The Burden of Inequity
By Dr Shireen M. Mazari

Despite the deck being stacked against her, the Pakistani woman shows her true mettle whenever an opportunity is presented. So it was a source of great pride to see that Aviation cadet Saira Amin won the Sword of Honor at the Pakistan Air Force at the Passing Out Parade of the 117th GD (P) Course.
The PAF has been in the forefront of accepting women as equal partners and the results have done both the PAF and the women of Pakistan proud.
The success of the women cadets of the PAF comes at a time when we have seen a shameful bartering amongst the male political elite over the Women Protection Bill -- as if women were simply an object to be bandied about at will by the male population. Instead of acknowledging women as equal citizens, the political elite would have women being granted "favors" of equal protection under the law from their male parliamentarians that they continue to elect. It is shocking to see that over the years, civilian political leaders, who decry military dictators publicly to notch up their democratic credentials, are quite unprepared to undo the repressive measures imposed upon civil society by these dictators! And so it has been with the Hudood Ordinance. Instead of supporting, nay demanding its total repeal, the political elite has been bargaining over it as if women were their chattels to whom they were bestowing special favors. One has been watching with silent disgust the manner in which the issue of the repeal of the Hudood Ordinance has been reduced to the farce of the present form of the Women's Protection Bill. Is this what democracy has been reduced to in this country?
Beyond the absurdity of the four-witness-to-a-rape clause, there is a frightening clause relating to the age at which a woman can be treated as an adult -- a "consenting adult". This clause has now been retained in the Bill as a result of the countless Faustian bargains even though it is the most evil provision because it defines a girl as an adult after the attainment of puberty. Given better diets and health, young girls have been reaching puberty at a much younger age than earlier generations. It is fairly common for girls to reach puberty between ten and eleven years but this in no way makes them an adult in terms of maturity. Puberty happens to be a purely physical phenomenon and to equate it with adulthood is simply criminal -- especially if this implies that a girl, in the case of rape, can be construed to have been a consenting adult because she had reached puberty. What a travesty of the basic human rights of a child, or is the girl child not allowed any such right to begin with? All mothers of young girls should have nightmares over this provision.
Why has this been left out in the present form of the Women's Protection Bill? Because some powerful lobbies have argued that in their cultural tradition, girls are eligible to be married when they reach puberty so they have to be regarded as consenting adults. This is certainly true but it is surely the duty of the state to rid society of cruel, retrogressive social practices -- no matter how deeply embedded they may be in tradition. After all, Karo Kari and the so-called "honor killings" are also part of retrogressive social traditions which need to be eliminated by the state legislating against them. That is what progress is all about -- the enhancement of humanity and the elimination of decadence. Islam itself opposes these murderous social customs.
In fact the state should legislate to forbid child marriages -- as girls of ten and eleven are simply children going through gradual phases of physical development as they finally evolve into adult women. In the theocratic state of Iran, seen by many as ultra conservative, the state has even legislated to prevent first cousins marrying unless they have undergone medical tests -- despite the long-standing social tradition of such marriages.
It is time for the State to treat men and women equally before the law and that begins by defining them equally, in terms of age, as adults -- be it at sixteen or eighteen. We talk now of Enlightenment and Moderation, but in practice this has hardly been visible since the dark days of dictator Zia. What better place to do so than to wipe out the man-created Hudood Ordinance in its entirety instead of bargaining over its clauses? Then a new Women Protection Bill can be introduced, although if the law was to apply equally to all, and evil social practices were declared illegal by the state, why would one need such a Bill?
It is also unfortunate that the US has claimed it has had a hand in formulating the Women Protection Bill. Perhaps they really do not want to see the Hudood Ordinance repealed otherwise why would they try to undermine efforts in this regard by trying to link themselves to these moves? After all, for many of us, US designs for the Muslim World have nothing to recommend them and the manner in which the US has been treating Muslims -- totally outside any legal or human considerations -- hardly commends them as an ally of the Ummah. And, yes, many of our own NGOs receive funding from US sources which leads them to have US-oriented agendas. That is why it is so essential to have more transparency with regard to all NGO funding and agendas.
However, with or without the US factor, the Hudood Ordinance needs to be repealed and given the mess that political bargaining has created vis-a-vis the Women Protection Bill, it is time the President simply repealed this Ordinance in its entirety through another ordinance. The rest can follow. For too long either the lack of political will or political ability have allowed women to be victimizsed under the Hudood Ordinance. Since our present hybrid political system allows the President to promulgate Ordinances, he should do so in the interest of the women of this country so that they are not made to suffer at the hands of political bickering and Faustian bargains.
Only recently, the President promulgated an ordinance to set up a much-needed regulatory authority for private educational institutions offering education up to a higher secondary or intermediate level within the Islamabad Capital Authority. Trying to set this up through an act of parliament had been held up indefinitely at the cabinet level because of certain vested interests. So the President's action came as a welcome step to afford some rationality to the private education sector and some say to the parents.
It is even more imperative to protect our young girls and restore some sense of equality before the law for the female population of this country. If our politicians are unable to do so -- and clearly they have shown this inability only too clearly so far -- then the President must take the lead by simply repealing the Hudood Ordinance. If we are to rise to the challenge of fighting the assault by the West against Muslims, we must first unite as equals within our own societies.
(The writer is director general of the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad. Courtesy The News)


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.