by Hamza Alavi
(Editor’s Note: It is quite an old article. Some facts and figures are certainly out of date. Our optimism tells us that situation has changed and there has been significant emancipation(atleast at some socio-economic levels) but on the other hand we should not fall into the trap of ignorance by considering that everything has improved . Even if one considers this article to be totally irrelevant to the current discourse, it is still an important historical document to remind us from where we have arrived at the present day. )
The decade of the 1980s has truly been a decade of the women of Pakistan. A powerful women’s movement made a dramatic impact on Pakistan’s political scene. The concrete achievements of the women’s movement in its struggle against policies of General Zia’s military regime which were directed against women in the name of Islamisation, have not been inconsiderable. A number of women’s organisations in the country came together in this struggle, which included the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) which has been the leading and the most effective of these, the Democratic Women’s Association, the Sindhiani Tehrik and the Women’s Front as well as the All Pakistan Women’s Association (APWA) the oldest of these which has been run by wives of senior bureaucrats and politicians and has had a reformist but rather a patronising orientation.
The decade of the 1980s was also a decade of degradation of Pakistani women. The Zia regime, in its search for legitimacy, in the name of Islam, embarked upon a series of measures that were designed to undermine what little existed by way of women’s legal rights, educational facilities and career opportunities – as well as the simple right for freedom of movement and protection from molestation by males. That galvanised women of the country into militant action in defence of their rights. The military regime’s actions, rhetoric and propaganda created an atmosphere which encouraged bigoted and mischievous individuals to take the ‘law’ into their own hands and harass women under the pretext of enforcing ‘Islamic’ norms of dress or, indeed, for simply appearing in public. Such lawlessness was allowed to go on with impunity. Women had to defend themselves not only vis-a-vis the state but also against hostile mischief makers in the society at large. Such attacks still continue. The women have fought back.
These developments must be viewed against the background of quite far-reaching changes in Pakistan society in the four decades since independence, that have affected women’s place in it, both in the rural society and the urban It is the latter, the urban society, with which we shall be most concerned here, for this is where the changes challenge most forcefully established social practices and attitudes.
It must be kept in mind, however, that everywhere, in both the rural as well as the urban society, Pakistan remains a rigidly patriarchal society in which women are treated as chattel, ‘given’ or ‘acquired’ through arranged marriages, to spend their lives in the service of a male dominated social system. By and large women are married within biraderis (lineages) and the biraderi organisation provides a framework within which women’s lives are ordered. In the case of corporate biraderis the power of the biraderi panchayat (council) derives largely from control over decisions about whom a woman is to marry. It is not only a single patriarch, the head of a nuclear family, but the whole male dominated kinship organisation which has a stake in the subordination of women. (for an account of biraderi organisation cf.Alavi, 1972). No woman, even one with an independent career in a city can set up a home on her own, without the ‘saya’ (lit: shade or protection) of a male. A divorced woman or a widow must turn to her father or brother, if they will have her. unless she has a grown up son under whose protection she can live. This is a powerful factor of control over women. Furthermore, not altogether infrequently, especially amongst the poorer sections of the society, especially in cities and amongst kammis or ‘village servants’. a daughter is ‘sold’ for money to a prospective husband and likewise, husbands divorce and ‘sell’ their wives. A woman who is not prepared to accept such a fate has little choice. She is a valued object, a prized chattel.
Demographic statistics provide a measure of the effects of discrimination against women. Pakistan is probably unique in the world in having a lower number of women in its population than men i.e. 906 women for every 1,000 men (Census of Pakistan – 1981) as against a world average of 111 women to every 100 men. In the population segment of 15 to 40 years olds there are 75 per cent more female deaths than male. This is attributed to nutritional anemia that affects most women in the country resulting from discrimination against women in the sharing of food. They are given less and have often to make do with left-overs. Because of the lower resistance of their underfed bodies women are more susceptible to killer diseases; malaria, gastro-enteritis and respiratory diseases, especially tuberculosis. Repeated pregnancies also take a heavy toll by lowering their resistance to disease. In the case of urban lower middle class women their condition is aggravated both physically and psychologically by their incarceration within the four walls of their appallingly confined and insanitary homes. They get little of the sun and fresh air and no recreation at all while their men go about everywhere freely and are not affected therefore quite so much by their poor housing conditions.
When attention is drawn to the subordination and oppression of women in Pakistan and demands made for improvement in their lot, Pakistani ideologues are quick to rebut such charges by painting an idealised picture of the high status of women in Islam. But this is a non sequitur, a specious line of argument that is intended to obscure the real issues, those of the actual conditions to which women in Pakistan are subject. It is against such a background that questions about women in Pakistan society need to be looked at. Changes of a variety of kinds are under way, some improving their condition, others worsening them.
In rural areas, the place of women in society and their role in the division of labour in production differs very widely from region to region and also between different classes. And there have been far reaching changes everywhere. To give only two instances, in the Potohar area of North West Punjab, for example. which is a region of fragmented bankrupt farms, massive numbers of men of working age have left the villages for jobs in the army, in factories all over Pakistan and, not least, as migrants, for work in Britain and Western Europe and especially in the Middle East where they are not permitted to bring their families to live with them. This has brought about an extra-ordinary situation in villages of the region, many of which are, as a result, inhabited mainly by old men who are past working age, young children and women. It seems that in these cases women have to carry the main burden of working the land over and above their customary share in the farm economy and their domestic responsibilities.
By contrast, in the rich canal Colony districts of the Punjab. in the wake of the Green Revolution, many women have been withdrawn from the farm economy and confined within purdah. Until these developments in recent decades (with the exception of landlord families) women have always had an active role in agricultural production in weeding, harvesting and threshing of crops, and other operations. It is their duty to cut fodder and to look after farm animals. Accordingly these women enjoy freedom of movement and are not confined behind purdah. A custom that gives them a degree of economic freedom is their exclusive right to pick cotton . This is being undermined by recent changes). For this women are paid in kind. The cotton that they receive in payment is ritually sacrosanct, their privileged property which men cannot lay their hands on. After the cotton harvest it is a common sight to see women walking to town with a bundle of cotton perched on their heads, going shopping, to barter the cotton for something for themselves or, more likely, their children, without having to ask the husband for permission. But after the Green Revolution of the 1970s many well to do peasants, who had prospered, withdrew their womenfolk from the labour force and confined them, to the purdah, secluded and isolated within the four walls of their homes, as a mark of their new higher social status. In the course of research in Punjab villages my wife and I found that far from rejoicing in this partial relief from the burden of work, the women resented this change. Many of them described their new situation to my wife as the equivalent of being locked up in a prison. They had lost the small degree of economic freedom and with it their freedom of movement. When one considers the implications of such a change, one is led to a conceptual distinction between exploitation of a woman’s labour and a woman’s oppression. While the burden of labour on women has eased, though only slightly, their oppression has increased enormously, a change which the women themselves see as one which has left them feeling greatly deprived.
It is in the urban context that women’s contribution to the family economy has changed beyond recognition, as compared to conditions forty years ago. These changes seem to be having a greater impact on lower middle class families than either working class families or upper class ones. A large component of the working class, in Pakistani cities consists of migrant workers from the north of the country whose families have been left behind in their villages. We know too little about the consequences of that fact on the life of single male workers in the city nor about the families left behind in the villages. In the case of workers whose families live with them in the cities, many of the women either do unskilled work in factories or operate in the so-called ‘informal economy’ or are engaged in domestic employment. They often prefer such employment over home-based work, for waged employment pays better. Despite the great increase in their burden of work and their independent contribution to the family budget, judging from evidence brought up in court cases during the last decade, it seems that the women continue, nevertheless, to be subject to patriarchal domination.
By contrast problems of the majority of upper class women are different. They have servants to do their chores and they do not need to (or are not allowed to) take jobs and have careers. Their worries stem from their total dependence on the husband and consequently insecurity for fear of being abandoned by the husband in favour of a second wife. In the absence of the possibility of an independent job or career, compounded by extreme difficulty for women in setting up an independent household without the ‘saya’, or protection, of a male head of family, their dependence on the husband is total. They are therefore reduced virtually to the status of well fed, well dressed and well ornamented slaves who depend absolutely upon the whim of their husbands. Where the husband ill-treats or abuses them they must put up with it. Because of the difficulty in setting up an independent household even women with careers share this problem.
Amongst the nouveau riche, in particular, a familiar pattern is one of a first ‘traditional ‘ marriage to a woman from the biraderi (lineage), possibly not very well educated or fashionable. This is often followed later in life by a marriage to an attractive socialite, a fitting spouse for the arriviste, a woman well endowed to perform the duties of a sophisticated hostess who can receive and entertain his friends and associates, businessmen and bureaucrats, in style. The first wife is discarded like an old shoe. She dare not insist on a divorce for, generally, she has nowhere to go and virtually no prospects of building a new life in a society that despises a divorced woman who is invariably blamed for the failure of her marriage. She is lucky if she has grown up sons who might make it possible for her to set up an independent home. But in general, given such prospects, upper class women are likely to live out their lives in insecurity and anxiety. How common such situations are, would be difficult to quantify.
Nor is the problem of dependence upon husbands absent in the case of women of the lower middle classes or the working class. However, in their case, as well as in the case of members of upper classes to a lesser degree, pressures from biraderi (lineage) members and elders tend, to some degree, to restrain husbands from abandoning wives, daughters of their kinsmen. In Pakistan, unlike the West, the social life of most people functions within frameworks of extended kinship, and the values and norms of kinship obligations cannot be flouted without penalty, except by the rich and the powerful or those who live in cosmopolitan circles. On the whole one gains the impression that the risk of a woman being abandoned by her husband in favour of a more attractive woman is less common, though by no means absent, in the case of lower middle class husbands, who can less afford two wives and are in any case ground down by the humdrum daily routine of their rather ordinary lives for such fanciful indulgence.
In the case of lower middle class families we can identify a two-fold division. On the one hand there are families whose women are educated, sufficiently at least to hold down a ‘respectable’ job. On the other hand there are more traditional families whose women have not received a good education who therefore do not qualify for ‘respectable’ salaried jobs. In these latter cases women contribute to the family economy by taking in home-based work under a putting out system operated by entrepreneurs who are only too happy to exploit this extremely cheap source of labour. General Zia’s Islamisation policies threatened most directly the first category of lower middle class women, triggering off the militant women’s movement of the 1980s.
Underlying these developments is the growing crisis of the lower middle class household economy over the last forty years. At the time of independence it was the normal expectation that man was the provider for the family. Joint families were favoured because of economies of scale in the domestic economy. A patriarch and his brothers, with his sons and nephews would all go to work and bring in the income needed to keep the family. Burdened with domestic labour, women of this class were not classified as ‘economically active’. It might be said that urban lower middle class women were amongst the most oppressed of women in Pakistan. being confined to the ‘purdah and char diwari’ or the four walls of their home. In villages even those women who are confined behind the purdah nevertheless have relatively easy access to the company of other women of the village which is very supportive for them. Likewise, in old cities the layout of the mohalla (wards) has provided a similar possibility of social interaction amongst women. But with the explosive expansion of Pakistan’s cities such patterns of spatial organisation of society seem to have broken down. In such circumstances urban lower middle class women became virtually prisoners in their diminutive homes for going visiting would entail an elaborate logistic operation reserved for very special occasions.
The continuous inflation in the cost of living in Pakistan over the decades has brought about a situation where a man’s wage is no longer sufficient to keep the family. There was therefore a continuous pressure to broaden the base of the family economy. Gradually and steadily, more and more women were forced to find jobs to supplement family incomes. The change is visible and quite striking. Initially only a few occupations were thought to be respectable enough for such women. As the pressure for jobs increased the concept of a ‘respectable job’ was progressively broadened to take in a wider range of jobs. Initially, apart from high status professional occupations, notably that of a doctor , what better), jobs in the teaching profession, especially in girls’ schools and colleges, were considered to be respectable enough. About a third of the doctors and an equal proportion of school teachers were women. Gradually this changed. The mantle of respectability was now to cover also clerical jobs in open plan offices where women could work with men, but in public view. The role of the personal secretary was initially suspect although it was much better paid, because it entailed a close relationship with the boss. But that too has changed. Today one finds women in a wide range of occupations, including laboratory assistants or ticket clerks at railway stations or clerks at post office counters and so on, as well as lawyers, architects, engineers, journalists and broadcasters. Needless to add, the numbers in the latter categories of occupations are extremely small. With more and more women taking up salaried jobs and in keeping with an increasing number of women taking to higher education, new values have emerged. Women now desire jobs and careers for their own sake so that an increasing number of wives of well heeled professionals and women from the upper classes take jobs not out of economic necessity but for self-fulfilment.
Education is the key to acceptable and respectable jobs and careers. Lower middle class families would find it degrading to let their women take up jobs as domestic servants or to work on the factory floor (though some are driven to this out of desperation) i.e. jobs for which education is not a pre-requisite. But families who expect their women to take up jobs as teachers or office clerks (or better) tend therefore to put a higher value on women’s education than was the case before – though financing the education of sons still takes precedence. There was a time when women’s education was thought to be mere indulgence, wasteful of the money spent on it. There is demand for women’s education also from professional men who want to marry reasonably educated wives, although not too highly qualified. There is a concept of an ‘over-qualified’ woman i.e. a woman who has better qualifications than her potential spouse. Such a woman is positively at a disadvantage. Far too many engagements have been broken when the fiancee has done too well at college or university. Where both spouses are professionals or academics, if the wife’s career advances more rapidly it becomes a threat to the false pride of the husband. Because of the heavy price a woman has to pay if her marriage breaks down sometimes she holds back to keep her marriage safe. But some marriages do break down on this account.
Given these social changes and the high degree of functionality of women’s education for middle class and lower middle class families the threat to women’s education that was posed by Islamic fundamentalism and General Zia’s so-called ‘Islamisation’ policies was a threat to the family economy and to the new values and attitudes. These families have therefore tended to subscribe rather to liberal social philosophies or ‘modernist’ interpretations of Islam. They tend to be sceptical of dogmatic versions of Islam propounded by ignorant and bigoted Mullahs. There is therefore a considerable and growing social base of secularism in Pakistan’s political as well as social life, a fact that is reflected in the repeated routs of the Islamic fundamentalist Jamaat-i-Islami in three successive elections in the country namely those of 1985, 1987 (local bodies election) and, again, in 1988.
There are, however, many lower middle class households in Pakistan where women have been given no education that could befit them for ‘respectable’ salaried jobs. Traditionally they were relegated to the role of ‘housewives’. But, gradually and with increasing rapidity new avenues for exploiting the labour of these women have opened up. There are factories with women only work force, notably in the ready made clothing trade, where they can go and work as seamstresses or similar tailoring and finishing jobs, which are woefully underpaid. There is, however, another alternative too whereby the labour of women of this category is exploited without their having to leave their ‘char diwari‘ i.e. the four walls of their home. This is by way of development of a classical form of ‘putting out system‘ whereby orders for the work to be done and the materials that are required are brought to them in their homes and the finished goods are later collected. For their long hours of labour, carried out in the midst of the demands of a variety of domestic chores and clamour of a multitude of children, they are paid a mere pittance – much less even than the outrageously low level of wages for women who go to work in factories. But for women who have families to look after there is often no choice.
We can identify two patterns in such cases, although there are no data available that can allow us to quantify their relative importance. One is that when the family patriarch controls the operation. He mediates with entrepreneurs brings home the materials and work orders. delivers the finished goods and, most important of all, pockets the money paid by the entrepreneurs. In effect the women of his household are virtually his slaves. He guards their subordination quite as jealously as any slave owner, deploying ideological weapons against the women by a constant invocation of Islamic values, as interpreted by himself and the Mullahs. On the other hand he builds up images of the ‘modern’ ordinary working women who take up outside employment as corrupt and un-lslamic, which he contrasts with that of his own enslaved kinswomen who are good and pure, unsullied by the eyes of strange men. Ideologically fundamentalist interpretations of Islam reinforce the authority of the patriarch over his enslaved womenfolk.
There is also another pattern of the putting out system. In this case the entrepreneurs employ women agents who go around houses (especially in katchi bastis or shanty town homes) distributing orders and materials for work and collecting the finished goods. In this case they are said to make payments directly to the female head in the household. In the absence of research one can only speculate whether in this case the balance of power in the household is shifted thereby (even if only partially) in favour of women. In an interesting study of Muslim women ‘beedi’ (cheap ‘cigarettes’ made of rolled tobacco leaves) makers in Allahabad, Zarina Bhatty found that as a result of contributing substantially (over 45 per cent) to the household incomes, the women acquired a “greater importance in household decision making process. … (i.e.) an increased say in spending money” (Bhatty, 1981: 45). It would be hazardous to extend such a conclusion drawn from a study of a community of Muslim rural labourers in India to urban lower middle class families in Pakistan. Clearly there are a number of issues located here which invite systematic investigation.
Home-based women workers, denied the freedom of movement and relative independence of their sisters employed in salaried jobs, rationalise their own predicament in ideological terms, through a self-image of their moral superiority. Frustrated by their increasingly straitened circumstances and lack of freedom, they are easily mobilised by their men against women who go out to word. They are even made to join public demonstrations, suitably enclosed in the chaddar or burqa (the all-enveloping women’s overalls that covers them from head to foot). They parrot the complaints of their men that women’s employment takes jobs away from men and undercuts their salaries and that, in any case, it is quite shameless and un-Islamic for women to go about the city and work in offices with men. In their own minds as well as in the minds of the men who control their lives, their confinement to their homes offers a gain in respectability.
The life of lower middle class women in salaried employment is subject to rather different kinds of pressures. Her working day starts early, for she must feed her husband and children and send them off to school before she herself rushes off to work. Traveling to work is itself quite a battle, given the state of public transport in Pakistan cities, especially Karachi. In order to attract women workers whom they need, many large companies maintain fleets of minibuses to pick up their women employees in the morning and take them home after work. In the case of a woman who is the first to be picked up or the last to be dropped home this can add an hour, or even two, to the long day spent at work. She comes home tired. Whilst her husband relaxes with a cold drink under a fan, she has to rush straight into the kitchen to prepare the family evening meal. And there are umpteen little chores to be attended to, young children to be looked after and the family fed and put to bed. Some chores, such as washing clothes and cleaning the house, are inevitably put off for the weekend which therefore is not time for rest nor for demonstrations in aid of women’s rights. Given the race against time only a very few working women can afford the time to go to meetings and demonstrations even though they sympathise solidly with their aims; women who happen to have particularly enlightened and helpful relatives (e.g. a mother-in-law) or a co-operative and politically committed husband (a rare commodity) who is willing to take over some of their chores during their short absence. Only those who are sufficiently well off to have servants to take care of the domestic front can play an active and continuing part in such activities. Mobility is another major obstacle in their way so that only those women can take part in such activities without too much difficulty who have their own cars or who have women friends or close male relatives who can give them a lift (going with unrelated males is unthinkable).
It is because of these difficulties that the vast majority of lower middle class employed women cannot take a regular, not to say an active and leading part in the women’s movement. But this does not mean that the vast majority of working women who are not blessed with the advantages which make such activities possible- ‘lack consciousness’ or that they are unaware of the issues that confront women in Pakistan. One has only got to go and talk to some of them to get a measure of the depth of their feelings and the clarity with which they themselves see the issues. Under these circumstances the activists and the leadership inevitably comes from women of better off families especially those whom can afford servants and cars, mainly professional women in their thirties. But it needs to be emphasised that they, nevertheless, articulate by and large attitudes and demands that affect all working women. These relatively small number of activists are like the tip of a huge iceberg, their inarticulate sisters being submerged, for the time being, in an ocean of work.
The women’s movement in Pakistan thus revolves around educated women, both professionals and those who take up salaried jobs. Official propaganda under the long years of the Zia regime tried to discredit the women’s movement by caricaturing it as a movement of English-educated, Westernised, upper class women whose heads are filled with foreign imported ideas and who, the propaganda claimed, had no roots amongst true Pakistani women. The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of activists in the women’s movement are closer to working women of all classes than either the bureaucrats in government or much of the political leadership or journalists, who all sit in judgement over them. Most of these activists are new to the tasks that they have taken upon themselves in organising and leading the movement. In taking up these unfamiliar tasks they have demonstrated quite remarkable qualities of leadership — not only ingenuity and flexibility but also a noteworthy personal humility. This last quality is reflected in the commitment of WAF members to non-hierarchical organisation.
The Zia regime itself had much to do in creating conditions that precipitated the movement and caused it to break out with much force. Problems that confront women in Pakistan today have been accumulating over several decades. The reason why the women’s movement suddenly erupted into action in the 1980s has much to do with the outrageous attacks that were actually undertaken or were contemplated by the Zia regime, in the name of ‘Islamisation’, a policy that was designed (unsuccessfully) by the regime to gain political legitimacy. These policies were calculated to degrade the place of women in Pakistan society and to erode such legal rights that they did possess, and to put up barriers in the way of women’s education and their freedom of movement and to obstruct their access to jobs and professional careers.
Among the new ‘Islamic’ laws that were enacted by the Zia regime was a change in the law of evidence, enacted in October 1984, purportedly to bring the existing law of evidence in line with prescriptions of Islam. Except in the case of the Hudood Ordinances of 1979 (prescribing ‘Islamic’ punishments) which laid down their own special rules of evidence for hadd offences, the new law of evidence provided that two male witnesses or in the absence of two male witnesses one male and one female witness would be required to prove a crime. This law as well as other proposed legislation, equated one man to two women. This was so, for example, in the proposed new laws of Qisas and Diyat which provided for financial compensation to be given to the injured party by an accused in lieu of punishment in cases of murder or bodily injury, it being held that in such cases the ‘Islamic’ remedy lay not in punishment of the offender but in compensation to be paid to the victim or his family. This law was proposed by the Council of Islamic Ideology and passed by the Majlis-e-Shoora (Zia’s legislative institutions). The compensation in the case of women was to be fixed at half that for men. Such laws that put the worth of a women at half that of a man, were a powerfully symbolic factor that set the women’s movement into action.
Besides these blatantly discriminatory laws that reduced a woman’s humanity by half, there were policies undertaken or contemplated by the Zia regime that threatened the life and prospects of working women more directly. Although the militant activities and demonstrations of the women’s movement were, in the first instance, directed against the new laws, there were some no less weighty and more directly felt underlying concerns, especially about the future of women’s education. In general laws and policies pursued by the Zia regime were directed towards discouraging women from taking an active part in activities outside the home and to limit the scope for their self-expression.
There were proposals, for example, that threatened women’s access to higher education. Perhaps the most important of these was the idea of segregating women within ‘Women’s Universities’. As proposed by Zia’s University Grants Commission, the existing three colleges of Home Economics located at Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar were to be upgraded to University status. Women were to be given the education that was thought to be appropriate for them, namely to be trained as housewives. They were to be denied a wider education that might prepare them for professional or academic careers or jobs in government, commerce or industry. Obstacles, such as higher required grades, were placed in the way of women seeking admission to science courses in Universities or places in medical colleges.
There was an attack too on women’s participation in sports. Pakistani women athletes and the women’s hockey team were prevented from participating in international events. Zia’s Federal Minister for Sports and Culture explained that women could participate in sporting competitions only before an exclusively female audience or one in which only mehram males and no others males were present ! Reporting this, the press translated the term mehram inaccurately as ‘blood relatives’. That is not the case. The category of mehram defines relatives whom a Muslim may not marry. A woman’s mehram comprise her siblings, ascendants and siblings of ascendants, descendants and descendants of siblings and, amongst some sects, sisters’ husbands. A first cousin, such as father’s brother’s son is not mehram though a ‘blood relative’. As mehram defines an ego centred kindred, which would be differently constituted for each woman, male spectators are effectively ruled out. Women could engage in sports only in purdah ! This ridiculous and meaningless rule illustrates only too well the arbitrary and cavalier manner in which religious symbols were invoked to restrict women’s activities.
The issues of higher education and sports, in a society such as that of Pakistan, affect mostly upper class, middle class and lower middle class families. There are other policies of the Zia government that bore down relatively more heavily on the most vulnerable component of Pakistan society namely women of the poor. It must be said that degradation of women in Pakistan is nothing new and is not the result solely of the so-called ‘Islamisation ‘ policies of the Zia dictatorship. But it reached abysmally low levels in the wake of its legislation and policies.
In the name of fighting against ‘obscenity’ and ‘pornography’ the Zia government set in motion a mass campaign against women seen in public. An atmosphere was generated in the country in which attacks against women became commonplace, legitimated in the name of religion. Such campaigns against women are led by mullahs, the custodians of ignorance, and by criminals and mischief-makers in general, who all seem to derive a kind of perverted psychic pleasure from molesting women under the pretext of enforcing morality. A spate of directives were issued by the Zia regime ordering female government employees, women teachers and girls at schools and colleges to wear ‘Islamic’ dress and the chaddar or burqa. As a direct result of such campaigns against women who are depicted as a threat to male virtue, the morality of Pakistani males sunk to new depths. They do not seem to be able to resist the temptation to interfere with and manhandle women, posing as guardians of public virtue. Violence against women has been on the increase behind the cloak of ‘Islamisation’. The most obscene examples of such hypocrisy are numerous, widely publicised, incidents where women’s noses have been cut off or they have been disrobed and paraded in the nude in public to ‘teach them a lesson’. As a result of public outrage aroused by such incidents, the Zia regime announced punishments for such actions. But his so-called ‘Islamic’ regime did little to track down the culprits and punish them. Nor did it engage in any public campaign to denounce such actions and arouse public opinion against those who perpetrate them. Such incidents and attacks on women still continue.
The Zia regime introduced Hudood Ordinances purportedly to lay down ‘Islamic’ punishments for certain crimes. These were barbaric punishments such as cutting off of hands and stoning to death. There has been some controversy in the country whether these are truly Islamic prescriptions. That, as such, is not a matter that we need to pursue here except to say that even where these were not actually carried out in all cases, they carried a symbolic charge and provided a rallying point to mullahs who demanded their full implementation. Public lashings however, were carried out before vast crowds and TV cameras, quite savagely – members of the crowd urging the ‘executioners’ to hit ‘the bastards’ even harder. These were incredibly degrading sights to watch. The law that concerns us here most directly, however, is the Zina (Enforcement of Hudood) Ordinance of February 1979. This Ordinance provided a new basis, as we shall see, for intimidation and terrorisation of women by husbands or male relatives, especially amongst the urban poor, but not amongst them alone. Ironically, the Ordinance has also created a situation in which women victims of rape dare not even complain about the sexual violence done to them for fear of penalties that they themselves invite under this iniquitous law, while the culprits go Scot free because of its extra-ordinary provisions.
The Ordinance provides new weapons to men against women by virtue of making Zina i.e. adultery and fornication, crimes against the state, cognisable offences for which the police can take action. Previously that was not the case, for then adultery was a matter of personal offence against the husband by the male party to adultery and extra-marital sex was not a penal offence at all. Now where a wife leaves her husband, it has become all too easy for the husband to go to the police and file a complaint against her for committing zina whereupon the wife is arrested and jailed. Given police corruption and the interminable length of time that it takes for such cases to be adjudicated by courts of law (often years) the woman is effectively punished without even going through the due process of law. The husband can bail the wife out of jail. But when that happens. she is totally at his mercy. for he would threaten to withdraw bail which would return her to prison. Thus the woman’s position is made worse than that of a slave. According to Asma Jahangir, a distinguished Pakistani woman lawyer and Secretary of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan: ‘it has now become common for husbands to file complaints of Zina against wives wanting separation. There are hundreds of cases every year where women are arrested for Zina on complaints filed by husbands’ (SHE. March 1989: 81). It is likewise in cases of elopement, where a father refuses permission to his daughter to marry the man of her choice. The father brings charges of ‘abduction’ in such cases and the law presumes zina unless the couple can prove lawful nikah or marriage according to Islam.
The Zina Ordinance has created a ‘Catch 22’ situation for women victims of rape. This arises from the fact that the ordinance brings both adultery and fornication (zina) on the one hand and rape (zina-bil-jabr) on the other, under a single law in a manner that is unsafe. Secondly, the problem arises from the type of admissible evidence that is prescribed under the Ordinance. The offence of rape is defined as sexual intercourse against the will and/or without the consent of the victim or with consent if the consent has been obtained under fear of death or hurt. It also includes under the category of rape sexual intercourse with consent of the victim where the offender knows that the consent is given by the victim because she (or he) believes that she (or he) is validly married to the offender although the offender knows that they are not.
The catch in this law, that affects women victims of rape cruelly, is the specification of the type of evidence that is admissible for hadood or ‘Islamic’ punishment for zina and zina-bil-jabr which is stoning to death (under certain conditions lesser punishments called tazir would apply). The evidence required is either a confession on the part of the accused (for an unmarried woman pregnancy is self-evident proof) or the testimony of ‘at least four Muslim adult male witnesses about whom the Court is satisfied … that they are truthful persons and abstain from major sins … (who) give evidence as eye-witnesses of the act of penetration necessary for the offence.‘ This is a type of evidence that is most unlikely to be found except perhaps in the vast open spaces of the Arabian desert.
In effect, therefore, the offence of rape is unprovable and rapists now go about without fear. Reports of such offences have become widespread. The law excludes the testimony of women, so that evidence of the victim of rape counts for nothing. But if she complains of rape (which she cannot possibly prove, according to this law) she is taken to have admitted to having had sexual intercourse with a man who is not her lawful husband, hence guilty of zina. For this she invites the heavy penalty of this law. A woman has not only no remedy under this iniquitous law for the sexual violence done to her; she herself becomes a victim of the law.
In one way or another, women have been victimised under the Zina Ordinance. Documenting the phenomenal increase, during the 1980s, in the number of women who are languishing in Pakistani prisons as a consequence of this law, Asma Jahangir points out that about 40 per cent of the convicted women whom she interviewed in Multan Jail had been sentenced for the offence of zina. Most of the women whom she interviewed belonged to low income families; out of 37 women 16 had a family income of only Rs. 500 per month (the wage of a single labourer) and no one had a family income of more than Rs. 3000 (the salary of an office clerk). Newspaper reports of victimisation of women under this law are legion. For want of space, we will give only a couple of examples to illustrate the different ways in which women are victimised under it.
The most notorious case is that of Safia Bibi, an 18 year old virtually blind girl, the daughter of a poor peasant, who was employed in the house of the local landlord as domestic help. She was raped by her employer’s son and then by the landlord himself. As a result the girl became pregnant. Her illegitimate child is said to have died soon after birth. The girl’s father filed a case with the police alleging rape. The Court acquitted the landlord and his son for lack of evidence as required under the zina Ordinance, the evidence of the girl not being admissible and four pious Muslim witnesses to the repeated acts of rape not being available. But by virtue of her accusation the girl herself, being unmarried, was found guilty of zina, her pregnancy being proof of it, and she was sentenced to three years in prison, public lashing (15 lashes) and Rs. 1000 fine. In passing this sentence, the Court said that it was being lenient in view of her age and disability ! This case created an uproar and turned out to be an issue on which the Women’s Action Forum began campaigning. In the light of public outrage, General Zia himself intervened and got the Federal Shariat Court to take over the case, suo moto. An exceptionally liberal judge quashed the outrageous conviction of the girl on the ground that if in the case of rape the man (or men) were acquitted due to lack of the required evidence, the woman too was to be given the benefit of doubt. But there was no question here of prosecuting the rapists and bringing them to justice.
A rather different type of case illustrates the way in which the law is used by male relatives or husbands to terrorise and control women. A young woman of 25, Shahida, got a divorce from her husband, Khushi Mohammad. The divorce deed was signed by the husband and was attested by a Magistrate. Under the law as it stands, however, the divorcing husband is then required to register the divorce papers with the local council. That he did not do. This was possibly a deliberate omission which was to give him a hold over his ex-wife. Shahida, after spending the prescribed period of ninety six days of waiting (iddat), as prescribed for a divorcee, with her parents, married Mohammed Sarwar. Khushi Mohammed, meanwhile decided that he wanted her back or, in any case, he would not allow her to marry again. So he took the matter to the law, charging her with zina. Although Shahida produced before the Court the attested copy of the divorce document which was signed by Khushi Mohammad and attested by a magistrate, the Court did not consider it to be admissible as it had not been registered with the local Council. The Court decided that the divorce was invalid and therefore that the second marriage illegal. As the two accused, Shahida Parveen and Mohammed Sarwar had ‘confessed’ to living together as husband and wife, the Court found them guilty, under the convoluted provisions of that extra-ordinary Ordinance, of raping each other ! Accordingly they were both sentenced to stoning to death. Happily, due to campaigning by the women’s movement that extreme sentence was eventually commuted- but not all victims of this extraordinary law have been so lucky.
In cases of eloping couples, parents deprived of the money that they would get for marrying off their daughter (bride price is not a normal custom) file a complaint with the police for abduction. Even if the girl has found refuge with the family of the boy or some supportive family, sexual intercourse is presumed in such cases and both the girl and the boy are penalised for zina. It is by no means unusual in such cases, especially if the young couple cannot be found, for the police to arrest the families who are believed to have given them support, as accomplices to zina.
The fact is that all such cases have affected not only the parties directly involved but have intimidated Pakistani women in general, for they dare not leave an oppressive and cruel husband or greedy and grasping parents wishing to sell them, for fear of the consequences for them under this terrible law.
Sadly, the eleven years of the so-called policy of ‘Islamisation’ under General Zia, have produced in Pakistan a culture of intolerance. This culture, above all, has persecuted women and subjected them to all kinds of humiliation and ill-treatment, not to speak of inhuman punishment under the Hudood Ordinances, as described above. The Government embarked upon a mass publicity campaign, through all the media, exhorting people to order their lives in accordance with Islam, but as interpreted by Zia and his bigoted mullahs. Far more mischievous was Zia’s call to the ‘people’ to ensure that their ‘neighbours’ did likewise. This was a charter for the mischief-makers and the bigots who took upon themselves the task of chastising women, total strangers, and molesting them under that excuse. For example, Mumtaz and Shaheed quote an instance, which is by no means unique or isolated, when a woman who entered a bakery in an upper class Lahore neighbourhood, was slapped by a total stranger for not having her head covered ( Mumtaz and Shaheed, 1987: 71). A much publicised and quite horrendous case is that of a congregation leaving a mosque after Friday prayers who found a new born baby on a nearby rubbish dump. The mullah promptly concluded that it was an illegitimate child and, in accordance with the laws of Islam, as he understood them, led the congregation of the pious Muslims in stoning the child to death. Such outrageous conduct was the direct result of incitement by the propaganda of the Zia regime, which has created an atmosphere of bigotry and intolerance.
It was hoped that the democratic Government of Benazir Bhutto would reverse this and, in particular, repeal the Hudood Ordinances (including the Zina Ordinance. But a year after it was put in office the Government has shown no inclination to change the laws. This is in part due to the paralysis of the Government, due to a complex set of political factors which we cannot go into here. Meanwhile the terrible legacy of the Zia regime lives on. Prospects before Pakistani women remain uncertain and threatening.
|Ahmad, Shahnaz||1983||‘Women’s Movement in Pakistan’,|
|Alavi, Hamza||1972||Kinship in West Punjab Villages’, Contributions to Indian Sociology, New Series. Vol. VI (for a fuller account see Hamza Alavi, ‘The Two Biraderis- Kinship in Rural Punjab’ in T. N. Madan (ed) Muslim Societies in South Asia, 2nd edition, New Delhi 1995)|
|Bhatty, Zarina||1981||The Economic Role and Status of Women in the Beedi Industry in Allahabad, India, ILO, World Employment Programme, Vol 63|
|Mumtaz, Khawar and Shaheed, Farida||1987||Women of PakistanZed Press, London|
|various||Pakistan Law Digest|