Protecting Pakistani women: A lost Cause?
Here goes my last assignment's draft. A Feature. It has been an excellent treat to interact with the whole team of WorldPulse/VOF and the fellow sisters, not to forget the freindships I made through this program, who have been supportive throughout the process. Hope that this dos not stop here. And continues.
As Pakistan is moving towards being an economically sound country it is still battling for a softer image for the international community as opposed to the hardcore extremist one. In the meantime, the situation for the 52 percent of country’s population seems to be getting worse. These happen to be the women, a majority of whom live in rural areas. One of the recent efforts was the introduction of Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Bill, the first legislative step of its kind, in the history of the country that covers effective legal measures, civil remedies and compensatory provisions for the aggrieved persons. Stories like that of 17-year-old Mafia Bibi from Sahiwal city keep punging us back into the dark realities of where our society actually stands today. Mafia’s brother brutally chopped off her head, ears and nose in the name of ‘honour.’ According to the local newspaper, Mafia had allegedly eloped with the man she loved. The family hunted them down, brought them back and it was decided that the two would be married off but in the meantime her brother indulged in the cold-blooded act. Many cases of this nature go un-reported. In most reported cases, like that of Mafia’s, the police and the judiciary manage to develop a soft spot in their hearts for the abuser, as the victims are thought to have provoked the abuser to do this. Women are denied access to free movement, as the home is considered to be the safest place for them. The same home has the potential to become the deadliest place to be, if you, as a woman, fail to comply with the archaic social and cultural norms.
Honour killing is the worst form of domestic violence, executed by male family members when they feel that the woman has stepped out of the moral boundaries and freedom allotted to her. Somehow, honour, in this case is always related to the actions of the woman and the people would go to extremes in order to preserve the family honour. According to Human Rights Commission of Pakistan 647 out of the 1404 women murdered were honour killings in the year 2009. It is of extreme importance in the sub-continent culture that the female sexuality has to be under the control of men. If a woman decides to choose her own marriage partner, she is crossing her limits and thus challenging the inherent superiority of the males in her family. This is an act that does not go un-punished and it becomes almost a necessity so that other women do not follow the same footsteps. Disputes over marriages can lead to long enmity between two families, clans or tribes and things can so worse that families prefer to kill their daughters as opposed to marry them in a place which is not of their choice. Any reason like alleged adultery, premarital relationships (with or without sexual relations), rape, falling in love with a person of whom the family disapproves, sometimes even mere friendship with someone from opposite sex, are all reason enough for a male member of the family to kill the woman concerned. This mindset is so evasive that people hardly realize how it has enslaved them.
The family honour is traditionally associated with the nose in the sub-continent region’s local traditions. An old proverb implies ‘cutting the nose’ with bringing shame to the family by one’s actions. This is why punishment for women in most cases have been the age old ritual of literally cutting off the nose of the victim as seen also in Mafia’s case.
The issue of killings in the name of honour began to appear on the political agenda in Pakistan in 1999 as a result of growing pressure from the civil society and UN agencies including UNICEF. On 21 April, 2000, at a National Convention on Human Rights and Human Dignity, General Pervez Musharraf, The Chief Executive of Pakistan announced that such killings would be treated as murder. The strong condemnation by the government shed light on the heinous practice of butchering women and even though these killings continue, steps are taken to combat the situation through introduction basic institutional reforms.
These reforms are sometimes not even welcomed by the women themselves, as it would mean standing up against their families. Doing this further alienates the women and the rest of their life is spent struggling to find a dignified place in the society.
The role of women lawmakers has been commendable for their work on pushing for reforms for the protection of women in the past few years. In a major move to check domestic violence against women and children, the National Assembly, in August 2009 passed a private bill to prevent the abuse through quick criminal trials and a chain of protection committees. The Bill addresses domestic violence, which is not limited to “all intentional acts of gender based or other physical or psychological abuse committed by an accused against women, children or other vulnerable persons, with whom the accused is or has been in a domestic relationship.”
Special Public Prosecutor Nighat Dad told me in a twitter interview that as soon as the Bill made it through the passage of National Assembly, the Council of Islamic Ideology fired the first shot at it. The Council termed the bill as discriminatory and issued a statement criticizing the bill on the ground that it “would fan unending family feuds & push up divorce rates”. The Council was also worried about giving greater role to the police in family affairs, and warned that it would encourage corruption and bribery while the police would trample the sanctity of home. The Bill was to be passed by the Senate within the stipulated 90 days but after the opposition from Council, the government gave in and allowed the Domestic Violence Bill to lapse.
One of the most notable section in Domestic Violence Bill is (9) about the compensatory provisions for the victims. The first breach of a protection order will be punishable with imprisonment of up to one year but not less than six months and a minimum fine of Rupees 100,000 that will be paid to the aggrieved person. This is completely unheard of in Pakistani culture, where the women family member might have a chance to get monetary relief for what she has been through if she survives. Since the head of the family is always a male and the financial control thus remains with him, be it the brother, father or husband, this reform is amazingly groundbreaking. It is another debate whether they would be granted that right which is proposed in the Bill, since the whole family traditions revolve around keeping the woman deprived of any independent financial resources.
Women rights organization are still urging the government to submit the Bill, but the government’s attitude towards the issue has been ‘hopeless’ as some activists put it. Concern has been expressed by civil society about the lack of cooperation from the Police. They seem to show next to no interest in registering cases relate to women violence or investigating them. Last February HRCP called upon the provincial government Punjab, to ensure an early and transparent investigation into an alleged honour-killing incident of Saima, a young woman from Bahawalpur District. She had eloped with a man named Dilawar to Karachi in November last year. She was soon brought back to her family’s house after an assurance that she would be married off to Dilawar and not to someone of the family’s choice. That did not happen though. She was confined to the house for the next two months and died of unexplained circumstances on January 22. Even though the family maintains that it was a suicide case, there were visible marks of torture on her body in the post mortem report. The tragic story of Saima’s does highlight the role of Police as they showed least interest in registering the case, and according to HRCP officials, ‘were pampering the accused,’ because he came from a wealthy family.
According to US Department of state report, women who tried to report abuse faced serious challenges. Police and judges were reluctant to take action in domestic violence cases, viewing them as family problems. Efforts in reporting such cases resulted in the Police encouraging the parties to reconcile. Since women are socio-economically dependent on their families, the abused women usually were returned to their abusive family members. There is a great reluctance to pursue charges because of the stigma attached to divorce and fear of dishonouring the family name.
The judges, especially those in lower courts have also known to show bias towards the women who dare to approach the legal system for help. “Violence against women is seen to be of no importance to the judiciary of Pakistan, particularly the lower judiciary,” reports from Asian Human Rights Commission states. There had been many incidences of violence against women where the judges in lower courts have provided relief to the accused instead of the victim. The Domestic Violence Bill did address the issue and directs the courts to provide relief directly to the applicant in their jurisdiction: “An aggrieved person or any other person authorized by the aggrieved person in writing in this behalf, may present an application to the Court within whose jurisdiction offence was committed for seeking any relief under this act.” This is good news for women if the police station fails to register their complain for whatever reason they may come up with. It is also clearly stated that the court shall fix the hearing within three days of the receipt of the application, which shall be disposed of within a period of thirty days. Pakistan’s court system is known to be slow and burdensome, as sometimes people might have to wait for months till they get a date for hearing and it may take years before a decision is reached by the court. Also, under this to-be Act, the court can at any stage of the proceedings, may direct the accused to undergo ‘mandatory counseling with an appropriate service provider.’ This is also unheard of in the country, as counseling is a luxury that people have no concept of, and simply cannot afford. It is again a matter of dishonour to bring family feuds to outsiders. This shows how vast an impact this Act could bring to women’s life and how they perceive things within the given frame of reference.
The biggest challenge to push for these reforms remains the clerics who think that they are going to put the sanctity of family system into jeopardy. Most women think that legal reform will not have an impact on the lives of the women an time soon unless institutions and behaviours of the Pakistani society become more gender-sensitive. “A common woman’s life in this country has not been affected with the introduction of this legislation. It has had very minimal impact on their lives, if any as it is not in their culture to report their own fathers, brothers or husbands.” A public sector NGO consultant, Ambreen Laila tells me. Ms. Laila’s opinion is that of most laywomen in Pakistan. “A major portion of the population of women does not realize the rights violations they are going through. They feel insulted if their violent or abusive husband is insulted in any way by anyone else. They feel that their respect and honour lies in that of their husband’s.”
They know it for a fact that this is their destiny to bear the consequences of being born into a patriarchal society as a female. Most married women consider abuse as a daily routine, almost like every day house chores. Getting help is out of question as the culture restraints them from reporting any incidence of violence. The whole culture seems to revolve around preserving the family honour, which is why honour killing is deemed ‘heroic.’ Submission/compliance is part of the female’s upbringing both at home and at educational institutions, which is justified by unquestionable religious and cultural rationale.
Another attempt of a civil remedy in the DV Bill is the introduction of the ‘Protection Committees’, which would comprise of one Police Officer (male or female), a female SHO, two women councilors and the Protection Officer. The structure of the protection committee has been a subject of debate as to how the Councilors from local government and Police would work together. The step aims to aid the aggrieved in learning about her rights, and provision of any medical or legal aid necessary due to the domestic violence. The Committee can also help the victim in relocating to a safer place that is acceptable to her. This is once again, a service which was previously unheard of.
US Department of State’s 2009 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices – Pakistan states that the the government operated the Crisis Center for Women in Distress, which referred abused women to NGOs for assistance. There were approximately 70 district-run shelter homes and about 250 emergency shelters for women in distress, including female police stations and homes run by provincial social welfare departments and NGOs. The services provided to women are medical, legal and vocational. The role of government-run shelters, however, has remained a controversial subject, as women have known to be abused at some of them.
When a new legislation or reform is introduced to empower women, especially in societies repressive towards them, it takes a while to get accustomed to the whole idea. It is frowned upon at first, but when they have the choice to use a service, which is available to them, they will not be able to resist it for very long. I remember being introduced to Bill in 2009, by a journalist friend Imrana Komal who also practices law. The tone of her voice was so full of hope and optimism when she was talking about the interventions made in the said document. “You can now literally walk into a police station and file a complaint under this Act and whoever is abusing you will be behind bars in no time. All they need to do is muster up the courage to stand for themselves.” It was a rage in the print media also due to its section on effective implementation that required it to be widely publicized in the media, especially in local language, periodic sensitization of stake-holders involved (including judiciary) and collaborative revisions by line agencies. The decision on the fate of the Bill still await as civil society and women rights groups periodically enchant slogans in its favour. This proposed legal reform could mean that a Pakistani woman can literally take their cloak of fear and face the oppressor with her ‘nose up high.’