Women and the Law in Pakistan

By Sabin Muzaffar

International Women's Initiative News Writer

(Photo Credit)

Pakistan is a country with deeply entrenched patriarchal mindset and a strong feudalistic value system. Coupled with poverty, it is a society where women are marginalized from policy level to every socio-economic and political sphere of society. Little data is available on women’s health and education, with no census conducted over the last 18 years. According to UNESCO, Pakistan has one of the highest illiteracy rates in the world, particularly in regards to women and girls.

In this context, women’s progress in many areas of social and political life has a long way to go and the country’s controversial legislative framework represents a further obstacle.

The promulgation of the 1979 Hudood Ordinance severely affected Pakistani women, opening the floodgates of victimization and violence due to the two main laws of Zina (adultery and fornication) and Zina bil Jabr (rape). While Zina is actually an Islamic law pertaining to having sexual relations outside the marriage, Zina bil Jabr is rape or having sexual intercourse without the consent of the victim. According to the Ordinance, Zina is treated as a criminal offence against the state, covering both fornication and adultery, and the maximum punishment is being stoned to death. If a woman is raped, the law requires that, in order for the woman to be recognized as a victim, she must put forward four male witnesses of ‘good’ repute who were present at the crime scene. De facto this is a very unlikely scenario and the woman’s testimony is excluded altogether. In extreme cases the woman subjected to rape could potentially be accused of Zina and persecuted.

Pakistani media analysts have more than often termed laws concerning rape as misogynistic for these have not only led to rape victims being unjustly convicted of adultery, but those killing in the name of ‘honor’ easily get away with the crime.

In 2006, after much heated debate among politicians, parliamentarians, lawmakers, activists and religious leaders, a compromise was found through the introduction of amendments in the form of the Women’s Protection Act. Passed by the National Assembly of Pakistan, the bill was an attempt to amend in the controversial Hudood Ordinance, which was highly discriminatory against women. Although it deleted as well as transferred some of the offences to the Pakistan Penal Code – a procedure practiced in the country’s civil courts, complaints of Zina or adultery were still lodged under Hudood Ordinance. It was viewed by many, including media men and analysts, as a step in the right direction. However human rights organizations claimed it did little to change the status quo, let alone empower women legally.

According to a report published by Human Rights Watch in 2006: “The Pakistani government’s proposed amendments to the Hudood Ordinances are grossly inadequate and fall far short of the reform required to end legalized discrimination and deter violence against women.”

In 2015 Pakistani female filmmaker, Sharmeen Chinoy, received worldwide acclaim for her movie ‘A Girl in the River: A Price of Forgiveness on Honor Killing’, shedding light on domestic abuse. Not only did it bring international attention to the issue, Chinoy’s film led to the Pakistani Prime Minister vowing to change the law. In an interview about her Oscar win and its aftermath, Chinoy said: “Right now the law allows for forgiveness (of the abuser). The film shows you why forgiveness should be off the table completely because there are many societal pressures and the law is manipulated. It’s a great disadvantage for women. The government is drafting laws now and we are hoping they are taking forgiveness off the table.” Forgiving the abuser and even the murderer is one of the many legal loopholes that easily get convicts off the hook.

It took another few more months to pass the 2015 Protection of Women Against Violence Bill. The bill not only contained a certain amount of redress for victims of abuse, but also criminalized most forms of violence against women, even recommending the creation of female special centers offering support services to victims of violence.

Although the proposed law does not specifically criminalize domestic violence, it as a step in the right direction with the law recognizing that domestic abuse is a public, not a private, affair. It further laid ground for a mechanism to report abuses as well as provide shelter for women suffering from exploitation.

This new law represents a momentous event in Pakistan’s socio-political history, but has been received with angry vehemence and negative reaction by large part of the Pakistani conservative male population, particularly some sections of the Islamic clergy. The latter even proposed their own version of amendments to the new bill, containing recommendations of ‘light’ wife beating if the husband’s wishes are defied.  The issue remains under debate.

In particular, the high profile murder of Pakistani social media sensation, Qandeel Baloch, by her brother in July 2016, once again brought the Bill into the limelight. The celebrity was yet another victim in the surge of ‘honor killings’ that has plagued the country. These are basically murders of relatives especially women or girls who are thought to have brought shame to the family name. Perhaps a sliver of hope over Qandeel’s tragic killing was the nation-wide uproar, triggering a debate on gender-based violence; in addition to the State barring the victim’s family for forgiving the son of the crime committed.

Pro-women laws may be the much sought after light at the end of the tunnel, but until these are not appropriately implemented the plight of the Pakistani women will remain dismal. To achieve lasting change, new laws should reflect internationally accepted human rights standards. And policy-making processes should be more participative in nature, taking into account women’s voices as well as the civil society sector, among other stakeholders. Justice sector agencies, such as the police force or the judiciary, should be trained in gender-sensitive approaches and more female personnel should be hired to deal with issues of violence against women.

Until all stakeholders are fully onboard to alleviate the predicament affecting women empowerment in Pakistan, hope will remain elusive.