Pakistani civil society has hailed the passage of a women's rights bill by the country's National Assembly as a significant achievement in a society where women are subject to rampant discrimination.
Pakistani feminists have been campaigning against misogynist practices for decades
After twice being rejected by the National Assembly, the Prevention of Anti-Women Practices (Criminal Law Amendment) Act 2011 was approved unanimously on Tuesday. Although it still needs to be passed by the Senate, civil society in Pakistan has welcomed the move and praised the efforts of Pakistan's women legislators in particular.
The bill was first tabled in the lower house by the legislator Donya Aziz during former Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf’s tenure but had repeatedly failed to get clearance from other MPs, who are largely men.
The bill was twice rejected by the parliament's lower house
The bill outlines severe punishments for practices such as "wani" and "swara," child marriage customs, in which young girls are forcibly married to other clans in order to resolve feuds. The law would punish offenders with jail terms of between three and 10 years.
The bill also proposes a minimum sentence of five years' imprisonment for depriving a woman of her inheritance, and jail terms of between three and five years for bartering a woman. Forcing a woman into marriage will be made a non-bailable offence, if the bill is passed into law.
'A ray of hope'
Women's rights activists are delighted, said Mahnaz Rahman, the resident director of the Aurat Foundation. "We have been advocating for the abolishment of anti-women laws and practices for decades," she told Deutsche Welle. "Finally, we see a ray of hope."
Rahman also praised President Asif Ali Zardari's ruling Pakistan People's Party for its role in getting the bill approved in the National Assembly, despite the fact that the author of the bill belongs to the Pakistan Muslim League (Q).
"Despite our differences with the PPP on many issues, we believe that women rights in Pakistan are better protected under the current government," she said.
Pakistani writer and human rights activist Harris Khalique also applauded the PPP, but said it really was the victory of Pakistan’s feminists and civil society. He also expressed concern that the Senate might not approve the bill since it is "more conservative than the National Assembly" in its make up.
Pakistan's religious parties oppose pro-women legislation
However, "if we have such laws, the anti-women and regressive forces will have to think twice about indulging in misogynist practices," he said. "Take the example of the Blasphemy Law. It is only in the books but it emboldens the Islamists in their mistreatment and persecution of religious minorities. Similarly, if there are progressive laws in the country, they will improve human rights in Pakistan, irrespective of their implementation."
Although there are number of liberal laws in Pakistan they are not always implemented by the state and law enforcing agencies. In tribal areas, where women bartering is rampant, people often obey their own systems of justice. Past attempts to undo retrogressive laws have been bitterly opposed by the powerful religious right.
Rampant discrimination against women
Women are particularly subjected to discrimination in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan because of tribal and feudal social structures that go back centuries. Anti-women groups were further encouraged by a number of laws that were promulgated in the 1980s by General Zai-ul-Haq.
But Rahman said that women's rights groups would continue their struggle. "We will act as a watchdog to ensure the women's protection bill is implemented," she said but she added that society, and especially men in Pakistan, had to go through a "long process of attitudinal change."
Author: Shamil Shams
Editor: Anne Thomas