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Daily Times Editorials – 17th March 2016

Historic moment

After more than half a century of a brutal and oppressive military rule, Myanmar is set to experience its first democratically elected government. Back in November 2015, the first “openly-contested” elections held in the country since 1990 were swept by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy (NLD) as the party came away with more than 80% of the elected seats. Now, finally, after an unusually prolonged transition period, Myanmar’s newly sworn in parliament has elected Htin Kyaw as the country’s new president. The 70-year-old Htin Kyaw, a longtime confidant of Suu Kyi, will take office April 1 but questions remain about his position and power. Rightfully, the job belonged to Suu Kyi, but a constitutional provision seemingly designed specifically to target Suu Kyi barred her from becoming president; however she made it clear that whoever sits in that chair will be her proxy.

The NLD had of course won an election previously as well. In 1988 the military junta was besieged by a series of protests demanding democracy; it was in the crucible of that movement where Suu Kyi’s political career began in earnest and the NLD was formed. Though the junta managed to repress the movement and put its leaders (including Suu Kyi) under house arrest, the pressure forced them to hold elections in 1990. Just as in 2015, the NLD swept the elections but, unlike last year, the military junta voided the elections and ushered in a new era of repression. Thus Aung San Suu Kyi spent the better part of the next two decades under house arrest.

Due to its history, the NLD, much like its leader, is highly revered by the Burmese people as the romance and steadfastness of its decades-long struggle finds great appeal. As the half-century isolationist military rule has left the country economically backward and reeling, the Burmese people may have attached extraordinarily high hopes with the NLD. But given the fact that for most of its existence, the party has been more of a movement struggling for a cause than a party with any experience of formal politics, let alone governance, it remains to be seen if the inexperienced NLD can successfully transform itself. Another potential complication for the NLD leader must be the pressure of maintaining a delicate balance of power with her erstwhile arch-opponents i.e. the military, which has reserved 25% of the seats and three key ministries for itself. Trying to manoeuvre around the military’s attempts to retain hold of power from the backdoor will be a major challenge. Moreover, the world awaits with baited breadth how the Nobel Peace Prize winner would handle the ethnic conflicts marring the country — Suu Kyi’s pregnant silence on the plight of the Rohingya Muslims in particular has come in for sharp criticism. Despite these problems, the ascent of the NLD is a historic moment which should be cherished as a testament to the virtues of courage and conviction.

Landmark resolution

The National Assembly (NA) has accepted a resolution about having ‘closed holidays’ on the annual festivals of minority communities. The resolution will pave the way for the government to declare Holi, Diwali and Easter as public holidays for the country’s Hindu and Christian minorities. The resolution was moved by Dr Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, a Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) MNA, who has urged the government to take steps for notifying official holidays on religious festivals of the minorities. If implemented literally, this would be first time in the history of Pakistan that the country will get public holidays on Holi, Diwali and Easter. It is welcome news, given the poor status of the members of minority communities in the country, who are meted out poor treatment and are not considered equal citizens. Minorities are already facing many problems in society. They do not have equal rights, are often subjected to injustice, and come under attack on the pretext of mere allegations. Forced conversions, sexual assaults, state obliviousness, and daily social persecution are additional problems that minorities in Pakistan face every day.

Religious discrimination in Pakistan is a serious issue. Christians, Hindus and Ahmadis among other religious groups are routinely discriminated against. They are at times refused jobs, loans, housing and other similar things simply because of their choice of religious faith. Christian churches and Ahmadi mosques and their worshippers are often attacked. Though the followers of other religions other than Islam are allowed to celebrate their respective religious occasions by availing holidays, yet these holidays have not been officially declared as public holidays for the minorities. Instead of directing the heads of public sector organisations to permit non-Muslims to take leaves on their religious festivals, the government needs to notify these closed days as public holidays for them. If the government gives official status to these holidays to minority communities in line with their religious occasions, it will give them a sense of satisfaction. The only issue for the government is that Pakistan has more public holidays than any country in the world. This is the reason, the government is reluctant to publicly announce more public holidays. However, any positive legislation must be welcomed and supported by all. Let us pledge to promote love for all and hate for none. We have to make our country a safer and a better place to live in. Let’s start respecting minorities and providing them space to breathe freely. This is the incomplete agenda of the partition of Pakistan. Socio-economic and political exclusion of minorities must come to an end now and they must be included in the mainstream of Pakistan — an ideology that was laid down by none other than Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

Ulema denounce Women Protection Bill

Representatives of more than 35 religious parties warned the government of a countrywide protest on Tuesday if the ‘anti-Islamic’ Women Protection Bill was not withdrawn by March 27. This declaration of unanimous condemnation of the “policies of the government against the Shariah, the Constitution and Pakistan ideology” was passed at the All-Pakistan Ulema Conference, organised by the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), in Mansoora, Lahore. The JI chief, Sirajul Haq, presided the conference and pronounced the Women Protection Bill to be “an attack on the Muslim family system” by the west, which has tasked the country’s rulers to accomplish the international agenda. The declaration also criticised the statements given by the leading officials on both the new law as well as Mumtaz Qadri’s hanging.

The Women Protection Bill, which has catalysed a heated debate between the liberal and the religious factions of the country, each side fervent in its efforts to oppose the other side’s views, is a debate that is resonated globally. The act gives legal protection to victims of domestic, sexual and even psychological abuse, and also aims to create a toll-free abuse-reporting hotline, provides shelter homes and district-level panels to facilitate members in disputes. It also makes the usage of GPS bracelets mandatory to keep an eye on serial offenders; this clause has been critically appraised by human right groups, calling it the ‘need of the hour’ in the “world’s third-most dangerous country for women” (Thomson Reuters Foundation, 2011), constantly being tainted by shameful acts like domestic abuse and acid attacks. Nevertheless, the legislation did not win any confidence among the nation’s clergy, who are terming it as a redundant act “…add(ing) to the miseries of women.”

The disagreement between the two forces has scurried the government in its attempt to appease all sides to ensure a balance. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, according to the JUI-F chief, Fazlur Rehman, has ensured him of forming a committee to address the reservations of religious organisations. Government is also considering convening an all-parties conference to reach some consensus on the issue.

No matter how different forces may react to the aforementioned legislation, its grave need in the present setting is a bleak reality. The current Punjab is no different in its treatment to women as painted in the folklore of the likes of Piloo’s Saheban and Shah’s Heer. Even today, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy filmed the old patriarchy as the ever-present rule of the land. A Pakistani woman has no place in this chauvinistic society where she cannot claim authority over her honour or body, her opinion or self-respect. In 2013, Punjab alone was found to account for 5,800 crimes against women (Aurat foundation). The recent provincial police statistics also reported a radical increase of 20 percent in the registered rape cases in 2015. Every year, more than 2,000 women are reported to take refuge in Dar-ul-Amans (women shelter homes) to escape violence. Such disastrous figures highly contrast with this suppressive attitude of the religious authorities.

Violence against women is a stark reality, increasingly being associated with our country, the only solution to which is a comprehensive legislation. It is high time that the nation’s stakeholders realised the importance of female empowerment, a very heated issue being discussed worldwide. Not only are the UN agencies striving to achieve full economic and political equality between men and women, countries like Georgia are engaged in an active pursuit to eradicate female abuse. On the other hand, our society is still grappling with the contention whether the protection legislation can be declared ‘Islamic’ or not.

It is not just the religious authorities that are in disagreement with the criminalisation of violence against women; even the legislators in the Punjab Assembly are still not in unison on the issue. Out of the 76 women provincial lawmakers, only 44 were present on the day the resolution was passed. Nevertheless, the act does have many shortcomings, which need to be addressed, particularly, with regard to both, a comprehensive definition of abuse as well as preventive measures to protect women against violence, as proposed by many civil society organisations. In addition, as promised by the prime minister to social activists, at the screening of Obaid-Chinoy’s documentary, loopholes in the existing legislation, which deals with honour killings, also need to be plugged. Until then, Pakistan continues to be a showdown between the two titans while the outside world looks on how Pakistan will shape the future of its women. Pakistan owes it not to the world but to its women.

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