Pakistan: Under the Shariat axe

The Indian Express
At stake is not just women's rights, but Pakistan's future by Sherry Rehman.
Every time the spectre of a Shariat act is raised in Pakistan, women are the first to shudder. Despite the rush of burqa humour clogging the Net, these jokes conceal a fear as visceral as it is real. Irrespective of its content, there are widespread fears that the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) government's adoption of a Shariat bill could result in serious curbs on women's mobility and freedom. The first worry is that many radical clauses kept off this bill's agenda will still be pursued by self-appointed vigilantes in the streets. A bigger fear is that once legislation such as the Hisba act goes through in the Frontier, the whole apparatus of vice and virtue policing may leak into the public culture of other provinces as well.
Such fears are not unfounded. Our own history, as well as the experience of other Islamicised states, holds up a largely anti-women, deeply orthodox mirror to the societies they reflect. This picture threatens a large mainstream of Pakistani women today. Unlike the stereotype of the veiled, faceless woman the media likes to sensationalise, a majority of Pakistani women work unveiled inside and outside the home but remain unaccounted for, and hence unempowered, by the strictly fiscal nature of the modern economy. As in the wider South Asian context, in Pakistan too a woman's identity is a fragile social construct, subject to almost daily negotiation with powerful economic, political and cultural forces. What so-called Islamic laws will do is introduce a new slew of legal limits and cultural constraints to restrict even more the public space that most women can operate within.

I am not alone in dismissing the old right-wing bromide, in currency again, that such laws seek to protect women. Anyone who has witnessed the corrosive effects of General Zia's Islamisation process that saddled Pakistan with laws such as the Hudood and Zina ordinances knows what they mean for women.

If to privileged, postmodern apologists such laws don't define the quotidian experience of the average woman, I'd urge a quick, sobering look at police records of the last few years. The Hudood ordinance remains the single most commonly applied law to hold women in indefinite lock-up. According to this law, in present-day usage, when a woman petitions against her rape she invariably becomes an accomplice instead of a victim. Needless to say, the law's axe falls mostly on poor, resource-starved women.

But my issue with this bill is not just about the misogynist content and scope of these laws that seek to Talibanise the country. Without a doubt, women's freedoms and hard-earned rights are the first to go in any such project. Many others in Pakistan also feel these laws don't just threaten the power and mobility of women to attempt to live as equal members of the federation. They strike at the very heart of the project that is Pakistan. I say this because the legislation is about a fundamental re-ordering of the state in the image not of its founding father's dream, but in the muddled vision of its first opponents, our friends in the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal.Mohammad Ali Jinnah would find most of the 71 points that the Council of Islamic Ideology has recommended in this Shariat bill repugnant to the spirit of tolerance and liberalism he espoused in his vision of Pakistan. Conceived as a home for Muslims to live in peace and prosperity, Jinnah had made it amply clear that Pakistan was never to be a theocracy.

For over three decades, Shariat-law adventurism has been a favourite ploy of rightist political forces who have been allies with the military in dominating the national agenda through the appropriation of the state's ideological discourse. Although critics of such policies blame the insertion of the Objectives Resolution in the Constitution as the original concession on this slippery slope, the real Islamisation of the state began seriously only under Zia. His formula of harnessing Islamist parties as a substitute for the legitimacy conferred by real democracy continues even today.General Musharraf's intransigence on refusing the elected parliament the right to indemnify his constitutional amendments has led him up the same dangerous road. For a self-proclaimed secularist, his obsession with marginalising moderate, mainstream parties at the expense of the stability of the new democratic set-up has exposed his weakness and willingness to barter anything for his political survival. Faced with a revolt in the National Assembly and Senate, where his potential for an alliance with the MMA is crumbling in the wake of his refusal to give up his COAS uniform while remaining president, he is locked on the horns of a nasty dilemma.The good news is that as surely as night follows day, the NWFP's Shariat bill will be challenged as unconstitutional by the bar councils, in the Supreme Court. Women's groups, minorities and trade unions will back the PPP a hundred per cent on reversing this bill on the grounds of it being a "Taliban bill". It is also not a foregone conclusion that the federal government will let this bill be signed by the governor of that province, although this tactic too will only buy its opponents a little more time, given that the bill will eventually have to be returned to the assembly.

At his own peril, Musharraf feels he can ignore this. His gameplan is clear. To break the single-issue agenda of the opposition on the Legal Framework Order crisis, he is dangling the carrot of this bill in front of the MMA. The stick is the pressure from his non-party local body councillors to resign their offices in confrontation with the MMA assembly. What he can't manage forever is the game he is playing with his real constituents, the terrorist-panicked US.At the end of the day, nobody wants to back a dictator who is losing control of the game. Or who has lost his utility as a bulwark against religious militancy. The NWFP's Shariat bill is not a pawn in the MMA's chess game with the general. It is their final solution. It is high time the Jamali government alerted him to the reality that there is no such thing as limited Islamisation. At stake is not just his own survival. It is the survival of Pakistan as we know it.

(The writer is a member of the National Assembly in Pakistan, and former editor of the newsmagazine 'The Herald').
Originally published in The Indian Express, 9 June 2003.