Broken Promises: The Punjab Women’s Protection Act

It’s a shame, but not much of a surprise, that eight months after the passage of the Punjab government’s Protection of Women Act, it has not yet been implemented. Unfortunately this is illustrative of the fact that when it comes to women’s empowerment, the government talks a good talk, but tangible and measurable follow through is hard to find.

The Act was to base its foundations in a system of Violence Against Women Centers, or VAWCs for short. The VAWCs were envisioned as a one-stop shop where women who suffered domestic violence, rape, or any other kind of assault could come and be treated like humans and survivors instead of animals and criminals. Women could find shelter close to their homes rather than having to go to a bigger city, as VAWCs would be set up in every district in Punjab.

Poor women victims of violence do not have the funds or the freedom to run here and there to get their complaints redressed, their medical and psychological needs attended to, and the legal process streamlined and made easy for them. The VAWCs would provide medical services and on the spot first aid for victims. They could file FIRs and medico-legal statements at an on-site police desk. They could obtain hard-to-find legal and psychological counseling services. A toll-free number provided for complaints and investigation services were also planned to be housed under the VAWC’s roof.

Yet the Bill, passed in February, is still to be “notified” for implementation, whatever that means in the strange language of Pakistan’s bureaucrats and government offices.  Foreign diplomats and the heads of international aid agencies were invited to the groundbreaking ceremony of the first Violence Against Women Center, but today, based on Imran Gabol’s report, we find that the inaugural VAWC, for which Rs. 40 billion were allocated, has yet to be completed, with a projected completion date of December 2016 at the earliest.

Last November, I was in the Hague for a global conference on Women’s Shelters, and I was fortunate enough to interview the renowned lawyer and women’s rights activist Hina Jilani (Asma Jehangir’s sister). We spoke about the VAWC, and she told me she hadn’t even been invited to its inauguration, despite her decades of work in establishing women’s shelters and advocating for the survivors of domestic violence.

She didn’t express much optimism in the government’s ability to actually implement and successfully run a program of this scale. Her doubts seem to have been borne out today, in light of Resident Director of the Aurat (Women) Foundation Mumtaz Mughal’s observations that the Bill can’t truly be implemented until and unless the first VAWC is actually completed. Furthermore, she said the government didn’t have enough funds to establish such costly centers in every district, and that the currently existing Darul Aman shelters were being “upgraded” to fulfill the government’s promise.

This is the problem in Pakistan when it comes to the “uplift” of women. The government promises a lot, but delivers nearly nothing. Even the laws that have been passed for women’s protection come with catches, loopholes, and frankly a lack of willpower to make them strong and active. And the idea of a Protection For Women’s act still remains nascent in the face of the overwhelming belief in Pakistani society that women can and should be beaten and abused in order to keep them in line, in order to maintain a man’s authority, and more than often enough, just because a man feels like it.

This is why in Pakistan we need much independent research on the actual effectiveness of these bills, these acts, these organizations. We cannot trust that the government is doing anything more than floating big ideas that it has no true intention of making reality.

This holds true even in the case of BISP, the Benazir Income Support Program, run by the very capable and hardworking Marvi Memon (a personal childhood friend of mine), which is by all accounts proving successful in giving income support to the poorest women of Pakistan. BISP’s transparency and credibility will be strengthened if there is independent research and assessment conducted by a variety of groups: gender researchers, economic thinktanks, donor agencies, and independent journalists.

For every promise, there needs to be accountability, otherwise we can relegate the Punjab Women’s Protection Act to that stuck drawer where all the other protections promised to Pakistan’s women lie and gather dust.

On “Lightly Beating” Your Wife

Yesterday the Council of Islamic Ideology, an advisory committee on all matters Islamic to the Pakistani Government (which was only meant to be formed for ten years but has never been disbanded), came up with its own “Women’s Protection Bill”. This 136-page treatise is in response to the laudatory Punjab Government’s Women’s Protection Bill, which introduced mechanisms for protecting women from domestic violence.

The CII and other religious groups had protested vociferously against this bill (even though similar bills that go further than the Punjab bill and actually criminalize domestic violence have already been passed in Sindh and Balochistan). They promised to present their own version which was based on Islam and the teachings of the Quran. It’s important to note that the government is under no obligation to listen to any of their recommendations, and even within the CII there was opposition to many items in the bill. The CII’s token female member was not present on the day the bill was agreed upon in the Council.

What they came up with yesterday was in fact a group of very strange recommendations, the most outrageous of which was the idea that a man can “lightly beat” his wife if she disobeys him, doesn’t wash after sexual intercourse, doesn’t let him have sexual intercourse when he wants it, doesn’t wear a hijab. It also recommends that coeducational education not be allowed in primary school. And on and on.

It boggles the mind that anyone could find any of these recommendations sensible, but they don’t come out of nowhere. The vast majority of Pakistani men do believe that it’s their divine right to discipline women and keep women under control. And they confound masculinity with violence: therefore, the masculine thing to do is to keep your women under control by using violence. They know no other language: not the language of warmth, or kindness, verbal and non-verbal, which is actually prescribed in Islam.

Indeed, the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) never raised his hand against a woman, neither his wives nor his daughters nor any of the women in the Muslim community. We can point to verses in the Quran which have been translated to prescribe “beatings” (translated and interpreted by men, of course, reflecting their own patriarchal values). But the spirit of Islam and the actions of the Prophet go in the opposite direction. In the Prophet’s last sermon, he instructed Muslims to treat their wives with kindness, because they are “your partners.”

For a breakdown that looks at the rights of Pakistani women as citizens of this country, a conversation on GEO with human rights activist and lawyer Asma Jehangir shines a clear light on this entire episode.

What do you think of these recommendations given by the CII?
Asma Jehangir: It’s an insult to me to even discuss these recommendations. The scholars who give these recommendations should think carefully about what they’ve said. Those who recommend that Pakistani women should be beaten need to realize that Pakistani girls and women are not here to be beaten. The rest of the recommendations are so bizarre that I think these scholars need to think about the effect this would have on the next generation’s way of thinking: do they really think a husband should monitor when his wife bathes and when she wakes up, what she’ll wear? Has a man married a wife or a concubine? Where is the sense in any of this?

These scholars are part of a state institution. Have they forgotten that a woman is as much a Pakistani citizen as they are? If our Parliament has any shame, they will appoint scholars who want to protect and take care of our vulnerable and innocent girls and women. Our girls have won Nobel Peace Prizes and played international cricket – what have these scholars done for our country besides promote violence and war and advocated the beating of women?

Do you think these recommendations are an attempt to make women into second class citizens?
Asma Jehangir: The whole world’s mullahs can get together but they cannot implement these laws. Pakistani women know how to protect ourselves, and we want to live in dignity.

There is a recent saying that has become popular with the #BlackLivesMatter campaign: “When you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” It is clear that the men of the CII and this cockamamie bill they’ve come up with reflects the fears of men in Pakistan that their superior status as males is being threatened by the emancipation and empowerment of women in this country. This bill is part of the ongoing backlash against the women’s movement in Pakistan. Men are starting to feel oppressed by women standing up for their rights.

The best thing women can do in this case is to not back down, refuse to treat this bill as anything to be even considered seriously. In a country with such severe problems of domestic violence and violence against women, this is a mere distraction, a smokescreen to cover up the real problems we face as women and citizens of Pakistan. Those of you who are our allies will continue to fight the realities of what it means to be a woman in Pakistan.

The rest of you can line up with the CII and get ready to go the way of the dinosaurs.

NOTE: Here is an excellent explanation of verse 4:34 in the Quran which most classical scholars and today’s misogynists take to mean the Quran sanctions wife-beating. You’ll see that there is another, more logical meaning to this verse if you follow the link.

PS: Here are some of the recommendations the CII missed out on, according to the Khabaristan Times