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Another women’s commission?

This time the vote was unanimous in the National Assembly: to set up another national commission on the status of women. Does it mean that a women’s commission set up under this unanimously-passed law will succeed in convincing the state to remove some of the disabilities and discrimination women suffer in Pakistan?

Women’s commissions have been set up in the past but their recommendations have either been ignored or shot down because of religion or on the pretext of religion. The clerics of course tend to fly off the handle; and this time they have the suicide-bombers of the Taliban standing behind them. The law will set up possibly a third national commission on the status of women and want it to: “examine the federal government’s policy and programmes for gender equality, women’s empowerment, political participation, representation, assessing their implementation and making suitable recommendations, reviewing all laws, rules and regulations affecting the status and rights of women and suggesting repeal, amendment or new legislation to eliminate discrimination, safeguarding and promoting the interest of women and achieving gender equality.

Even if one accepts that the PML-N will let a women’s commission function because it has voted on the latest legislation about it, it might balk at the recommendations when they come. However, before the clerics go at the commission, there is the Federal Shariat Court to reckon with. In December 2010, it ruled sections of the Women Protection Act of 2006, among other legislations, as being violative of the Constitution and gave the government till June 2011 to remove the flaws in it.

It asserted its remit over the matter saying it was expressly permitted to do so by the Constitution. What can the women’s commission do, given the appalling conditions in which women — especially at the lower strata of society — live in Pakistan? Anyone visiting Pakistan after India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, will say Pakistan is medievalising itself in regard to treatment of women. Any commission worth its salt will want to remove these conditions of inequality but will immediately get into trouble with an ideologically-driven state.

We have seen this happen in 1997. The women’s commission set up by the PPP government rendered its report when the PPP government was gone and the PML-N was in power. The Report recommended reform in laws pertaining to the status of women in light of the Holy Quran and Sunnah. There was an ‘alim’ in the Commission, from the Council of Islamic Ideology, who acquiesced in them.

The most important recommendation by the Commission was the removal of the Hudood Laws “because they were conceived and drafted in haste and are not in conformity with the injunctions of Islam”. The Commission instead favoured the retention of ‘tazir’ which is bound by Qanoon-e-Shahadat (1984) applicable to all laws. Another revolutionary recommendation of the Commission pertained to the financial support to the divorced woman under the Quranic injunction: “For divorced women a provision in kindness: a duty for those who ward off evil” (2:241). But all of it came to naught because the PML-N government was not willing to take on the clergy. The Commission met the same fate as the Zari Sarfraz Commission did in the General Zia era. Also, can any commission with women sitting on it ignore the infamous Zina Ordinance which entraps an already wronged woman on the ‘condition’ of producing four male witnesses to the act? If the victim can’t prove rape she is punished under ‘qazf’ (wrongful accusation).

This may sound overly cynical but the truth is that conditions are much worse than they were in 1997 when the PML-N quietly shelved the recommendations of a past commission. The Taliban are pulling down girls’ schools in Fata and several settled districts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. They have also inflicted ‘rijm’ (stoning to death) in the areas they control. That said, it remains to be seen how effective the next National Commission on the Status of Women will be.

By: The Express Tribune

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