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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Punjab Woman Protection Act & politics of NGOs & religion?

Pakistan’s religious parties have made an interesting political move. While in public and media consciousness they are identified as ‘spoilers’ who resist attempts towards modernity and reform through street agitations and hoarse cries of ‘Islam under threat’ but on 2nd April, they joined together, almost all of them in promising to introduce a ‘Woman Protection Bill’ of their own in National Assembly and Senate.

While the contours of this proposed bill are far from clear. But its heartening to hear religious leaders assert that ‘Islam does not tolerate any violence against woman’ or ‘violence against woman is unacceptable’. Earlier it was reported that in Punjab assembly, while reacting to the ‘Woman Protection Bill’ of PMLN religious parties or at least few leaders distributed pamphlets citing Quranic verses that permit ‘woman beating’. But now while rubbishing and totally rejecting the ‘Punjab Protection of Woman against Violence Act 2016’ religious parties gathered at Mansoora, near Lahore, sounded different.

Read more: Of blasphemy laws & woman protection bill: law of unintended consequences!

Does it mean that religious parties, clergy, and conglomerates of ulema have realized that in changed circumstances they cannot continue with the politics of ‘rejection’ and they need to get into ‘politics of ideas and consensus building’? Allama Ibtisam Illahi’s arguments in my program on Dunya TV on Sunday (3rd April) where he talked, and sort of brain stormed, of legislating to provide a legal cover to traditional reconciliation mechanisms within the family was a pointer in that direction. Its also obvious that if and when religious parties introduce such a bill in the National Assembly and Senate it will need support from both PMLN and PPP to become a reality.

While the contours of this proposed bill are far from clear. But its heartening to hear religious leaders assert that ‘Islam does not tolerate any violence against woman’ or ‘violence against woman is unacceptable’.

But is this the kind of politics religious parties are now up to? Too early to say. Its quiet possible that ‘Woman Protection Bill’ is merely one of the ‘uniting slogans’  behind a broader desire to make a larger political front against the Nawaz Govt. Afterall gathering in Mansoora was vocal about Kashmir, Appeasement of India, Hanging of Mumtaz Qadri and sum total of this “august gathering’s” sentiments found expression in the thunder that “westernization agenda of Nawaz Govt’ will not be allowed”.Perhaps religious politicos sense that growing public perception of Nawaz Sharif’s caving in to the Indo/US agenda and continuing disarray in the ranks of PTI provide them with an opportunity to create a bigger space under a united banner – something like the MMA of 2002 that was possible in the peculiar emotions of post-American invasion of Afghanistan. We will find out in the next few weeks.

Pakistan’s religious parties are an interesting potpourri of many things: egalitarian reformist ideas like JI, family, feudal and tribal interests like JUI(F) and JUI(S) and sectarian shades in other cases. Whatever they are, or have been, Pakistan’s religious parties have not demonstrated any cerebral ability to resurrect or even throw up a coherent vision of a contemporary political model derived from principles of Islam. They are certainly not capable of conceiving a political model; a kind of system an interdependent world order lead by western liberal democracies will be comfortable with. Most of them remain the ‘literalists’ -literal readers of scriptures – unable to fathom, unable to interpret, unable to transliterate ‘broad principles’ behind original injunctions to meet the changed challenges of time and space.

Iran remains the only Muslim country that is a ‘sort of Islamic Democracy’; a kind of contemporary political model deriving its principles from the spirit of Islam. Iran may not meet the full requirement of a ‘democratic liberal polity’ for minorities like ‘Sunni Muslims’ and ‘Bahai’ and other communities are often ruthlessly marginalized and clergy maintains a rather tight hold limiting the nature and direction of political change but nevertheless the ‘Islamic Revolutionary Iran’ since 1980, has successfully created a political order of its own deriving it from principles of Islam and its own pre-Islamic history of ‘Persian Conventions’. Almost all other Muslim nations- with the exception of Kemalists in Turkey – blindly followed the political models of their former colonial masters: British and French. Little ingenuity if any has been shown to reflect inside and define political models as per the genius of the people, their history, belief systems and conventions.

Earlier it was reported that in Punjab assembly, while reacting to the ‘Woman Protection Bill’ of PMLN religious parties or at least few leaders distributed pamphlets citing Quranic verses that permit ‘woman beating’.

Iran’s recent thaw with the United States, its re-entry into the western world’s commercial and trading system is thus a huge success because irrespective of the debate around ‘Nuclear Iran’ the real goal of the west was to fail the ‘Islamic revolutionary Iran’ but in the end, Iranians conducted themselves with shrewdness to earn the legitimacy of their political order from the west. Rest of the Muslim world has miserably failed to define itself in modern terms. Muslim countries and states are either personalized fiefdoms of entrenched families and tyrannical monarchies or fraudulent fake photocopies of western democracies; cosmetic displays of facades of parliament and representative institutions to win approvals of the western governments, media and civil soceity.

Democracy in the Muslim world will need success and sustenance of original ideas and given global inter-dependence an understanding or at-least a tacit approval of the west. In the absence of this ‘approval’ the Muslim nations’s road towards ‘original political model’ is very tortuous, if not almost impossible. Poor Egyptians had tried through electoral mechanisms; Muslim Brotherhood bent itself backwards to accommodate America and Israel but ‘Coptic Church’ and liberals were used along with a ruthless military and truck loads of royal money from across the Saudi borders to fail the democratic government of Mohd Morsi who was awarded ‘death sentence’ and languishes in jail.

Pakistani religious parties are no match for the kind of myriad challenges ‘pressures of modernity’ represent in an ‘interdependent global order’. In the post 9/11 world, west’s desire – often misplaced, grossly misdirected and unhelpful if not altogether injurious but very strong desire nevertheless – to shape the Muslim societies through lobbying from within is now a huge challenge for sovereign political process; but a challenge most politicians and parties in Pakistan are either oblivious off or ready to ignore. If anything all political parties – including some religious entities – have found it convenient to take help from such lobbying funds to further their own agendas. Most political parties in Pakistan today instinctively understand, though never admit, that capturing power in Islamabad will be impossible for a political party not favored by the west. Working with donors and donor funded NGO’s and their schemes is a kind of passport for admission into the ‘modernity club’- a club acceptable to hold power. PMLN lead by CM Shahbaz Sharif before the 2013 elections intelligently developed a huge rapport with Islamabad based diplomatic and developmental community; who started to see in him a responsible partner they could work with. PTI in KP will have to do the same, if they are not already doing so.

But most NGO’s that work on social or societal issues are simply put: ‘foreign paid lobbyists’; the under-development of Pakistani laws, and naivety and selfishness of Pakistani political elite allows these ‘foreign paid lobbyists’ to operate under the ‘neutral sounding name of NGO’s”. Pakistani bureaucracy has not shown any understanding or inclination to differentiate between NGO’s that work on issues like health, polio, water, sanitation, and transport etc to differentiate them from NGO’s that are ‘lobbyists for societal transformation’ – NGOs working on legal reforms, madrassas, education, gender relations etc etc.

Whereas NGO’s that work on structural issues – like water and health and sanitation – may be fully funded by foreign donors, the idea that ‘lobbyists agitating to transform Pakistani society, its religious conventions and laws, can be fully funded by foreign donors is ‘ridiculous’ but many bizarre and ridiculous things are happening in today’s Pakistan. Imagine if a western funded NGO is working to reform ‘Saudi funded Madrassa’; this represents clash of two foreign influences, a clash of titans, but few have understood this to be as such. What is urgently needed is to develop a policy framework where any ‘NGO/lobbyist’ working on societal issues or laws must have at-least 50% local funding from local businesses and industry and for that FBR has to give tax benefits. And all such funding has to be through electronic transactions.

most NGO’s that work on social or societal issues are simply put: ‘foreign paid lobbyists’; the under-development of Pakistani laws, and naivety and selfishness of Pakistani political elite allows these ‘foreign paid lobbyists’ to operate under the ‘neutral sounding name of NGO’s”.

Pakistan’s English papers have also gradually caved in to these influences. Today these papers – at least the 2-3 more prominent ones – also now present a totally one sided perspective. Not only the Op-Eds but most of their ‘news reports’ are written in a slanted way that demeans religion, religious parties, conservative society and naive readers are continuously reminded that religion as such is a threat. Reporting makes you believe that terrorism and religion are linked, totally ignoring the strategic aspects of terrorism. These newspaper Editors and their reporters have little idea of what they are talking off. They have never seriously tried answering the question: How should Pakistan define itself? Is West totally non-religious or an attenuated post-Christian club that has emerged as a modern face of Christianity? Is the modernity of the west organically linked with its past representing a gradual evolution or it is a sudden break under the influence of ‘martians’? These are important questions which no one in Pakistani print media (which remains in a self-congratulatory mode 24/7) is prepared to address or grapple with.

Do Pakistani religious parties have any intellectual wherewithal to offer solutions to challenges of modernity? I am not very hopeful. PMLN for greater part of contemporary history had been the part of the ‘Conservative Pakistan’ which confronted a ‘Liberal minded PPP’; but PPP of ZA Bhutto was not a western club; it drew its inspiration from Marxist/Socialist ideas and religious parties and Conservatives were then used in 1970-1980 to confront the PPP by western influences within Pakistan. Benazir Bhutto, when she returned back in 1986/87 phase, after striking a deal with Gen. Zia, courtesy Washington, was a defanged, attenuated, reformed pseudo-socialist, who being intelligent had understood that nothing will work in Pakistan against Washington’s will so she kept pretenses of being socialist, modernist through symbolic gestures. But in reality all political forces from Zia’s influenced Army to Bhutto to PMLN were Washington’s pawns on the chessboard – though the level of sub-ordination was not as great as developed after the events of 9/11.

In 2006-7, Benazir who was until then on voluntary self-exile now found it convenient to strike a deal through Washington to come back on terms of supporting ‘West’. Musharraf was then being accused of ‘double game’ in Afghanistan. However Benazir was mysteriously removed from the scene and power transferred onto the kind of characters that were not fit to run a small city or town. Benazir’s removal, courtesy Taliban who had no real reason to eliminate her, remains an enigma. 2007 to 2013 was thus the worst period in Pakistan’s history when the country of 200 million literally started to look ‘hopeless’. Principal reason was: inability to govern. Nawaz Govt’s coming to power has given stability to Pakistan – Nawaz’s’ relentless political support to the operation in Karachi and Baluchistan is a classical example of bringing stability – but Nawaz & main PMLN leaders, in the post KLB Pakistan, have gradually realized that no one will be allowed to rule in Islamabad who is not prepared to blindly tow the western line. This is a long story but important background to understand the dynamics behind the ‘Lobbyists’ who are innocently referred to as ‘NGOs’. No foreign funded lobbyist should be allowed to write country’s laws or disproportionately influence its public policy – but this is precisely what is happening.

‘Women Protection Bill’ represents failure of both PMLN and PTI in Punjab to keep a tab on what was happening. Desire to court Washington through ‘sending signals’ that ‘we are liberal’ and this desire to do ‘facelift of PMLN’ to look modern and liberal is so strong that blunders are being made. If PMLN’s policy and PTI’s shameful or naive acquiescence on issues of societal importance passes on the leadership of ‘Conservative Pakistan’ to religious parties – something which they sense as exhibited by their pronouncements from Mansoora – or expands their hitherto shrunk space then it is a huge setback.

Read more: Continuing scourge of honor killing in Pakistan

There should be ‘Zero Tolerance’ to violence against woman and children inside a domestic set up. But the law being brought will have little real effect in addressing the issue. It will however, in the long term, provide a tool for ‘Intervention’ into ‘internal affairs of a family’ from outside through ‘District Boards’ and Police. No one knows what will be the consequences. But a state that has failed over last 70 years to provide water and sanitation and basic education and health service or has miserably failed to provide mechanisms of conflict resolution leading to a situation where murder/homicide rate is around 8 per 100,000 does not inspire much confidence. Pakistani Family – for all practical purposes is in a much healthier and stable form than the poor, miserably challenged Pakistani state. Post 9/11, it is essentially Pakistani family that has absorbed the pain and shock of almost 100,000 brutal deaths. It was the classical failure of Pakistani state which Pakistani family graciously absorbed. Had it been a society of ‘individuals’ instead of a ‘society of families’ it would have collapsed into a sea of insanity.

But this law has been made in a way as if Pakistan is a social order of individuals as in the west. In western societies, men and women as conjugal partners, whether married or cohabiting have a small place – a flat, a one bed apartment, or a studio living of their own. Reality here is that almost 80% if not more, young married Pakistani men and women live in large family set-ups; their conflicts are also multi-dimensional because man’s wife, his sisters and brothers (who may also be married) often live in the same space. Conflict in these settings is often a complex interplay between these characters who belong to both genders. Violence, in whatever form it happens, is a symptom and manifestation, of that intertwined power structure that is the Pakistani Family. It is also a function of genetics and inherited biochemistry. We need to grow out of the make believe world of Ptv dramas. The kind of dark characters like Kala Tiger, Aslam Khoni, Mamma Boxer and Sheeda Danger etc daily arrested by Rangers in Karachi will also have other family members – brothers, sisters and mothers etc – of similar genetics and biochemistry. Violence, and propensity to violence is not a function of gender but of genetics. We live in the beginning of 21st century but are making laws on the suppositions popular in mid-twentieth century. We as collective society need to help those people and families who are prone to suffer from ‘violence’ instead of declaring a ‘war of sexes’ with the help of a corrupt state.

Violence, in whatever form it happens, is a symptom and manifestation, of that intertwined power structure that is the Pakistani Family. It is also a function of genetics and inherited biochemistry. We need to grow out of the make believe world of Ptv dramas.

But the Punjab ‘Women Protection Act” which I spent several hours in reading, and re-reading, with the help of pencils and highlighters, exhibits no understanding of the dynamics of a Pakistani family and its problems or challenges. Law as drafted reflects a western reality. It has the sense of uniform application upon the conjugal relations; sexual relationships of individuals whether married or cohabiting. All its understandings or sense have been borrowed from the contemporary practices of western – mostly American – legal system where society is continuously under transformation, through hundreds of baby steps, from First World War onwards; when woman first got the right of vote, then the wider availability of motor cars (after Henry Ford Assembly line) and family planning pill transformed the relationship between sexes [Read Bertrand Russel’s Marriage and Morals, for 1930-50’s period]. From 1990’s onwards, gradually gay and lesbians now stand at the same social pedestal as heterosexual married couples. Demise of marriage as an institution has happened over three to four generations and now governments are trying to bring some sanctity to relationships through tax, job and housing benefits – for reasons of reducing chaos and crime.

It is obvious that PMLN, its large party with several centers of leadership, has been totally hijacked on this issue and PTI has failed as an opposition. Facts speak for themselves: This piece of legislation was so dependent upon foreign funded NGO’s that Govt of Punjab had never appointed any ‘Govt Commission’ to examine the nature, extent and types of domestic violence across Punjab. It has instead faithfully relied upon the figures and data provided to it by a few ‘foreign funded NGOs’. There has been no wider debate on the bill inside the open field of an assembly or media before its sudden passing, and that too within an hour of its presentation. All initial pedal work on this bill was done inside a select committee being supported by the same NGOs’. To understand the one sided nature of discussion inside the ‘select committee’ one has to only keep in mind that this ‘select committee’ had no men as its members. But how could a piece of legislation imposed upon whole society be discussed only amongst few unelected ladies and few foreign funded NGO’s?. This has happened because the signal for ‘Liberal Face Lift’ is so strong from the top that most PMLN leaders would have decided to lie low or cooperate in to something which they consider will lead to nothing – a still born law.

While there has been very limited debate in media, I was amused by an insider of ‘Oxford University Press Literary Festival’ who tells that no one is prepared to come on a panel to speak against the bill. So everyone, without a beard or burqa, wants to speak for the bill. Reason is that ‘Woman Protection Bill’ has been presented in such a sexist fashion – Man vs the Woman – that any one opposing it, for whatever reason can be called a misogynist, a medieval wife beater or a ‘dirty old man’ as liberal author, Mohd Hanif recently labelled contemptuously in a classical piece of shallow writing. Simply put, this divides society neatly into men and women. So any man opposing this law is essentially an ‘insecure man’ or ‘ultra-religious’ who supports ‘beating women’ and any woman opposing it is a ‘self-hating serf of man, not a free individual’. The arguments – even from people like the author, Mohd. Hanif – have become so simplistic, so binary, that anyone who is not supporting the bill is automatically supporting violence against the women. This pathetic binary argument, an essentially ‘sexist argument’ of ‘Man Vs Woman’ ignores altogether that men do not only have wives and girlfriends, – or mistresses as many Punjabi politicians have or can afford with their offshore accounts- but they also have mothers, sisters and daughters.

It is in this political scenario – of the failure of PMLN and PTI – that the religious parties have made an interesting political move. Irrespective of its outcome, the single most important achievement of their actions could be a wider media and societal debate. So far it has been seen as a ‘mullah versus woman’ issue. It’s not. It concerns the ‘survival of family’ and it is not about our immediate lives. It concerns our ‘future’ as a people. Our lives are short, but societies live on. And ‘sovereign societies’ debate fearlessly and decide themselves; we must not let ‘paid lobbyists’ of foreign governments dictate our future.


Moeed Pirzada is prominent TV Anchor & commentator; he studied international relations at Columbia Univ, New York and law at London School of Economics. Twitter: MoeedNj. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy. This piece was first published in Moeed Pirzada’s official page. It has been reproduced with permission.