Time and again, Pakistan's top clerical body, the Council of Islamic Ideology, has blocked liberal legislation. Now the country's civil society and some former council members demand that it be reformed.
In February, the provincial Punjab assembly passed a landmark women's protection bill, establishing hotlines and shelters for women to protect them from domestic, psychological and sexual violence. While the bill was praised by the Islamic country's rights groups and liberal sections, religious parties and organizations denounced it by saying it conflicted with the Koran and the teachings of Muhammad, Islam's prophet.
But the most vociferous criticism against the legislation came from the country's Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), a powerful religious body that advises lawmakers on the compatibility of legislations with Islam.
"The law is wrong," Muhammad Khan Sherani, the head of the council, told reporters in Islamabad.
Sherani said the CII studied the law closely and came to the conclusion that the lawmakers had not taken the Islamic teachings about "family protection" into consideration.
"The summary of the law is, as we understand, that the Muslim families are encouraged to violate the sanctity of matrimonial relations. The law also facilitates women to leave their homes and become part of the workforce," Sherani said.
Status of women in Islam
It was not the first time that the CII passed a controversial verdict that puts men and women on unequal footing.
In January, the top clerical body blocked a bill proposing harsher penalties for marrying off girls as young as eight years old. The council also ruled in the past that DNA could not be used as evidence in rape cases, endorsing controversial "Hudood" laws that mandate that a rape victim get four male witnesses to be able to testify in court.
Dr. Samia Raheel Qazi, the only female member of the council, also condemned the bill. "This bill is aimed at destroying the social fabric of Pakistani society. In Islam, the man's status is superior to that of woman's, but after the passage of the law, no father can admonish his daughter and no husband can say a word to his wife," Qazi told DW.
"We object to the definition of domestic violence given in the bill. We also oppose the article that allows authorities to punish a male member of the family for mistreating women. This is not allowed in our culture," she added.
The Punjab assembly came under so much pressure by the clerics that it had to agree to amend the law.
Rampant violence against women
Violence against women, particularly domestic violence, is rampant in the Islamic country. According to a report by the Human Right Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) – an independent rights body – some 900 women were raped and sexually assaulted in 2015. The figure includes around 279 cases of domestic violence and 143 cases where women were burnt and tortured. The rights group also recorded 833 kidnappings and 777 suicide and attempted suicide cases involving women in the same year.
The HRCP said that most domestic violence cases go unreported. The perpetrators of crimes against women are hardly punished, as most women choose to remain silent.
Uzma Bukhari, a member of the Punjab assembly and a women's rights advocate, says the situation demands that lawmakers introduce legislation to protect women.
"Pakistan is one of the most dangerous countries for women. Crimes against women are frequent and widespread. We introduced the law to curb these crimes but the clerics rejected it even before studying it," Bukhari told DW.
Rights activist Zohra Yusuf believes that any kind of liberal legislation "is a much-needed step that deserves praise." However, she warned that cosmetic and purely procedural changes would not have a real impact.
Can the CII be reformed?
Formed in 1973, the CII has earned the ire of the country's civil society because of its anti-progressive advocacy. Some members of the Senate even demanded its dissolution.
But some activists believe the CII needs an overhaul allowing it to play a progressive role.
A positive sign is that some members of the Council of Islamic Ideology are also raising their voices against the decisions of the body and its chairman, Sheerani.
Maulana Tahir Ashrafi, who recently retired from the CII, lauds the women protection bill. "It is a positive piece of legislation. Yes, we had some reservations, but they have been addressed by the government. Sherani lives in the past. The CII should be run by people who are aware of the challenges of the modern world," Ashrafi told DW.