By Sanchita Bhattacharya*
The infamous Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) on April 5, 2016, declared the Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act 2015 as contradictory to the constitution, laws and Islamic teachings. Considering a letter written by Punjab Law Minister, Rana Sanaullah seeking the Council’s opinion on Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act 2015, the 202nd meeting of the CII altogether rejected the Act after a clause-wise review. The Council further observed that the Punjab government had not sent the Act as per prescribed constitutional method unlike the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government that had sent their Women Protection Bill to the CII for review. The CII declared several clauses of the Protection of Women Against Violence Act (Punjab) as non-conforming to the Constitution and against the Sharia.
While in reply to the letter of Punjab Law, the CII said that it would have been better had the Punjab government approached the council before passing the bill from the provincial legislature. A number of flaws and lacunae in the bill passed by the Punjab Assembly were pointed out in the reply, which if implemented in its present shape, would destroy the very fabric of society.
However, amidst much furor and protest, the Bill was passed unanimously by the Punjab Assembly and opponents have since warned of ongoing protests if it is not repealed by the government. The controversy began when the Pakistani government introduced the Protection of Women Against Violence Bill which effectively criminalizes violence against women in Punjab. Before the law was officially enacted on March 1, extremists attempted to block the legislation, saying it would “destroy the family system in Pakistan” and “add to the miseries of women”.
The Bill criminalizes any and every form of abuse by men against women, whether it is domestic, emotional, psychological, or done through stalking and cybercrime. It provides for a network of shelters or safe houses where women who have fled violence can seek counseling, financial and medical aid. It also conceives a universal, toll-free 24/7 telephone number women can call in order to report abuse. In special circumstances, offenders may be monitored by wearing a bracelet with a GPS monitor, and will be restricted from making gun purchases.
Violence against women is a prevalent social evil in Pakistan. Women are often treated with brutality and sadism. Acid attacks, female infanticide, honour killing, bride burning, child marriage, and sexual and domestic abuse are commonplace, yet these crimes are grossly under-reported. A 2014 report by the Aurat (Woman) Foundation, a women’s rights group based in Islamabad, said that every single day of the year, six women were murdered, six were kidnapped, four were raped and three committed suicide. They also reported as many as 7010 cases of violence against women in the province of Punjab. However, these figures do not include dowry-related violence and acid attacks; crimes which are also serious and frequent.
According to Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission, nearly 1100 women were killed in Pakistan in 2015 by relatives who claimed they had ‘dishonoured’ their families. In most of these cases, the victim is usually murdered by a close male family member. Until this Bill was enforced, women in the country were victims of a weak criminal justice system and an overall lack of social support, giving rise to utterly horrific stories of honour killings, acid attacks and ongoing abuse.
The figures are so dismal and aptly represent unapologetic approach towards the female population in Pakistan. According to the official figures released by the Ministry of Human Rights, 8,648 incidents of human rights violation (against women) were reported in Pakistan between January 2012 and September 15, 2015. These included 90 incidents of acid burning, 72 of burning, 481 of domestic violence, 860 honor killings, 344 rape/gang rapes, 268 sexual assault/harassment, and 535 cases of violence against women.
Also, the Gender Gap Index 2015 ranked Pakistan as the second to last country among the 145 nations studied for the prevalence of gender-based disparities in economy, politics, education and health. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) report also notes that since Pakistan lifted the moratorium on the death penalty, 47 women are now in line for executions, most of whom do not have access to legal assistance.
Right-wing, extremist Islamic leaders spent copious amounts of energy trying to block the protection Bill from being passed, and continue to oppose it. They have deemed the Bill ‘un-Islamic’, conflicting to verses of the Quran, and an attempt to secularize, or westernize, Pakistan. In a press conference, one of the country’s parliamentarians, Muhammad Khan Sherani, reportedly claimed the Bill will actually have a detrimental impact on women, and ‘traditional’ family life. He claimed the Protection Act was “un-Islamic”, saying: “The law seems to have the objective of pushing women out of the home, and increase their problems”.
Moreover, Maulan Fazlur Rehman, Chief of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl, reportedly told the laws were “in conflict with the Holy Quran, the life of Muhammad, Constitution of Pakistan and values of our country”.
On the other hand, the opposing movement of liberals is jubilant over the Bill. Zohra Yusuf, head of HRCP, welcomed the Bill and expressed the hope that efficient enforcement will help protect women and ensure that offenders do not escape justice. “The bill appears to be a rather comprehensive attempt to institute a system for prevention of violence against women and for protection and rehabilitation of the women victims,” Yusuf said.
Abdul Qahar Rashid, spokesman for Punjab’s provincial assembly, told that the Bill, which was passed unanimously, must be signed by the Provincial Governor before it becomes law. Under the new legislation, the government will institute a universal toll free help line for the women, and will establish district protection centers and residential shelters under a phased programme. Family courts must fix hearings within seven days of a complaint, the bill says, with all complaints to be decided within 90 days.
Pakistan can only hope for a better situation, free from the clutches of extremist and rightist elements, justifying violence in the name of religion and patriarchal society. Most importantly, as suggested above the Bill needs to be signed by the Governor, which needs political maneuvering in the right direction.
*Dr. Sanchita Bhattacharya is a Post Doctoral Fellow at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and Visiting Scholar, Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi. She can be reached at: [email protected]