South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

THE prospect of enacting legislation against domestic violence inevitably throws certain sections of this society into a moral panic. Specious arguments referring to traditional and religious values are used to give a patina of legitimacy to what is essentially a desire to preserve a misogynistic culture predicated on men controlling women. Unfortunately, it seems that for many in the PTI government, the protection of women is subservient to pandering to these regressive elements.

Adviser to the PM on Parliamentary Affairs Babar Awan has written to the National Assembly speaker seeking a review by the Council of Islamic Ideology of the domestic violence bill passed by the Lower House in April this year. In his communiqué, Mr Awan said that concerns have been raised “regarding various definitions and other contents of the bill”.

The proposed legislation was tabled in the National Assembly by Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari — proving that some within the government are cognisant of their duty towards one-half of the population — and passed the same day.

Now, it seems it will be sent to a body that in 2016 came up with a women’s protection bill that allowed a husband to beat his wife “if needed”. The CII has in the past also opposed a minimum age for marriage, and declared DNA evidence to be of secondary value in rape cases. Its stance has often been contrary to logic, science and fundamental human rights, including Pakistan’s obligations under international law.

Notwithstanding resistance to some degree or the other, Sindh, Balochistan and Punjab passed laws against DV several years ago. PTI-ruled KP only passed such legislation in January this year, that too after having its bill vetted by the CII, the sole province to have done so. The result, not surprisingly, is a watered-down piece of legislation. This, despite the fact that not a day passes without evidence of the terrible treatment that females are subjected to in this country at the hands of their own families. And only the most egregious cases come to light: much of the suffering remains unseen, stifled under the weight of ‘tradition’ and the expectations of being a ‘dutiful’ wife/sister/daughter.

The house of representatives should not enable unelected right-wing elements to impose their agenda on society via the CII.

If anything, legislation against gender-based violence must be strengthened instead of diluted. The Supreme Court in a judgement on Monday declared that the Protection of Women Against Harassment in the Workplace Act in its present form is limited in scope. Any action or behaviour that is not demonstrably ‘sexual’ in nature does not fall within its definition of what constitutes harassment, said the court, howsoever grave and devastating it may be for the victim. This is the reality. We have only taken initial steps towards protecting women; there is a long road ahead. Regrettably, the PTI government is marching in the opposite direction.

Published in Dawn, July 8th, 2021