Significant First Victory

When Pakistan’s military ruler General Zia ul Haq introduced what was truly a black law, the 1979 Hadood Ordinace, he proceeded in a truly dictatorial manner. His hand-picked ‘men of religion’ proposed laws in the name of Islam that blatantly violated the teachings of Islam and the Constitution Pakistan. A more anti-women law would have been hard to legislate. It prompted hundreds of brave women of Pakistan to rise and challenge the military dictator and his black laws. That battle lasted for a quarter of a century; much beyond the dictator’s exit. Despite the indefatigable efforts of women’s groups, women’s issues never had a political constituency. Most have the political parties were not were not interested in repealing these laws. And those like the Pakistan Peoples’ party (PPP) who were, it never had the numbers.

It was always going to be a military man, who would herd unwilling while support the willing to ultimately undo the worst of these laws. And finally it was done on November 15. Pakistan’s parliament took the first concrete step to systematically begin the unraveling of the most controversial aspects of Hadood Ordinance. It passed by a majority vote the Women’s Protection Bill(WPB).The controversial 1979 Hudood ordinances covering zina (adultery and rape) and qazf (false accusation of zina) which in many instances not only deny justice to raped women but also exposed them to false accusations and punishment for adultery.

General Parvez Musharraf personally ensured that all the Pakistan Muslim League-Q- parliamentarians supported the WPB. All the coalition members of the ruling party including the Mohajir Qaumi Mahaz(MQM) supported it as did the country’s main Opposition party the PPP. PPP saw this as the first step towards granting equal rights to women, the MQM rejected the Muttahida Mahaz-i-Amal(MMA)’s version of Islam. The MMA were the lead opponents of the WPB. MMA has an ideological position on it. According to their understanding of Islam this great religion that above all promotes justice compassion and fair play, it seeks that a rape victim produce four adult males witnesses who have actually witnessed the act of rape. They have threatened to resign on December 7 and have warned that bill would "make Pakistan a free sex zone." They have been maintaining that the bill was meant to "appease" the United States. Political gimmick has also been at work. Chaudary Shujaat has responded to the MMA’s criticism that it is unislamic by handing in his resignation to the Speaker of the parliament saying that ""They (the MMA) are threatening to resign, but I am submitting my resignation if the bill contains anything contrary to Islamic teachings."

The Pakistan Muslim League-(Nawaz) and the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf also did not support it. PML-N’s leadership maintains that it opposed the WPB because it did not want to do business with a "usurper’s government." PML-N also maintained that the differing stance of the opposition parties on the WPB would damage the PPP-PML-N alliance in the Alliance for Restoration of Democarcy(ARD). Clearly PML-N has been willing to engage in business with the government over issues like privileges for parliamentarians but have refrained from supporting a move that would have repealed sections of a law that were violative of Islam and the Constitution.

This WPB has been passed almost two years after the bill against Honor Killing was passed by the two Houses end 2004. That was the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, which amended the Pakistan Penal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code and prescribed death penalty for honor-killings. Although a positive first step, it was a weak Bill. Its failure to make the State the woman’s wali, the bill would not preclude the possibility of the family still granting pardon to one killing in the name of honor. And since the killer in honor killing must always be a family member, there remains a strong possibility that family members would grant him pardon. This then dilutes the deterrent impact of bill.

Encouraged by the passage of the PWB the ruling party has presented the Prevention of Anti-Women Practices Bill for consideration by the House. This draft seeks to put an end to six practices, namely, depriving women of their property rights, vani, forced marriage, divorce by pronouncing it thrice in one sitting, marrying women to the Quran and watta satta (exchange marriages).

In Pakistan Popular politics is now openly challenging the role of the religio-political parties, often supported and promoted by the Establishment, as the guardians and interpreters of Islam. There is now a coalescing of various groups, the Human Rights groups, the Women’s groups, the media and popularly elected political parties around this theme. From within the Establishment General Musharraf broke ranks with the Establishment’s ideology of the eighties onwards, of promoting and protecting the political hold of these religo-political groups over political Islam. Musharraf’s own personal orientation, the local regional and global compulsions, prompted him to break ranks. While within the Establishment Musharraf’s role of reorienting national ideology remains critical, it will be the political parties which will reorient Islam, nationalism and politics in the public space. The tacit support from the Establishment to these popular political groups is essentially the consequence of the Establishment pulling its support from the religo-political groups it previously promoted.

There are definite indication that street power is beginning to emerge openly in favor of women’s rights and promoting a liberal interpretation of Islam. MQM has already declared November 17 as a Women’s Protection Day. While opposing all obscenity and vulgarity the MQM leadership has declared it will but "never tolerate any law which is against Islam and women’s rights." The MQM leader frontally attacked what it calls "Mullaism." Using their street power they were out in thousands to celebrate defeat of mullaism which Altaf Hussain from London denounced as unislamic. He called for inter-faith harmony and for equal rights to minorities.

There are definite signs that Pakistan’s political landscape is undergoing change. Popular national and regional parties like the PPP, MQM, ANP and PKMAP are gathering momentum. In the coming days they will directly compete with the religo-political groups for the soul of Pakistan and of Islam. The Islamic contestations in Pakistan’s political space will no longer be restricted to the religio-political parties. The mainstream national and regional parties will now actively participate in these contestations. They are going to directly compete for the soul of Pakistan and of Islam. Pakistan has the intellectual capacity, the democratic zeal and the political culture required to lead a reformation. Its civil society groups, religious scholars, media and even popular political; parties like make the agents of change.

Fourteen hundred years ago the humankind was exposed to one of the earliest social revolutions. Of the many beneficiaries of this revolution women were one. This revolution through a regulatory framework for human behavior had aimed for the Ascent of the human race. A necessary pre-condition for this Ascent would have to be the assertion of the innate human sensitivity and spirituality as the commanding principles of human behavior. Yet for this ‘pre-condition’ to become operative it required an ‘enabling’ context.

After all in a world where brute force dominated all else, where the weak would be damned to exploitation and marginalization, where only those born with a ‘silver spoon’ would experience the joys of life, where immediate and momentary needs determined human relations, where the physically weak, the aging and the economically disadvantaged would find no security zones, where the divide between the well-informed and ill-informed t would forever expand, in that context only anger, hate, and violence could flourish.

Hence the objective of Islam was to guide change in this context. As other religions before it had strived to do. Through the last of His Prophets, Hazrat Mohammad(AS) and the Holy Quran, Allah conveyed a broad code of behavior underscoring abiding principles and values. Muslims were obligated to regulate their lives, across the entire spectrum of human interaction, in accordance with the principles of justice, scholarship, discipline, tolerance, modesty, aesthetics, hygiene, accountability, kindness and consideration. The individual’s entire spectrum of interaction covering family, friends, business partners, subordinates, state-citizens etc would all have to be determined by these principles. Islam was optimistic in its goals but also realistic in its reading of reality. To resolve conflicts and problems Muslims were obliged to follow principles of fair play.

In Pakistan for too long the principles of fair play have been missing. The passage of a WPB was a significant step towards establishing fair play.