By: Dr Zamurrad Awan
After a long struggle and the passing of various stages, on 29thFebruary 2016, The Women Protection Bill in Punjab was passed. Sindh and Baluchistan had already enforced a similar legislation. Here it is relevant to note that after Afghanistan and Congo, Pakistan has been declared as the third most dangerous country for women. A country base annual report of Human Rights Commission Pakistan for 2015 states that during this year, “939 women became victim of sexual violence, 279 of domestic violence, 143 women were attacked with acid or set on fire, 833 were kidnapped and 1,096 were killed in the name of honour.” Within the country, Punjab has been reported with highest registered cases of violence against women. According to the women rights NGO Aurat Foundation, in the year of 2014 alone, 7,010 cases of violence against women were registered in Punjab.
Before discussing the reservations of religious-political parties regarding the protection bill, it is relevant to highlight its basic features. First of all, this legislation rules out violence against women by any male member of a family-no matter the culprit is a husband, brother or a father. In this regard, the most important linchpin is the role of police as a subordinate institution, which previously being the only authority to register such cases. Consequently, by tagging cases of violence against women as a personal matter of a family, police refused to register FIR, resulted in scores of unreported violence cases. Secondly, the itempowers judges to adopt any provided option to stop violence, by keeping in view the ground realities and gravity of abuse. The most debatable mentioned measure is the use of wrist bracelet GPS tracker and to refrain a culprit from entering his own house for a limited time-period. As a clarification, the use of tracking bracelet is not mandatory and is the only option to adopt in cases of violence. The bracelet related clause will only apply when after measuring the gravity of violence, when no other option remains. The reason to include this clause is that in some cases, the husband at a wife’s work place publically makes derogatory remarks and comments, resulting in emotional abuse and defamation. The third characteristic of the bill is the detailed process of reconciliation through protection committee, which comprises of civil society members and the District Coordination Officer. The fourth feature of this legislation is the defined penalty of minimum three months of imprisonment or maximum onelakh fine or both, in case of filling a false report. This clause will help to discourage the misuse of the legislation.
Despite of having nominal representation in the provincial and national assemblies, the opponents of this bill have given ultimatums and warnings to the government. Their main objection is that it is repugnant to the principles of Islam and more so of socio-cultural norms.
Nevertheless, they are unable to point out the relevant instances. Therefore, when confronted, they hide behind the centuries old patriarchal societal norms and tribal culture, which adheres gender discrimination not only by reinforcing male dominance over female family members but also by sending a message to the females to tolerate and accept injustice, discrimination and violence, as an accepted norm, especially in matrimonial relationship. Interesting to note is that even among ulemas, there is a dissent. A known religious figure, Hafiz Mohammad Tahir Ashrafi (a chairperson of Pakistan Ulema Council) support this legislation stating, “These people are speaking in ignorance, but the women Protection Bill will assist in ending violence against women. There is no point in the criticism by some scholars that this Bill will distort the family system of the country.”
After a month of protest against the 2016 Punjab Women Protection Bill, spearheaded by Maulna Fazal-ur-Rehman; the government and religious parties have agreed to make some alterations. These are based on four observations of Ulemas Consultation Committee. It is interesting to note that Prime Minister has ensured an appropriate amendment in the bill, stating that he was not aware of the details.
The first observation of the Ulemas Committee is that the Women Protection Officer will initially separate both the parties within their residence, rather than evicting the husband for up to 48 hours. However, an undertaking from the aggressor is mandatory, in which he promises not to repeat his violent act. In case of a violation, a required action can be taken. If it is not possible and a woman declines to move to the shelter home, then the husband is required to leave the house, within one hour. Second suggested amendment is about GPS tracker, which will not be applied on the husband. Third is about the psychological violence. According to the Ulemas Committee, the Bill should not restrict the family members to question or inquire the whereabouts or actions of a female member, as long as violence is not committed against her. Fourth suggestion is to initially include elders in the mediation process, followed by mediation power of the Women Protection Officer as prescribed in the bill.
After a detailed analysis of the legislation, the motive behind this legislation and response of Ulemas, it can be concluded that it might have some weaknesses, which can be corrected later, by making minor amendments to the rule of business. Nevertheless, the demand for changes in the bill, or to introduce Ulema’s drafted legislation will further delay the much needed response against women violence. Such demands before implementation, convey a message that the religious parties are not only against women empowerment but disapprove any idea to consider women as an equal human being. If the implementation of this bill is delayed, then not only Pakistan’s claim to protect human rights will be conceived superficial, but also its slogan and commitment for women empowerment on national and international forums will raise lots of eyebrows.