Year of the Woman

Women demand end to domestic violenceWhile foreign issues continue to dominate the headlines, progress is being seen on the home front. Cases such as Mukhtar Mai and her mistreatment by some in the media have put the plight of women in the spot light, and the government has responded positively by taking up the important issues of women’s rights. It may be too much to term this as ‘Year of the Woman’, but the many gains in women’s rights brought by this government should not go ignored or forgotten.

It was March 2010 that saw President Zardari signing the historic Protection Against Harrassment of Women at Workplace Bill ensuring equal rights for men and women in accordance with the Constitution. At the time, many doubted whether this was simply a political move or if the government would continue to make women’s rights a priority.

This week, parliament has passed multiple bills to protect the rights of women. On Tuesday, Senate passed another pro-women bill, Women in Distress and Detention Fund (Amendment) Bill 2011, to provide financial and legal assistance to distressed women languishing in jails of the country. Passage of the bill drew praise from Concerned Citizens of Pakistan (CCP) who urged the president to speedily sign the bill so that it can become part of the law books before year’s end.

Passage of this bill came soon after the Senate unanimously passed two other pro-woman bills, Prevention of Anti-Women Practices Bill and Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Bill.

The Senate on Monday unanimously passed two private member bills which prohibit forced marriage, marriage with Quran, restricting women to get their rightful share in inheritance and giving women in exchange for settlement of disputes and severe punishment to criminals hurting women caused by corrosive substances.

These bills include punishments of over 10 years imprisonment and fines up to Rs1 million which serves as a stern warning against such acts.

But it is not only these important acts of the parliament that have shown signs of progress for women. Earlier this year we saw the appointment of the first woman Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar who despite being initially mocked for her fashion sense – ridicule that was never suffered by her well-dressed male predecessor – has proven to be a shrewd negotiator and a strong voice for Pakistan.

More recently, MNA Sherry Rehman was appointed as the new Ambassador to the United States, the world’s greatest power. Though Sherry Rehman is not the first woman Ambassador to the US, she is known to be a strong advocate of women and minority rights and her appointment has brought more attention to these important issues.

Obviously, the issue of women’s rights is one that needs continued attention and the progress that has been made this year has not been enough. But it has been progress, and in Pakistan, we must take care not to ignore progress where we can find it. Today, our mother, sisters and daughters have greater respect and protection than they did since even one week ago. As we continue with this progress, we prove wrong our detractors and those who claim that Islam is anti-woman. Actually, by protecting the rights of women we are updating our laws and our society to make them better conform to the requirements of Islam and the example of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) who respect for the rights and dignity of all women.

Gender and Justice

Women reject criminal justice system

For many, expressions of solidarity with Mukhtar Mai and calls for justice in her case were dismissed with the trendy oxymoron term “liberal fascism” and shameful accusations that the victim was somehow using her case to ‘get attention’. But it’s not just liberals who can see the painful injustice in this case. Even President JI Women’s Wing Samia Raheel Qazi termed the case as “unfortunate, cruel, and unjust” in a recent interview with Newsweek Pakistan. In the same interview, she complains that “Pakistan is a little too male dominated” and calls for greater education and freedom for women.

It might come as a surprise that a conservative Jamaati would be so outspoken against injustices faced by women, but it should not. Actually, a recent poll by Abu Dhabi Gallup Center found that only 40 per cent of women have confidence in the judiciary compared to 41 per cent who said they have no confidence.

What is the reason for this lack of confidence among women? Mukhtar Mai’s case may have received national attention, but there are countless other women whose abuses go unpunished across the nation. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan 2010 report, the bulk of rapes were reported not in the tribal villages but in Punjab. Violence and inhumane treatment of our own mothers and sisters has been on the rise across the country.

Last March, President Zardari signed the Protection Against Harassment of Women at Workplace Bill, and just a days ago he signed a draft law to expand political and legal rights to FATA that will help improve access to justice for women in the tribal areas. This year we also saw women parliamentarians crossing party lines and uniting to pass the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill 2011, formerly known as the Acid Control and Acid Crime Bill 2010. These are all positive steps, but we must do more.

While political leaders should continue fighting to protect women’s rights in the National Assembly, this does not mean that we do not have our own role to play. Here, I am speaking specifically to my fellow men who must do more to speak out against the treatment of our sisters. It is a promising sign of progress that women leaders are willing to cross party lines and stand up for the basic human rights of Pakistani women. It will be a day of rejoicing when men find the courage to do the same.

Where do you draw the line

A blog post at Express Tribune has been really bothering me. The post by Faiza Rahman is critical of the use of ‘personal choice’ as justification for certain behaviours like drinking alcohol. What bothers me is the question of whose ‘personal choice’ counts as being ‘selfish’.

Let’s apply the author’s thinking to her own situation. Faiza is an undergraduate student pursuing a major in political sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. Certainly this will be quite upsetting to Taliban who do not believe that women belong in either schools or politics. In fact, these militants fundamentalists may well take significant violent acts in response to what they view as Faiza’s choice to violate the dictates of religion and social norms.

From the photo that accompanies her blog post, we can also see that Faiza does not cover her head in public. Taken a step further, she is not wearing niqab. Taken a step further still, why is she taking photos at all? Are not images of animate beings haram? Depends on who you ask, doesn’t it? In other words, to observe purdah or refuse photographs depends on ‘personal choice’.

Fazia asks a great question in her post: “The question is: where do we draw the line?” Fazia wants us to think about this from the perspective of how far can people exploit individualism, as if the country is under threat of anarchy in which every man and woman does whatever they want with no thought to consequences. But I believe we need to be asking the other side of the question: Who chooses what is demanded of religion? Who chooses what is a social norm that must be followed?

Fazia complains that her friend wore a sleeveless top and in response ‘the regular desi crowd behaving as expected’. Fazia tells her friend “she should have changed into something that showed less skin”. Why Fazia criticises her friend for wearing sleeveless kameez and not ‘the regular desi crowd’ for being immature jerks?

In Pakistan, drinking alcohol is officially banned. But it’s far from absent, and not just among the fashionable crowd. Even some very ‘pious’ uncles are known to sip a little whisky in private. Pressed on the issue they will explain that alcohol must stay banned because the less religious, more impressionable masses – sometimes called ‘the regular desi crowd’ – cannot handle it. Again it is clear that ‘personal choice’ in this case really means, ‘I will make your choices for you’. What should also be considered is that alcohol is the least of the problems facing the nation now.

Where do we draw the line is a question that is not asked enough, and it is not being asked the right way. People like Fazia Rahman want to draw the line for other people and they want to do so based on the reaction of the most conservative elements in society. According to her philosophy, whoever is the most fundamentalist their views should be respected. Whoever is the most tolerant, they should quietly conform to the conservative position so as not to upset the sensitive feelings of fundamentalists. This philosophy says that eve teasing is the fault of women, not men.

NFP had a great quote the other day that should be added to the national curriculum

‘My being or not being a Muslim begins and ends in my head. I am more concerned about the answers we Muslims are giving to those who are accusing us of violence and destruction. The state of Muslim intellectualism is the pits these days. We are collapsing inwards with outdated talk about  laws constructed hundreds of years ago by inflexible men and their followers who would like to see Muslim societies turn into static totalitarian societies! What is our intellectual response to all this? Is it science, philosophy and reason, or is the response only about nice, brightly smiling Muslims like you who are only obsessed about cramping as many Muslims in a mosque as possible? The intellectual and political space in Islam is being filled by theological dogma, self-righteous antics and mere ritual. Wake up!’

The fact is that complaining about drinking or sleeveless kameez is like complaining that the sofa does not match the chair while the entire house is on fire. The most severe problems in society are not the result of modern fashions or alcohol. They are the result of intolerant people who believe their own ‘personal choice’ should be the law for everyone else. There needs to be a line drawn, yes, but the people who need to be warned not to cross are not college students in sleeveless kameez but mullahs and militants who use threats and violence to force their own ‘personal choice’ onto other people.

In Pakistan, A Tale of Two Women

There is no doubt Pakistan has experienced a tumultuous 2010. Heartbreaking reports of terrorism filled the headlines as floods submerged one-fifth of our nation. Our great country is working to better itself on multiple fronts – social, political, and economic – and our current place on the world stage allowed the entire world to bear witness to our progress. Two women, in completely separate instances, have captured some of the biggest challenges we must overcome. They are Dr. Aafia Siddiqui and Aasia Bibi. These two women would become respective symbols for right wing and liberal groups, as activists on both sides sought to define Pakistan’s national identity.

Aafia SiddiquiThe arrest, trial and verdict in the case of Dr. Aafia Siidiqui captured the world’s attention. An American-educated neuroscientist, she was convicted after a jury in a US federal court found her guilty of intent to murder Americans in Afghanistan. In September 2010, she was sentenced to 86 years in prison. A Muslim who engaged in Islamic charity work in the US, she moved back to Pakistan in 2002. It was reported that her second husband’s uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad (the infamous alleged planner of the September 11th attacks) mentioned her name to his interrogators, saying she was involved in similar activities, and thus led to her own interrogation by authorities.

Asia BibiAasia Bibi has nothing in common with Aafia’s background or the terrorism links. But her situation too, captured the world’s attention and brought sharply worded criticism towards the Pakistani laws that seemingly punish minorities.  Her story begins in the blazing summer heat of 2009, when other rural workers refused water from her because she was a Christian. The 45-year old mother of five was charged under Pakistan’s archaic and cruel blasphemy laws. The case has drawn international condemnation, and even Pope Benedict XVI has called for her release.

With the issues highlighted in both cases, we can see Pakistan faces challenges on all fronts – security, political, and social.

Multiple protests and riots have erupted all over Pakistan as supporters of Aafia Siddiqui, as her case has added to the fuel to the “Hate America” fire. She has become the poster child for the idea that Americans hate Pakistanis, and have framed an innocent woman. In a country overflowing with conspiracy theories, it is hardly surprising that Aafia’s tale has proven to intensify the right wing base.

Aasia Bibi’s case has brought to light the vicious anti-minority laws on the books, and a movement to amend those heinous laws has begun. But just as the right wingers sought to capitalize on this issue as well (a cleric has offered 500,000 rupees to anyone who kills Aasia), it seems the PPP has stepped up to honor its platform of equality for all.  Punjab’s Governor, Salmaan Taseer, has been outspoken on this issue, and will seek a pardon from President Zardari to stop the order of execution. We can only hope the appeals court will spare her life.

Terrorism, security issues, minorities’ rights are some of the many issues Pakistan has to face in the coming year. The hope and prayer will always be that in the end, we have created a more perfect society, one that treats all its citizens well.

How Long To Wait?

Waiting RoomRecent incidents like blasphemy cases and the attacks on the young women in Karachi this week are terrible situations, but perhaps there is some hope that they have at least served to start a conversation about vitally important topics – how we treat minorities and women, and what we can do to improve the situation.

Dr Awab posted a blog submitted by an anonymous author that takes what I think is a popular view of social change among the middle-class: that agitating for social reforms is premature until the root causes of intolerance have been addressed.

Contrast this attitude of waiting until the time is right with another post on Dr Awab’s blog:

Hunger, poverty, injustice, oppression, unfairness, obscurantism, and darkness engulf the life of the teeming millions in this country. And all we can do is talk, talk and talk. We talk so much about the rights of the people of our country, but when the time comes for action, all we see is abuse. Starting right from the top. The basic rights of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness seem to be the stuff of fairytale luxury that is out of reach for the common people.

Who are we waiting for? A Messiah? He will never come. When will we stand up for ourselves?

These are two competing viewpoints from people who both claim to want to see social reforms and progressive change in society, but have two very different ways of getting there. One, the more conservative group, would like to see change, but thinks that it must wait until underlying problems have been fixed. The other is less patient and wants to see change happen now.

Meanwhile, Joint Action Committee for People’s Rights, Women’s Action Forum, Insani-Huqooq Ittehad (IHI), National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW), women’s human rights organizations and several women parliamentarians have strongly condemned a ‘declaration’ of the Shariat Court that seeks to reverse sections of the Women Protection Act 2006 and revert back to the Hudood Ordinance of 1979.

These people did not stop at simply condemning the declaration of the Shariat Court, they demanded change to the system that allows such discriminatory declarations to be made.

They also demanded abolition of all parallel judicial systems such as Federal Shariat Court, Islamic Ideology Council and Jirgas. The civil society said that unless and until we were not going to resolve our contradictions with respect to the nature of the Pakistani state, these issues were not going to be resolved.

So, who is right and who is wrong? Should these groups have simply kept quiet at the Shariat Court’s declaration and waited until people’s minds have changed? Or should they be out trying to change minds?

I must admit that while I appreciate the pragmatism of Anonymous, I don’t know that this will be quite enough to satisfy those who suffer under such discriminatory laws. The group that condemned the Shariat Court asked pertinent questions:

“How any law made in the name of women protection can be taken back?” the statement questions while expressing deep concern over the decision. “What sort of confidence would Pakistani women and girls will have?”

I think there seems to be something of a ‘Which came first, the chicken or the egg?’ question here. Anonymous may be willing to sit back and wait for social change to come, but what of the girls and minorities who are affected by these laws? What of the people languishing in jail because they threw a business card in the dustbin?

Anonymous quotes a PEW poll that found that only 16 % of Pakistanis opposed capital punishment for apostasy, only 11 % opposed segregation at work places and stoning to death for adultery and 13 % opposed amputation for theft. What he determines from this is that “human rights groups are very misled in believing that they can either match the street power of these groups or have public sympathy for their cause”.

But I would offer another answer which is that this means that it is all the more urgent for human rights groups to organize and spread their message of tolerance. It’s also most important for individuals like anonymous to not sit on the sideline and wait for society to magically change itself.

Using the logic of Anonymous, Palestinians should not struggle against Israeli hardliners who are keeping them in miserable conditions. Blacks in South Africa should not have struggled to overturn apartheid. What about the struggle of blacks in America to overcome discrimination that was so deeply ingrained not only in the laws of the US but in the very social habits of the people. Some well-meaning liberals said at the time that blacks should just be patient, that change would come once people realized they were misguided in their thinking. The poet Langston Hughes wrote the poem Dream Deferred about this point:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

Social change has never been easy, and there have always been well-intentioned people who told us to wait. We were told to wait under the British. Jinnah was told to wait and not rush the founding of the nation. There will always be those who tell you to wait. We need people to stand up and be counted as against discrimination, even if it isn’t the popular opinion – especially if it isn’t the popular opinion. We have too many dreams deferred already, and we don’t need any more explosions.