By Zubeida Mustafa
A BANKER in New York aims a vase at his wife. She ducks and is not hit. She calls the police. The husband is arrested and spends five years in prison after a court trial.
A police officer in Karachi beats up his wife at the slightest provocation. She is badly bruised but has no way of seeking relief. This is a story heard in every third household in Pakistan.
According to the Aurat Foundation’s annual report, 610 women were victims of domestic violence in the country in 2011 — a 50 per cent rise over the previous year. AF, however, feels that this is the most under-reported of all crimes against women and only the most shocking cases come to light.
As a result, women activists have been jolted into action. They have strived for several years to get laws adopted criminalising violence against women in their homes by members of their family. They have also succeeded in several cases. But it has been an uphill struggle given the biases that are present.
The biggest challenge that has been faced has been in the area of domestic violence. Secluded from public view, women have put up not just with physical and sexual abuse in their homes but also verbal and emotional torture. Hence, even drafting a law against this evil has not been easy because all commas and full stops have been analysed and nuances studied minutely in a bid to stall the effort.
As a result, a number of drafts have been floating around in parliamentary circles since 2002. One was adopted by the National Assembly in 2009 by unanimous votes and another was passed by the Senate earlier this year. Yet none could become a law because no draft was passed by both houses within the stipulated time period. With devolution that came in the wake of the 18th Amendment we are back to square one. Every province is now expected to adopt its own law.
AF in Karachi has been working hard to get our legislators to reach consensus on the draft that was drawn up by various organisations and has been shunted about between the law and home departments. At a consultation organised last week, a number of women members of the Sindh Assembly shed light on what was happening. Shehla Raza, the deputy speaker, conceded that the draft the women caucus had agreed on was facing resistance from official quarters.
She was nevertheless hopeful that at the next session of the assembly, that has now been convened, the domestic violence bill would be tabled. She promised to convene a meeting of female lawmakers and women rights activists to consider the bill and propose amendments if the draft doesn’t meet their demands.
What are these demands and why is there so much hullabaloo about a demand that any decent, sane-minded, pacifist male should not have objections to? The fact is that domestic violence is something nearly 90 per cent of women in our society experience — be it physical or verbal/emotional abuse.
With a clear divide between public and private spaces in Pakistan with the home and family being considered something very private, many men feel free to behave as they deem fit within the chardiwari where many women are confined. The tradition is so deeply entrenched that there is much male resistance to any diminishing of what is seen as a ‘male privilege’.
Any law which impinges on this area is not welcome. Hence all along efforts have been directed at simply declaring domestic violence to be wrong. Many men do not want domestic violence to be treated as a crime as that could land a number of people — many of them men of high social standing — in trouble.
A study of various drafts invariably leads to this central point being a matter of contention. Religious leaders denounce such legislation as having a westernising effect on women and causing the break-up of marriages. Other critics advance arguments such as there is not enough public awareness on this matter and there are few shelters to provide safety to a woman who opts to leave her home.
At the consultation it needed lawyer, former senator and human rights activist Iqbal Haider to point out that so many legislators had supported the various drafts in different permutations and combinations that it can be presumed that there is a large number of men who want domestic violence to end.
The religious parties’ chiefs who have opposed the law are in a minority. Explaining the legal issue succinctly, he pointed out that in law there is no concept of offence without a sentence. Nor can there be a right without a remedy being provided in case it is violated.
The fact is that for many of those who have opposed the domestic violence bill, the issue at stake is the recognition of their right to regard their women as their possession. It is this concept that is negated by any move to make domestic violence a crime.
While creating public awareness and sensitising men to the needs of women is definitely the need of the hour, a law criminalising violence is equally necessary. It will provide the legal framework to test the success of a social awareness programme and also give teeth to serious efforts to eliminate violence from the home.