Better late than never

Anti-Women PracticesThe struggle for women’s liberation from the age-old practices of social and financial discrimination is finally materialising into legal redress.

For years, Pakistani women — especially in the interior of Sindh and Punjab — have been subjected to the oppressive customs of a patriarchal and feudal society that has not only deprived women of their right to property but treated women as property themselves. The passing of the Anti-Women Practices (Criminal Law Amendment) Bill 2011 is a milestone in the history of Pakistan. It focuses specifically on forced marriages, marriages to the Holy Quran, and denial of the right to inheritance.

According to the Bill, “Whoever coerces or in any manner compels a woman to enter into marriage shall be punished with imprisonment of three to ten years or is liable to a fine of Rs 0.5million.” Prohibiting marriage to the Holy Quran, the Bill says, “Whoever compels or arranges or facilitates the marriage of a woman with the Holy Quran shall be punished with imprisonment of three to seven years or is liable to a fine of Rs 0.5 million.”

And last but not least, “Whoever, by deceitful or illegal means, deprives a woman from inheriting any movable or immovable property at the time of opening of succession, will be punished with imprisonment for a term of up to ten years and no less than five years or with a fine of one million rupees or both.”The significance of this legislation cannot be emphasised enough with its two-pronged protection to women in the sense that it not only defends women from forced marriage but also criminalises so-called marriage to the Holy Quran, which not only deprives women of their freedom to marry but also their right to inheritance of property.

The bill that was put on hold twice last month, apparently due to some drafting and procedural irregularities, has been pending since 2008.Attempts to delay or altogether derail the process through irrational excuses such as the unavailability of printouts of the drafts were not infrequent and such instances were reflective of attempts at thwarting the passing of a Bill that was not in the interests of the vested interests in the mainstream parties. Nevertheless, the bill must be hailed as a landmark decision by the National Assembly as it has taken a concrete step towards addressing the grave dilemmas faced by a majority of Pakistani women.

These narrow-minded practices stem considerably from the ever-widening gap between the social structures and class differences of the urban and rural areas. In order to emancipate women from the clutches of the feudal system, there is a pressing need for social reforms and education. Efforts to ensure total respite from such oppressive traditions can only be effective by changing the backward and chauvinistic mindsets that characterise traditional society. While the existence of such a legal framework is essential in preventing these discriminatory practices against women, the passing of the Bill is only a first step towards the solution of a problem that dates back ages.

It is pertinent to remember that many such cases go unreported. The government must devise a mechanism to reach out to the affected women and empower them to come forward with their complaints so that they can be given redress in accordance with the law. Here, the media has an important role to play vis-à-vis informing women of their rights, exposing cases of mistreatment and helping women get justice for all the wrongs they suffer. Therefore, a lot more needs to be done to guarantee the practical application of this legislation to prevent it from becoming mere words with no effect. – Dailytimes