Pakistan: Secularism is fundamental to ensuring equality

"The extent to which a woman is allowed or denied her fundamental rights granted by the state is mediated by her ethnic or religious group and its relationship with the state."
"The relationship of women with the state in Pakistan appears to depend on three interrelated sets of relationships: (i) the relation between the state and the individual citizen; (ii) the relation between the state and the ethnic or religious group to which a citizen belongs; and (iii) the relation between women and the ethnic or religious group with which they identify.
The extent to which a woman is allowed or denied her fundamental rights granted by the state is mediated by her ethnic or religious group and its relationship with the state.

In a liberal bourgeois democracy these relationships are further complicated by the need to accommodate ethnic and religious parties in coalition arrangements. Elections increasingly deliver ethnically split verdicts in which no single party gets a simple majority and the party with the largest number of seats is forced to rely on others to form its government.

In return for support the smaller parties extract their pound of flesh in the form of ministries, lucrative positions and compromise on certain ideological standpoints. This not only creates large cabinets it also requires backtracking by political parties on clearly enunciated principles. In political bargains the greatest backtracking is invariably witnessed on the issues of women’s rights and equality.

The clearest evidence of such political manoeuvring is the manner in which the PPP inducted two ministers, Israrullah Zehri as minister for postal services and Hazar Khan Bijarani as minister for education. Israrullah Zehri is on record defending the brutal murder of five women (the figure is disputed) who it is alleged were buried alive in Balochistan. Hazar Khan Bijarani is said to have presided over a jirga that ordered that five girls aged two to five be handed over to a rival clan to settle a dispute.

The overriding need to accommodate people from the smaller provinces and minority ethnic groups to ensure their support for the government has negated the fundamental rights to life and security for women. Such political compromise for expediency ignores the manifesto of the party which states: “The Pakistan People’s Party has an unflinching commitment to the cause of gender equality ever since it was founded in 1967” and “The party will take institutional initiatives to prevent crimes against women in the name of tribalism, such as honour killings and forced marriages”. Despite repeated protests by various sections of society this travesty of justice has not been reversed.

Other parties with stated commitments to women’s rights and equality have also exhibited misogynist biases against women by failing to show a modicum of respect for their female colleagues. The remarks about two women being equal to one man by Ishaq Dar of the PML-N, and the subsequent refusal by party members to allow Sherry Rehman to record her protest is an incident reflective of the deeply prejudiced attitudes of our lawmakers.

The bewildering insensitivity was further demonstrated by Chaudhry Nisar Ali’s nomination of Hanif Abbasi as head of the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Women’s Affairs despite the presence of a number of worthy women candidates in the parliament. The heartening fact is that the PML-N women parliamentarians themselves protested. The PML-N’s manifesto also promises to “promote participation of women in national development and their social, political and economic empowerment”. One wonders how women’s political empowerment would be possible when even their most basic rights to represent themselves are not acknowledged.

As if all this were not enough there are rumours circulating that the Ministry of Women Development would be given to the JUI-F. Apart from this party’s known aversion to women’s equality and freedom, it is vital to remember that its members had stated that the implementation of the Protection of Women Bill 2006 was like challenging God. One of the demands of the JUI-F for supporting Asif Zardari’s presidential bid was the revocation of parts of the Women Protection Act. Maulana Fazlur Rahman and his associates were seen roaring with laughter over an anti-women song at the maulana’s brother’s valima reception. The song was about marrying four times as one wife was not sufficient.

Patriarchal and misogynist attitudes are deeply ingrained in our social, economic, political and ideological structures. It is too much to hope that those entrusted with making the country’s laws would reflect a morality higher than the rest of the nation’s. However, one can expect the lawmakers to have read the constitution and know that killing citizens, men or women, is murder and that murder is a crime. The country’s law does not allow so-called honour to be invoked as a justification for vile murder. It is also reasonable to expect that lawmakers would not pass statements contrary to the law to justify crimes.

Since one cannot depend on individuals to rise above their ethnic or religious prejudices, one has to rely on systems. The assumption underlying liberal democracy was that over time it would eliminate the pre-modern identities of caste, clan, tribe and sect and create the modern identity of the citizen whose relation to the state would be a direct one and not mediated through local, cultural and customary structures. It was also assumed that broad-based political parties, premised on shared economic issues, would replace narrow sub-nationalist, ethnic, sectarian and fundamentalist outfits.

Instead, politics itself became ethnicised, and sub-national, sectarian and tribal sentiments were articulated in the political arena. The state capitulated to such sentiments in the process itself becoming tribal and sectarian. Multiple legal systems distorted democracy and laws came to be premised on religion and tribal customs.

The Qisas and Diyat law is a major example of a tribal law becoming entrenched in the state’s legal structure. The tribal state allows parliamentarians like Ajmal Khattak, Salim Mazari, Israrullah Zehri and Hazar Bijarani to legitimise the murder and trafficking of women as cultural tradition.

The sectarian state allows violence against women to be condoned through laws made in the name of religion. Political compulsions force parties like the PPP to establish the Sharia in parts of Pakistan like Malakand. With the collusion between the Sharia, tribal and customary law, and Anglo-Saxon legal principles, women’s rights and equality are sacrificed at the altar of political expediency.

By: Rubina Saigol

3 December 2008

Source: Dawn