By: Raja Asghar
ISLAMABAD: After being blocked twice last month, a landmark private bill seeking to penalise evils like the so-called “marriage with the holy Quran”, forced wedlock, and depriving women from inheritance finally got through the National Assembly on Tuesday, when the house also voiced outrage at the recent murder of three Hindu youths in Sindh.
Some trifling objections that had stalled the Anti-Women Practices (Criminal Law Amendment) Bill on two private members’ days of the previous session of the house were not raised this time when, at the end of the day’s sitting, the house voted unanimously for the draft, which must be now passed also by the Senate to become law, to provide for some stern prison terms and heavy fines.
A substantial amendment proposed by a member of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Justice (retd) Fakhrunnisa Khokhar, to remove what she considered drafting faults or legal lacunas, which contributed to previous hurdles to the bill, was rejected when put to vote while she was not on her seat as her party did not support it.
It had appeared an undeclared gang-up when excuses like non-availability of copies of some proposed amendments and objections to mandatory punishments raised by some members from both the opposition and treasury benches derailed the bill twice last month just before the final vote, despite its earlier approval by a 17-member all-party house standing committee on women development.
The five-clause bill, which seeks to amend both the Pakistan Penal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure, provides for at least 10 years’ imprisonment and a fine of one million rupees for using deceitful means to deprive a woman of inheritance, up to seven years and a minimum of three years and Rs500,000 as fine for giving a woman in forced marriage to settle civil disputes or a criminal liability, and up to seven years and a minimum of three years with Rs500,000 as fine for compelling or facilitating the “marriage of a woman with the holy Quran”.
The “marriage with the holy Quran”, often blamed on feudal families in the interior of Sindh and Punjab, has been explained in the bill as an “oath by a woman on the holy Quran to remain unmarried for the rest of her life or not to claim her share of inheritance”.
Earlier, the house observed a two minutes’ silence for three Hindus shot dead on Nov 7 in Shikarpur town of Sindh reportedly in a dispute over a dancing girl.
While most speakers from all parties in the house, including members from non-Muslim minorities, saw the killings as part of the often-complained targeting of minorities by extremist elements, Interior Minister Rehman Malik said the incident, in which at least one doctor and two other members of Hindu community were killed, was a crime but “not a target-
killing”. Assurances for sincere government efforts to arrest and punish all those found responsible came from both the interior minister, the PPP chief whip Khursheed Ahmed Shah and even some PPP members of the minority communities.
The interior minister endorsed some members’ demand for a house committee to study problems of minority communities and said he planned to meet lawmakers from minorities next week.
After PPP veteran Aftab Shahban Mirani raised the issue, several members from both sides of house also regretted reported withdrawal of security arrangements at the Karachi residence of Speaker Fehmida Mirza, some of them seeing the move as a consequence of a row between the PPP leadership and the speaker’s estranged husband and former Sindh home minister Zulfikar Ali Mirza.
But the speaker later told the house that the security arrangements had been restored after the matter came to the notice of President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, although, according one source, some members had earlier planned to table a privilege motion for a perceived breach of privilege of the house by the Sindh government’s move.
The weekend killing of four military officials and a civilian helper allegedly by militants they were pursuing at the hilltop shrine of Pir Chumbal in Chakwal district of Punjab also figured in the house where the interior minister blamed the incident on militants who had fled from the Malakand division of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and cited “somebody’s double-crossing” as the immediate cause.
A PML-N MNA from Chakwal, Ayaz Amir, earlier told the house that he had received information some two months ago that a “terrorist gang” was hiding in the mountains in that area for a long time, but he did not believe it then.
He said the officials were subjected to “unspeakable torture” after being kidnapped by the unidentified militants and added: “We have to see what crops we have sown and what are we harvesting.”