By Babar Sattar
Islamabad: The ‘grand’ coalition of 35 parties politicking in the name of religion has warned of dire consequences if the Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act, 2016, is not amended by March 27 according to their diktat. The deadline coincides with the day set to observe the chehlum of Mumtaz Qadri.
The main argument of this maulvi brigade is that prohibiting the beating up of women inside homes is un-Islamic because protecting Pakistani women against violence is part of an evil Western design to corrupt our family values.
What is common to this raving menagerie of maulvis – which includes those cut-up over the Women’s Protection law, those livid over the hanging of Mumtaz Qadri, patrons and apologists of the TTP angry at Zar-e-Azb and the National Action Plan against their ‘misguided brethren’ who continue to kill our soldiers, civilians and kids alike, those distressed by the suggestion that the state might wish to regulate madressahs and those distraught over indications that the state might be considering abandonment of the jihadi project altogether?
They share a regressive worldview, pursuit of which makes Pakistan an unstable state housing an intolerant society that is a threat to itself and the world. Their view of state personality doesn’t fit within the nation-state system that supports the status quo and not ideologically driven expansionism or adventurism. Their view of national security (nurtured by the state itself, one must add) is now the prime threat to security of Pakistanis. And their approach to minorities, women and human rights is incompatible with the idea of rule of law or equality and dignity of all citizens.
There is nothing in the Women’s Protection Law that could conceivably be inimical to Islam’s teachings, unless one believes that Islam entitles men to abuse women within the homes they share. This law criminalises abuse of women within the house, authorises the court to take a range of measures to protect women subjected to violence, and creates institutional structures to ensure a victim’s access to justice such as women protection committees, protection centres, shelters and protection officers in each district.
Not all maulvis are wife beaters. But what the coalition of maulvis is defending is the entitlement of men in the family to use force, threat of force or other abuse to ‘discipline’ the women in the family. The underlying logic seems to be that such entitlement is essential to keep our family system intact. In other words, violence or threat of violence against women is part of our ‘family values’. There is really no religious argument being made. The maulvis are simply saying that women cowering in fear of men is part of our culture and must be preserved.
The bit about ‘evil Western design’ to destroy our family system is just for good measure. Our maulvis aren’t bull-headed when it comes to dealing with the West. Remember US Ambassador Anne Patterson, Wikileaks and Maulana Fazlur Rehman? “At one point in the conversation, Rehman asked the ambassador if the USG would deal with him if he was elected as prime minister and cautioned the USG not to put all of its eggs in the basket of Benazir Bhutto…Rehman indicated his desire to travel to the US and suggested he could lobby the Congress and American think tanks ‘as well as Benazir Bhutto’.” (Wikileak 131568)
Pakistan has seen a steady expansion in the power and nuisance of the maulvi. The maulvi’s rent-seeking ability was augmented by at least three factors: disruption of political process with religious parties eager to lease out their services to dictators; use of non-state actors as part of our national security policy and use of maulvi and madressah for the purpose; and primitive state of rule of law in a society where notions such as honour and family values continued to trump the dignity and equality of vulnerable segments.
For the first time, in 2015, one saw contraction in the nuisance of the maulvi. Protests over the Women Protection Law and Mumtaz Qadri are part of a conscious effort to fight the contraction without getting into a fight with the military – ie, starting with defence of turf it sees as falling beyond the military’s interest and within the maulvi’s exclusive province, such as religion-inspired and family laws. The maulvi understands that in a street fight the stronger party wins. So he is loath to provoking the military in its present no-nonsense anti-terror mode. The maulvi cringes over NAP, but finds no space to create a ruckus over it post-Peshawar.
The maulvi also understands that he lacks the societal support and numbers to prevail in an electoral contest. Thus fighting mainstream parties in elections and parliament isn’t an option. As he senses tightening of the noose with talk of madressah reform, arrests over hate speech and undesirables going missing or getting sorted in encounters, taking on the political government in a street fight over issues that don’t draw the military in, such as blasphemy or domestic violence, is his best chance to fight back for space.
The maulvi hopes, as many others fear, that NAP may turn out to be a temporary separation in an erstwhile mutually beneficial mullah-military partnership. Bidding for time, he is choosing to fight over issues that he believes resonate with large segments of society. On blasphemy, he is appealing to unconditional love and loyalty of Muslims to the Prophet (pbuh). On the Women’s Protection Law, he is relying on entrenched chauvinism and projected desire of the 49 percent male population of society to retain its power over the 51 percent female population.
The PML-N is not a born-again liberal party. What it is pursuing is no liberal agenda – except in a state eager to court chaos and bury rule of law, not hanging Mumtaz Qadri was hardly an option. Criminalising violence against women or sexual abuse of children are commonsense measures to put in place the machinery required to uphold fundamental rights already guaranteed by the constitution. That adoption of such measures by a centre-right party has come to be seen as triumph of liberalism is a reflection of the sorry state of liberalism in Pakistan.
The PML-N and the Sharifs deserve credit for the progressive Women’s Protection Law, notwithstanding our overall state of moral degradation where criminalising abuse of women in their homes is still hailed as progress in 2016. The maulvis are focused on preserving power, and are afraid of change as parochial men have always been throughout mankind’s history. It wasn’t too long ago that burning witches was deemed a religious obligation to keep society safe. But even then the obsession with sorcery wasn’t focused on witches and wizards alike.
We need to preserve our family and cultural values, but not all of them. It is the love, respect and regard within our families that is enviable. Our families won’t fall apart if women are afforded equality and freedom of choice. It is the empathy and compassion within our culture that must be celebrated. The use of cruelty or coercion towards vulnerable segments of our society (minorities, women, children) in the name of honour, tradition or religion is the disease within us that we must fight. That our ‘religious leaders’ wish to wear our shame on their foreheads with pride explains where the problem lies.
The history of humankind is a history of evolution. Societies that fight change are fighting nothing other than their own need to adapt to change beyond their control. Forget the moral argument; in this age of urbanisation, technology and information it is no longer possible to keep women in bondage.
In a country of 200 million, going on to 300 million in 30 years, it is no longer possible to treat half the population as chattel and yet make progress. NAP and the fight against terror and extremism being led by the military is also not a choice but a necessity if Pakistan is to remain afloat. The time for humouring the maulvi is over.