No rea­son to cel­e­brate

The Pak Banker - - 4editorial - Huma Yusuf

BHUTTO, a doc­u­men­tary about Be­nazir Bhutto's life, re­cently opened in the US to gush­ing re­views. The film side­steps al­le­ga­tions of cor­rup­tion, and in­stead re­vives the fem­i­nist mythol­ogy of the for­mer prime min­is­ter's first term. In­ter­vie­wees de­scribe her as the first fe­male head of a Mus­lim state, the woman who suc­ceeded de­spite the fact that her par­ents mourned her gen­der at her birth. The urge to cel­e­brate Be­nazir's suc­cesses as a woman is com­mon, and seems to be catch­ing. Des­per­ate to book­end cri­tiques of Pak­istan with pos­i­tiv­ity, western­ers and lo­cal an­a­lysts alike point to the coun­try's women as a source of hope. They em­pha­sise that fe­male stu­dents are the top scor­ers in uni­ver­sity ex­ams; that feisty, fe­male an­chors keep Pak­ista­nis in­formed through nightly news­casts; that ru­ral women sus­tain fam­i­lies with mi­cro­fi­nance loans; and that the Supreme Court Bar As­so­ci­a­tion is headed by a phe­nom­e­nal fe­male lawyer.

Paeans to Pak­istani women also high­light how they ac­com­plish against all odds. It is the Mukhtaran Mai model of fem­i­nism: af­ter be­ing gang-raped and dragged naked through the streets, she started her own school. And Be­nazir sought re­venge by cham­pi­oning democ­racy. This re­cur­ring theme pits Pak­istani women as ca­pa­ble of sav­ing them­selves, each other, and the coun­try as a whole.

Too bad re­al­ity does not con­cur with these lofty nar­ra­tives. The Fed­eral Shariat Court's dec­la­ra­tion about the un­con­sti­tu­tional na­ture of some clauses of the Pro­tec­tion of Women Act (2006) is the lat­est blow to the strug­gling cause of women's rights in Pak­istan.

Through this judg­ment, the FSC is ad­vo­cat­ing for the Hu­dood Or­di­nance to be re­in­stated in its most bru­tal and un­just form: it has ruled on pro­vi­sions that re­quire fe­male rape vic­tims to pro­duce four wit­nesses to sup­port their claims, and en­ti­tle po­lice to ar­rest women who re­port rape on charges of adul­tery. In other words, it ap­pears the court would like to sanc­tion the false con­vic­tions and wrong­ful im­pris­on­ment of vic­timised women.

Un­for­tu­nately, this is not the only set­back to women's rights in 2010. The year be­gan with the death by the al­leged tor­ture of Shazia Masih, a young maid in the em­ploy of a prom­i­nent lawyer. The case in­spired ur­gent calls for the govern­ment to rein­tro­duce the Do­mes­tic Vi­o­lence (Pre­ven­tion and Pro­tec­tion) Bill, which lapsed last year af­ter the Se­nate failed to pass it. Months have gone by, and Pak­istani women still await the bill's sec­ond com­ing.

Tens of thou­sands of girls con­tin­ued to be de­prived of an ed­u­ca­tion as the Tal­iban blew up dozens more schools, while the govern­ment showed lit­tle in­ter­est in re­build­ing and se­cur­ing the fa­cil­i­ties. Atroc­i­ties such as hon­our killingsthrived un­der the guise of tra­di­tion, while mount­ing cases of rape, do­mes­tic vi­o­lence and ha­rass­ment re­mained be­yond the purview of the law. All this, de­spite the fact that this sum­mer's flood­ing ex­posed the pitiable state of Pak­istani women to the world. As the In­dus breached its banks, we saw waves of mal­nour­ished, il­lit­er­ate, poverty-stricken women, with­out so much as a na­tional iden­tity card to call their own.

Given the on­go­ing plight of Pak­istani women, it is strange to think that just last year the nation's at­ti­tude to­wards ex­trem­ists was changed by tele­vised im­ages of a young woman from Swat be­ing flogged. Overnight, peo­ple ral­lied to de­fend women against such bru­tal­i­ties. But back then, too, it would have been fal­la­cious to think that se­cu­rity pol­icy could be dic­tated by a gen­uine in­ter­est in safe­guard­ing women's rights. The fact is, women's rights in Pak­istan are a po­lit­i­cal tool that is wielded by var­i­ous fac­tions to ma­nip­u­late an emo­tive pub­lic and fur­ther agen­das that rarely have any­thing to do with women.

The Asian Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion has al­ready warned that re­li­gious par­ties will ex­ploit the FSC rul­ing for po­lit­i­cal gain - ex­pect a pro-Hu­dood cam­paign in the same vein as the on­go­ing pro-blas­phemy law move­ment. Co­in­cid­ing with the re­li­gious right's machi­na­tions to wrest power from the rul­ing coali­tion, the judg­ment of­fers the per­fect im­pe­tus to launch an anti-women plat­form, hog news head­lines, and rouse con­ser­va­tive sen­ti­ment to drive fu­ture elec­toral gains. Of course, all blame for the po­lit­i­cal ma­nip­u­la­tion of women's is­sues does not lie with the right alone - the left is equally guilty. Con­sider the PPP, which uses the Be­nazir sym­bol to le­git­imise a cor­rupt and crum­bling govern­ment. This is the same govern­ment that al­lowed Sen­a­tor Is­rarul­lah Zehri to be­come a fed­eral min­is­ter af­ter he de­fended the al­leged bury­ing alive of five women in Balochis­tan as 'tribal tra­di­tion.' It is also the same govern­ment that im­posed the Sharia law in agree­ment with the Tehrik-i-Ni­faz-i-Shariat-i-Mo­ham­madi in Swat last year, de­spite know­ing the im­pli­ca­tions for women's rights.

While warn­ing against the 'Tal­iban­i­sa­tion' of Karachi, the MQM too raised the cry of women's rights. But as eth­nic strife in the city has in­ten­si­fied, many have dis­missed that as an at­tempt to stem de­mo­graphic change along eth­nic - and thus elec­toral - lines. Where were these po­lit­i­cal par­ties when the do­mes­tic vi­o­lence bill lapsed? And what will they do now that the FSC has is­sued its rul­ing about the women's pro­tec­tion act? Noth­ing il­lus­trates the fact women's rights are a po­lit­i­cal ploy, rather than a gen­uine move­ment, more than Sharmila Fa­rooqui's re­cent re­sponse, as re­ported, to the al­leged gang-rape of a young woman in Karachi.

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