By: Raja Asghar
ISLAMABAD: Women’s cause suffered a big blow in the National Assembly on Tuesday when an apparent gang-up blocked a landmark, pro-women private bill for the second time in eight days, on a day the ruling Pakistan People’s Party recalled the sacrifice of its assassinated female leader Benazir Bhutto.
The Prevention of Anti-Women Practices (Criminal Law Amendment) Bill, seeking to penalise practices like forced marriages and the so-called marriage with the holy Quran mainly aimed to deprive women of property inheritance, was first deferred on Oct 11 for a week due to some last-minute objections to perceived drafting flaws and harshness of the proposed law’s clauses prescribing minimum punishments just as the house was about to vote on its last clause.
This time too, the house had nearly completed the second reading of the long-pending bill and was about to vote on its fifth and last clause that PPP lawmaker Nadeem Afzal Gondal, who was chairing the proceedings of the last day of a 16-day session, deferred the bill until the next session in November after estranged PPP member and former foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi complained of unavailability of some proposed amendments to the draft.
But while authors and supporters of the bill appeared shocked by the sudden deferment on what was hardly seemed a strong ground as assembly staff were seen handing copies of amendments to members who wanted them, Mr Qureshi successfully diverted the attention of the house to what he called a violation of the Constitution by unspecified parliament members who may be holding dual nationality.
He received endorsement from the opposition PML-N benches and even two prominent lawmakers of the government-allied PML-Q before Water and Power Minister Naveed Qamar ended the row by saying that the Supreme Court, rather than this house, was competent to interpret the Constitution on the issue.
While the bill’s lead author, Dr Donya Aziz, also seemed to be little prepared for a second onslaught against the bill despite its endorsement by a 17-member multi-party house standing committee on women development, unusual objections at this stage seemed aimed at blocking rather than improving the draft.
On Oct 11, when Speaker Fehmida Mirza referred the bill to the law ministry for another vetting to take care of some drafting flaws pointed out by PPP member and a former high court judge, Fakharunnisa Khokhar, she had ruled that the clauses of the bill already passed on that day would remain intact.
But the bill was reopened from the first clause when it was taken up for the second time for what the day’s agenda called “further clause-by-clause consideration” and fresh voting was held on the four clauses with amendments that had already been approved on its first consideration.
The chair overruled objections from two PML-N members to provisions for minimum punishments that they said would limit the powers of courts and complaints of PPP’s Syed Zafar Ali and PML-N’s Ayaz Amir about unavailability of copies of amendments.
And Mr Gondal’s ruling declaring Ms Khokhar’s amendment as rejected in a voice vote seemed suspect as many members inside the house and journalists in the press gallery thought there were more “ayes” than “noes” for her amendments.
And he also ignored a request from some PPP back-benchers for a headcount after the second voice vote by deferring the bill altogether after Mr Qureshi’s complaint about non-availability of copies of amendments.
The bill seeks to amend the Pakistan Penal Code to provide for imprisonment for life or at least 10 years for using deceitful means to deprive a woman of inheritance, up to seven years and a minimum of three years imprisonment for giving a woman in forced marriage to settle civil disputes or a criminal liability and up to seven years in prison for compelling or facilitating the “marriage of a woman with the holy Quran” besides varying amounts of fines.
However, the controversy on this bill was followed by a display of consensus of the house in quickly passing a government bill providing for a comprehensive legislative instrument to curb practices of oil and gas theft and pilferage and abuse of lawful oil and gas connections.
And the government, in a gesture to PML-N, agreed to defer a controversial bill to regulate a DHA for Islamabad until the next session to accommodate serious objections of the opposition party although the bill was put on day’s agenda.
The day was also marked by what Leader of Opposition Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan called a “historic moment” of his presentation of the reports of the house Public Accounts Committee that he heads on federal government accounts for the years 1990-91, 1992-93, 1994-95, 1997-98, 2001-02, 2008-09 and the annual report for 2010.
Stating the presentation marked 10 reports of the committee in two and a half years which Chaudhry Nisar said brought the recovery of Rs115 billion for the national exchequer.
The house also passed a motion authorising the house speaker to form a parliamentary committee to oversee the implementation of a resolution adopted by an all-party conference convened by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani last month and other resolutions passed by parliament.
PPP chief whip Khurshid Shah recalled the sacrifices of PPP workers and party leader Benazir Bhutto for democracy as he spoke about the Oct 18, 2007, bomb attack on a procession in Karachi on her return from exile that killed some 180 people, before chair read out a presidential order proroguing the house.
Mr Shah said the next session would be convened on Nov 14.