By Aisha Sarwari
When attacking a woman becomes a crime — sticks, stones or even punches — people call it a landmark law. Perhaps we will award the same grandiosity to outlawing sticking pikes in the eyes of defenceless children. The Punjab Protection of Women against Violence Bill is not a landmark law, it is a law that has come to the largest province of Pakistan with glacial crawl. That is shameful. The resistance it faced is even more telling of the state of denial this country is in, in terms of where it stands on the global gender equity scale — third-worst.
We often deploy the word ‘property’ when depicting how women are mistreated in society. I am willing to bet some public toilet doorknobs have seen better days than most women in Pakistan. A country that is so haunted by the image of the respectable woman that we often leave her worse off than an ancient slave — bare-footed and scalded. Over 5,800 women faced violence in Punjab alone, in 2013. Those that go unreported are multi-fold. The province is black and blue. At least its women are, and yet we have only now gotten legislation that matches the horror on the street corners and stove rooms of our country.
The law not only caters to addressing psychological and emotional harm to women, but also includes stalking and cybercrime as punishable offences. The reason why this is important is because there is a tremendous momentum to silence women online — not just their sexuality but their very presence on social media as well as in terms of their freedom to have an email. For women, the Internet is not just about access, it is about escape. It is the gateway through which they learn skills and rights — all of which lead to empowerment and a shift away from all pervasive abuse.
The law also has upped the fine for transgressing against a woman. As a society, we need to put a value on women and the way to do that is when the state fixes a cost on hurting them. There is a reason why women are respected in the West — they are feared, both for their ability to extract a grievance fee when harmed and also because they have the ability to counter-attack legally. There is much to emulate, despite the conservative brigade convincing us that women are respected in honour-frenzied cultures like ours. No, thank you. We will take the real value as opposed to the one that is dished out by any mould mouth.
Then there is the well-meaning feminist brigade that feels this is a toothless law, only to be shamed. For one thing, it is really difficult to get laws passed in this country, let alone laws that demand more assurances and rights for women. Reminder: the Council of Islamic Ideology endorses child marriages and just recently said women cannot divorce unless they get consent from their husband, even when they want a khula. So, in all fairness, some hard work has been done, some spine has been shown by the legislators and some people deserve congratulations. Also, let us take what we can and have — perfection in increments rather than truckloads — it is more difficult to roll it back in the former case.
Laws can always be designed more intelligently, drawing in better from technology and research and I am sure this law is lacking in some instances. What is important, however, is that a benchmark is set to define acceptable standards of society and that those standards are effectively enforced. We can have masterpieces but they will just be that sitting in a legal, dusty cabinet of law stacks if there is no will to bring them to life though our law-enforcement agencies. This law needs an efficient funding for both, the training of law officials and awareness campaigns for serial aggressors. Someone needs to give aggressors a memo that the party is over. They need to sober up and wear the invisible cloak because the victims just got a dagger placed in their hands.
Film after film in Bollywood and Lollywood makes a hero of the man who saves the woman’s honour. But hardly any credit goes to the woman who uses the law to save herself. It is time to change the script. Here’s to a Pakistan where women don’t need to be saved. This law in Punjab helps towards that.