The question whether or not do elected representatives truthfully represent hopes and aspirations of their voters has found a profound answer in the proceedings of National Assembly on Tuesday. There was this private member bill moved by the ruling party member Marvi Memon and her women colleagues in the PML-N, seeking stiffer culpability in cases of child marriages. To movers of the bill the time was just right to bring the bill given the heavy thud of criticism the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) chairman Maulana Shirani’s recent pronouncement upholding the child marriages had received. But they were patently ignorant of the bitter reality of our national politics that once elected to the legislative houses the so-called representatives of people completely insulate themselves against all that their voters want or don’t want from them.
To the movers’ utter disappointment as male colleagues on both sides of the aisle including the harbingers of a ‘New Pakistan’ posed nonchalant and the minister for religious affairs deserted them too. Ironically, the treasury benches surrendered the poor lady members’ courageous initiative to Maulana Shirani to rebut and reject; perhaps making up for the opportunity lost as civil society and media tore apart his exposition on the subject early the month.
‘Such laws relating to religious issues should not be brought directly …without reference to the Council of Islamic Ideology’, thundered Maulana Sahib – as minister Sardar Mohammad Yousaf nodded in consent. And as the Speaker referred the bill to the standing committee the minister chipped in advising the committee to take the Council’s opinion on the issue or send the draft to the Council – as if there was any doubt about its retrogressive interpretations of Islamic injunctions. Mind you the bill was being introduced by five women members of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and their party minister was on a different wavelength. If it was not intentional on his part then it is a case of minister being so much out of touch with ground realities.
The issue of child marriages has of late been in public domain for intense debate, though it had attracted government action as early last century, when the colonial government of the day enacted Child Marriages Restraint (CMR) Act 1929. It prohibits marriages of girls and boys under 16 years of age and 18 years of age respectively. But there was not much in evidence to suggest that the prohibition was being observed, an amiss being felt ever more intensely as realisation dawns about the practice’s injurious effects. It is an established fact that risk of death for pregnant girls under 15 is five times higher than for women in twenties. The picture in Pakistan is all the more dismal given that every hour women die due to birth-related issues and early marriages are a key contributor to high maternal mortality ratio (MMR).
In case of Balochistan, the province Maulana Shirani hails from, it is as higher as 785 per 100,000 live births. The Marvi’s bill seeks to amend the British era enactment on the subject to empower the family courts to take cognizance of an offence and to provide for a punishment with up to two years’ rigorous imprisonment or with a fine of up to Rs 100,000 instead of the presently-provided one month’s simple imprisonment and fine of Rs 1000, or with both. There is also an international dimension to this issue of child marriage, in that according to the UN Convention on the Rights of Child any person under the age of 18 is a child. How come every ruling of the Islamic Ideology Council has invariably attracted negative fallout in Pakistan which is a declared Islamic country? The question needs to be answered not only by the parliament but also by the Council of Islamic Ideology. Left unresolved the growing mismatch between a person’s compulsion to stay relevant to the time he lives and his religious belief as interpreted by the Islamic Ideology Council is bound to undercut not only the raison d’etre of our national independence but also tarnish the image of Islam. Now that Marvi’s bill is before the committee we expect its members to go deeper into imbroglio and suggest a constitutional remedy. At the same time it is expected of the ministers to stay informed of the matters of public concern and find time to be fed back of what man thinks of them.