistan [sic] and a nefarious design to replace the pristine social values of the land with the corrupting Western influences. Specifically, the target of most fierce criticism is the concept of “emotional, psychological, and verbal abuse“ which, if proved, will carry the penalty of imprisonment from six months to three years and a fine of Rs 20,000 to Rs 100,000. The wide scope of the “emotional, psychological, and verbal abuse” understandably touches many a raw nerve.

An equally unnerving aspect of the proposed Bill is the introduction of the concept of “sexual violence“ within marital relations as a cognizable offence. Many Pakistanis are hard put to admit the possibility of sexual violence in marital relations. However, Islam not only recognises the possibility of sexual misconduct in married life but also censures certain types of coercive sexual behaviours. Still, Islam‘s definition of sexual misconduct is widely different from the western definition of sexual violence.

The suggestion that Pakistan‘s family values are the best, and therefore, the target of an unholy foreign agenda, looks facetious. While a third of the women in Pakistan report domestic violence, only 2 percent of women experience domestic violence in Spain. Even if one recognises the structural differences in both countries, reducing the violence against women in Pakistan should be a great moral and legal imperative.

While the religious right has regularly and frequently highlighted situations where Islam is presumed in danger, it has rarely matched its concern for Islam with its concern for human rights, though, in principle, the two should be identical.

Putting a law on the statute book is one small step. While there is an elaborate set of laws related to domestic abuse in most of Pakistan, women often try to avoid legal recourse.

There is a good reason why religious leaders have rarely highlighted domestic violence against women and children. Pakistani society has been brutalised because of a variety of reasons. It is no secret that most Pakistani parents uncritically accept violence against their children as one of the most effective corrective tools.

Despite a ban on corporal punishment in schools, children are routinely punished physically and humiliated. The state has much less control on religious seminaries where children are subjected to more extreme forms of violence. Brutal force is routinely used to extract evidence from suspects and under-trial prisoners. These considerations provide violence a social sanction. It is reassuring that legislation has been introduced in the parliament to criminalise violence in custody.

Pointing out that some of the opposition to the proposed bill stems from misplaced notions is not to suggest that the Bill is flawless. Some of the obvious problems are listed here. First, the bill lacks focus. The diffuse nature of the bill suggests a women-specific legislation. Children and other “vulnerable“ family members have apparently been added as an afterthought. The frequency with which women become the target of violence, especially psychological violence, leaves little doubt that a women-specific law is needed. Including children and other vulnerable persons serves no purpose except vitiating the atmosphere.

Second, the bill appears to presuppose men as perpetrators and women as victims of “repeated exhibition of jealousy … that invades the victim’s privacy“ and constitutes emotional, psychological and verbal (EPV) abuse. Such exhibition of jealousy and trespass of victim‘s privacy can come from either side and is equally inimical to the sustainability of family life and marital bonds.

The bill considers “threats of divorce or second marriage on the baseless accusation of insanity or infertility“ as an act of emotional, psychological, and verbal abuse. It is not clear how women demanding divorce over petty issues are to be dealt with.

The definition of physical abuse includes two types of acts: the first type belongs to the offences that fall under the purview of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), and the second physical abuse that has no remedy under the existing laws. One is left guessing about the exact nature of the physical abuse of the second type, which carries a maximum penalty of three years’ imprisonment. The omission must be rectified at the earliest.

Physical and emotional violence might show different causal directions. The record of domestic violence shows that women are at the receiving end in most cases of physical abuse. The same may not be said about emotional, psychological and verbal abuse. Bringing false allegations against the “character of a female member or any member of the shared household“ is an act of emotional, psychological and verbal abuse. The bill should have been more definite in highlighting “false allegations“ as the effective cause of punishment irrespective of the gender of the person making false charges. It could have been more consistent with the existing laws on Qazf.

Additionally, different types of violence often overlap. Putting the offence of “compelling the wife to cohabit with anybody other than the husband“ under the category of “emotional, psychological and verbal abuse” seems weird, to say the least.

After a careful reading of the proposed bill, one gets the impression that the bill does not make a serious effort at synthesising new concepts with the cultural and religious ethos of Pakistan. A preview of the history of the early literature on domestic violence shows that domestic violence and spousal violence were used interchangeably. However, over time things have changed. A supposedly more neutral and culturally more inclusive term, “intimate partner“, has replaced the spouse or husband. The bill should have been, at the very least, selective in its definition of different types of domestic violence.

It must be realised that putting a law on the statute book, though extremely important, is one small step. There is an elaborate set of laws related to domestic abuse in most of Pakistan but women often try to avoid taking legal recourse on such issues on account of systematic discrimination against women, such as poor service quality, painful delays in the courts of law and lack of family support for the victim once the spouse is convicted.

The writer is an assistant professor in the Department of Economics at COMSATS University Islamabad, Lahore Campus

Is the domestic violence bill a conspiracy?