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Politics of domestic violence bill

Dr Farzana Bari

Once again the Bill on Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) for the Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT) has been deferred by the joint session of Parliament on April 4. This Bill was unanimously passed by the National Assembly in 2009. It was stuck in the Senate that referred it to the mediation committee for further deliberation. The Bill remained in the cold storage till the passage of 18th Constitutional Amendment that devolves legislative issues to the provinces.

With the drastic increase in all forms of social, economic and political insecurities under the present regime, the only feather in the cap of the present government is that it has managed to pass some pro-women statute laws. This includes Sexual Harassment at Work Place Act (2010), Acid Control and Acid Prevention Act (2011), Prevention of Anti-Women Practices Act (2011) and Women in Distress and Detention Act (2011).

Women who entered parliaments on reserved seats for women have been making efforts for the passage of a Bill on Domestic Violence since 2002. Every time the Bill on Domestic Violence is blocked by decadent, anti-women right wing forces sitting in the legislative assemblies at the national and provincial levels.

The question is why there is so much resistance to the passage of Domestic Violence Bill in our country? What is the argument of those who keep on blocking this important, urgently needed piece of legislation? What are the implications of this Bill for the family and the society? These are important questions that need to be addressed and analysed.

The JUI and the PML-N which opposed the Bill on Thursday did not refer to any particular clause of the Bill that they had objections to.Maulana Fazulur Rehman simply blasted the Bill on the ground that it was the conspiracy of the West and foreign funded NGOs which are working against Islam and trying to destroy our family system through the introduction of this Bill. He accused women rights activists as agents of the Western powers who are working on women’s rights for American dollars. The PML-N simply asked for more time to review the Bill. It was very obvious from the arguments of the representatives of both parties which blocked the Bill that none of them had even bothered to read it.

First of all, as mentioned earlier that this is the Bill that was unanimously passed by the National Assembly in 2009. The PML-N and JUI had expressed no reservation at that time then why now? The opposition to the Bill is clearly a part of political bargaining in new political alignments.

Secondly, if they had objection to some of the clauses of the Bill (the position they are taking now), why those inadequacies were not shared with the mover of the Bill and the committee that was working on the Bill, which includes the representatives from all parties, including JUI and PML-N.

If the PML-N did not bother to give their input in the drafting of the Bill over the last many months, how would they do so in the next few days? It appears a lame excuse and simply a retarding ploy to block the Bill.

The real issue here is not the technical flaws in the legislation (that might be many) but the patriarchal mindset reigning in our legislative assemblies. These men are reluctant to give up male control over the lives of their family members, especially women. Home is considered as the private domain of men where they are the in charge and can dictate their prejudices on the family. They do not want the state to intervene or challenge the private patriarchy over the kin come what may.

The criminalization of domestic violence through the Bill means that it will fundamentally change the nature of social contract between male and female citizens with the state. So far the state maintains the sexual contract where men have control over women’s sexuality and lives within the secluded arena of domestic life. The legislation on domestic violence essentially means that the state recognize that every member in the family is an ‘individual’, who has personal rights to self security, protection and choice. In case of violation of those rights by the family hierarchy through the use of violence, state will act on behalf of the individual.

Also the legislation on domestic violence means that sanctity of the family as private domain will come under public scrutiny. The notion of the family only as locus of love will be challenged as this legislation will recognize family as an institution of love and conflict. The family operates within the conflict and cooperation model where various members of family love each other, have interests in common and also in conflict.

The controversy generated on the deference of Bill has pitched civil society and rights wing political forces against each other. The severe attack on women rights activists by the JUI and the connivance of so called liberal Pakistan Peopleís Party with these right wing forces is reprehensible. While the president of Pakistan is quick to apologise to Maulana Farzalur Rehman for the opposition to his stance by women rights activists, he conveniently ignores the humiliating remarks of Maulana about the women activists and JUI’s threats to teach them a lesson for probing them. How long women’s rights will be scuppered for the larger vested interests of the political parties?

A report in ëThe Newsí on April 7 misquoted many facts and also claimed that the National Assembly speaker has banned the entry of some well-known and well respected human rights activists in Parliament (this needs to be confirmed). If this is correct, then we need to ask what is the responsibility of the state and Parliament towards ensuring the freedom of expression of citizens of this country. Itís important that the PPP government and women parliamentarians across political parties must be seen standing by human rights defenders and do not allow reactionary forces in the country to stifle the voices of sanity by humiliating, threatening or targeting them. In case of their failure, human rights activists have no recourse but to challenge this ban in the court which clearly violates the Articles 16 and 19 of the Constitution which ensure freedom of expression and citizen’s rights to attend the House of Representatives.

Human rights activists simply demand that the Bill on Domestic Violence should immediately be passed. The badly drafted Bill that certainly needs a serious review (that reflect on the lack of competence of our parliamentarians and those from the civil society who worked with them), but it should not take too long and must be re-tabled and passed in the joint-sitting of Parliament; It must be ensured by the government and Parliament that no one should be allowed to take retaliatory actions against human rights activists and civil society organizations. Failure to which will only contribute to further polarization in the society and will widen the gulf, divide and the conflict in the society. Women’s rights must not be sacrificed at the altar of politics.The writer is an activist academic and the Director, Centre of Excellence in Gender Studies, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

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