Aspiring for a just future

The significance of the law lies in bold provisions such as electronic tagging of the accused, removing an accused from their own homes for alleged violence, and the setting up of various institutions to support victims

On the eve of international working women’s day and the Aurat March, it would only be proper to begin this piece by paying tribute to women whose contributions by way of lobbying, advocacy and protests have helped rid Pakistan of the many discriminatory laws. Their persistence and hard work, coupled with women parliamentarians’ willingness to take up the cause, has meant Pakistan is a country, that at least on paper, can claim to have substantial pro-women legislation. These range from recognising “honour” crimes to criminalising forced marriage and exchange of women and girls to settle disputes to recognising sexual harassment as an offence.

During Gen Zia’s brutal dictatorship, a woman who made an allegation of rape was required to bring forward four male adults who were able testify witnessing the act of penetration. If a victim was unable to prove this, she was charged with committing zina (having sexual relations outside of marriage). The law was mainly enacted to deter women from coming forward and many women languished in jails for lack of evidence. Years of lobbying led to the 2010 reform in which rape was removed as an offence from the Hudood Ordinance and placed instead in the penal code – leading to the offence being tried under the penal provisions, criminal procedure code and the law of evidence. Various amendments to the law have strengthened it, and at least on paper, made it fairer, due process possible and justice foreseeable. The recent judgment of the Lahore High Court with regards to banning the two-finger test is a concrete example of rebalancing the scales of justice to ensure that women victims get a fighting chance in court – dignity during investigation stages and a right to a fair trial.

Sindh’s lawmakers have also shown determination towards improving laws for women. It was the first province to pass a law to criminalise domestic violence and to end the discrimination of marriageable age between women and men (in Sindh, marriageable for both sexes is now 18 years). All four provincial assemblies have now made laws on domestic violence, KP being the last province to have done so. The Punjab showed much resolve in the face of severe pressure from the religious lobby when it passed the Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act. The significance of the law lies in bold provisions such as electronic tagging of the accused, removing an accused from their own homes for alleged violence, and the setting up of various institutions to support victims. These are some examples. There are also others. In law making, we have made significant progress and it is democratic governments –particularly women parliamentarians and some male parliamentary allies – that have taken this cause forward.

There is no doubt that existing laws have gaps and could be amended but overall, it is not the law that is holding women back from receiving justice. The environment in which women are required to report cases, have the cases investigated and undergo a gruesome, often unfair and insensitive trial process that determines guilt or innocence is where most of the problem lies. Awareness of the law among state officials and the general public is frequently missing. The lack of budgetary allocation and consistent robust parliamentary oversight are also reasons for laws not coming to life. Without an effective criminal justice system, coordination, response mechanisms, and specialised psychosocial and legal support to victims – free of patriarchal practices and beliefs – we will not move towards implementing the legislation.

Amending laws to reflect constitutional guarantees was only half the struggle, fought for us by brave comrades. But recovering from Zia’s oppressive and hate-filled legacy will require much more. Zia’s rule left us bad laws but worse, a society and state seeped in misogyny, violence and a mistrust of democracy. Fixing these narratives, strengthening democratic traditions and reinventing a narrative of tolerance and inclusion require a coming together. It also requires solidarity of a kind that bridges gaps among people, creates camaraderie and reaches out even if an issue does not personally affect one but holds one back because a majority of women suffer it. One such segment of society where progress seems to have stagnated and where fear is rife is non-Muslim women and girls. Forced conversions have left many citizens traumatised – how can we stay silent? A growing economic crisis amidst a global pandemic has left women vulnerable to job losses, a further diversion away from reproductive health care, increased care work and fuelled violence. How many girls are denied an education and a childhood? Silence is no longer an option.

The responsibility lies with the state: it has for too long been complicit, complacent and silent about the discrimination and violence women citizens endure, leaving many marginalised, traumatised and silenced. Together on March 8 we question this status quo and demand equality, dignity, justice and freedom from all forms of state and other oppression. I urge you: come out, speak up; march.

The writer is a barrister, working in Islamabad, whose work focuses on women and minority rights

Aurat March: Aspiring for a just future