The movement for gender equality is an irrefutable reality of the modern era, based on the premise of equal rights for all individuals dwelling in a state irrespective of their sex. The first covenant on fundamental human rights, on which all nations put their signatures, was the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948.
One of those fundamental rights is the need for gender equality and non-discrimination on the basis of sex; it also unequivocally rejects the notion of an individual subjecting another individual to torture, cruelty, degrading treatment or punishment.
This movement is a reaction to the centuries-old, universal practice of treating women as inferior human beings and subjecting them to violence by men, particularly in a martial relationship.
Violence against women has unfortunately been the norm of social and cultural life in Pakistan. They are subjected to abusive language, coercion in marriage, torture, marital rape, honour killing, acid throwing, incest, gang rape, public stripping, trafficking, forced prostitution and sexual harassment. Domestic violence is taken as a private matter of the family and, regrettably, no legal mechanism was available in the country to prevent domestic violence.
It was because of these facts that the Punjab government, with the nod of the federal government, promulgated the Protection of Women Against Violence Bill, 2016 with the unanimous approval of the Punjab Assembly, which indicates that all elected representatives, of varying opinions, were genuinely convinced about the need to prevent violence against women. The law is decidedly a move towards liberalism, restoring the dignity of women and empowering them to raise their voices for their rights. It is very much in consonance with religious tenets and Islamic injunctions.
There are innumerable Quranic verses that enjoin men to treat their women fairly. They also endorse gender equality with regard to human rights.
The move towards liberalism and the empowerment of women is regrettably being vehemently opposed by the religious right, which considers it un-Islamic and has warned the government to withdraw the legislation or face a movement like the Pakistan National Alliance, which culminated in the dismissal of the Bhutto government in 1977. The gathering at Mansoora, comprising 35 religious and sectarian proscribed outfits and political parties, also declared the hanging of Mumtaz Qadri as ‘injustice’ and accused the government of adopting anti-Islam policies and pushing the country towards secularism.
This stance itself is anti-Islam. By opposing the bill they are endorsing male chauvinism, justifying domestic violence and other crimes committed against women, with complete disregard to Quranic injunctions. The execution of Qadri, which they term as injustice, has been carried out in conformity with the law. He was a murderer who deserved this punishment.
According to Islamic injunctions, punishment for crime can only be awarded by the state, after due process. No individual has the sanction to execute that punishment on his own. These attempts to project Qadri as a martyr for the cause of Islam, therefore, is a misleading notion and needs to be contested with full force. The Supreme Court’s decision on Qadri’s appeal makes this point abundantly clear and needs to be widely disseminated to nullify the wrong notion.
Interestingly, these parties have no representative status, which implies that the majority of people of Pakistan do not agree with their skewed and misleading interpretations of religion. These parties have resorted to the politics of agitation in the past and succeeded. But those agitations and movements were invariably achieved with the backing of the establishment. In fact, such moves were orchestrated by the establishment and the rightists were used as pawns to implement the destabilising plans.
In 1977 the establishment and the US wanted to get rid of Bhutto supported and abetted their agitation. This time around they are on their own and surely are not in a position to create chaos in the country or pose a credible threat to the sitting government. Reportedly, a rally was organised by different civil society forums in support of the bill in Lahore, urging the government not to succumb to the blackmail of these religious parties, who are always looking to create chaos in the country and obstruct its journey towards enlightenment, as envisioned by the founding father of the country.
That was probably the right time for the silent majority to raise their voices against religious bigotry and the undesirable machinations of these entities. Such rallies in support of the bill must be held throughout the country and people must come out on the streets to show their strength and rejection of the antics of the religious parties. The government should have called their bluff and remain steadfast in moving ahead with their programme of women empowerment, gender equality and ending violence against women.
It is really heartening to note that, although the PML-N is a rightist party, the government has taken many progressive steps with regard to women’s empowerment and gender equality: Fixing a 10 percent quota for government employment, 30 percent of the seats in local bodies and 17 percent of the seats in the assemblies and the senate for women. The government must stay on course with unflinching resolve.
The media, being the representative of society and the fourth pillar of the state, has a much greater role to play by siding with the right cause and exposing the machinations of religious and proscribed parties and organisations, who are responsible for sectarian violence and terrorism in the country. Some of these organisations are also known non-state actors who have caused lot of embarrassment and difficulties for the government. Some of them even have very strong connections with terrorists.
The writer is a freelance contributor.