Mystery of the women’s bills

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

PUBLIC memory is proverbially short. But the bills passed on women are too recent an event to be consigned to oblivion. Twice in the last four months the government’s attempts to enact pro-women legislation – one on domestic violence and the other on sexual harassment — have ended in a fiasco.

From what some female legislators tell me it is not just the religious lobby so famous for its misogyny that is to blame. More responsible are the parliamentarians with “rigid right wing positions” in the ruling party who secretly nurse anti-women sentiments. The bills enjoyed sufficient support to be passed in both houses, but were withheld. We still have many miles to go to counter the legacy of centuries-old patriarchy in our society.

Two laws – rather would-be laws – that were placed in the National Assembly received a lot of acclaim and were adopted without a dissenting vote. The media and human rights activists were thrilled. The excitement was premature.

The bills proved to be still-born. Each had a different story behind it. The Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act, 2009, which in its statement of objective spoke of ‘zero tolerance for violence against women’, was adopted by the National Assembly on Aug 4. It was widely hailed as for the first time in Pakistan domestic violence was sought to be criminalised.

Providing for punishment for violators through quick court trials, the bill devised a protection mechanism of officers and committees to provide redress to the aggrieved woman. Its significance also lay in its unprecedented sweep. It defined emotional blackmail and economic abuse, apart from the use of physical force, as domestic violence.

The next step was for the Senate to pass the bill before it was placed before the president for his signature to become law. But before that happened the mood changed. The Council of Islamic Ideology fired the first shot. It issued a statement criticising the bill on the ground that it “would fan unending family feuds and push up divorce rates”.

This stunned the peope. It amounted to condoning violence. The CII came under severe attack. That should have been enough to give the government heart to pilot the bill through the Senate where it would have had easy sailing. But the ruling party chose not to. Now the three month mandatory period has lapsed within which the Senate is required to adopt a bill passed by the Assembly. We are back to square one. The mediation committee set up to produce a consensus on the bill might meet the same fate as committees do in Pakistan. Gone with the wind!

In a country, where according to Amnesty’s estimate 70 per cent of the women experience domestic violence, and many more are victims of verbal assaults is it surprising that there are far too many wife beaters around to look with favour on a bill that has the potential of having them dispatched to prison for a year? The first bill on domestic violence in Pakistan was introduced by PPP MNA, Sherry Rehman, in 2004 but that was not taken up at all. The second took a year to pass through the committee stages, only to meet an unfortunate end.

The second is a more intriguing story of the set of two bills that were widely hailed as a step to free women from the insecurities they face when they step out of their homes. They were the Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act, 2009 and the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2009. The first was the substantive bill that provides a mechanism to be created by employers to investigate complaints by female workers who bring charges of sexual harassment against male colleagues/bosses. The second bill that introduced changes in the PPC and CCP to strengthen the laws was the subsidiary instrument to give teeth to existing laws on what is euphemistically called “eve teasing’. The two bills were to be introduced and adopted together, as was logical.

But strangely this was not done. Instead the second bill that was the less important was tabled and adopted, while the substantive bill was not put up at all. No official explanation has been given for this anomaly. Bushra Gohar, the chairperson of the National Assembly’s standing committee on women’s development, confirms that both the bills were on the order of the day on the first day of the Assembly’s session in November. They could not be taken up because of the opposition’s demand that the NRO be debated. As per rules legislative business was deferred to the following day.

To Gohar’s surprise only the amendment bill was placed on the order of the day for Nov 4. Although she commends it as “a good step forward”, she also expresses her disappointment at the failure of the government to bring up the main bill. Assurances by the president, the prime minister and the Speaker that the bill would be taken up in the same session have come to naught. The Assembly stands adjourned.

So we are left with speculations on why this happened. While holding “some male MNAs from South Punjab” responsible – they said it would be “misused” – Gohar believes the prime minister was seeking “to appease the JUI-F leader” whose support was needed on the NRO. For the Domestic Violence Bill, opposition from Maulana Sheerani, a member of the CCI and the Senate, unnerved the PPP that was trying to mobilize support for the Kerry-Lugar Bill.

. It is as plain as it can be that political expediency won the day. According to Gohar “enough political will has yet to be mustered to take even a small step towards women’s protection and rights”. Moreover, she is angry that a “handful can hold the entire Assembly hostage when it comes to progressive legislation on women”. She reminds us how easily women’s issues are compromised to appease a few. This is a painful reminder today which is the international day on elimination of violence against women.