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“Laws are a critical starting point”

— Interview of Nazish Brohi, researcher and social sector consultant

“Laws are a critical starting point”
Nazish Brohi.

The News on Sunday: You have worked in communities across Pakistan. Tell us the situation on ground about violence against women. What is it that constitutes violence across cities and villages in our context?

Nazish Brohi: That’s a wide-ranging open question. Broadly, there are different forms: direct, where physical violence is inflicted, and indirect or structural where the system enables the violence, like jirgas, dowry, and the notion of honour.

These forms can vary regionally, like higher honour killings in upper Sindh, ghagh in FATA, swara in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa, revenge rapes in Punjab. They also change. For instance, at one time, rape of women in thaana/lockups was common, but now rare (because of a procedural change in law). Some were distortions, for instance, I don’t think marriage to the Quran ever existed; it was a westernised projection of nuns as brides of Christ.

In the actual practice, haq baksha women renounced (or were made to renounce) worldly entitlements, such as inheritance and marriage and became religious scholars instead. It didn’t entail any marriage to the Holy Book. And that, too, is rare now. Meanwhile, new trends emerge, for example, coercive pornography, cell phone videos used for blackmail, and gang rapes. Newsline this month carried a story by Ali Arqam on the practice of halala; we didn’t need to deal with this twenty years ago.

TNS: How are women in general, and today’s women in particular, reacting against this violence? There is also a perception that there is more violence because there is more resistance. Is it that violence is being reported or picked by the media more?

NB: Women know that violence inflicted on them is wrong. But to resist it, consider what they are up against: a lifetime of conditioning to suffer in silence, a socialisation process that defines womanhood as submissive and accepting, and immense social and family pressures to conform. Most of the violence women face here is by people known to them, whether immediate family, relatives or neighbours. Taking a stand can mean alienating oneself from all support systems.

The change does happen eventually. Things we take for granted right now, for instance, women being entitled to get divorce as ‘khula’ were radical changes brought about by Muslim Family Laws Ordinance in the 1960s and met with much resentment and vocal opposition.

Survival is a hazard then. How do they pay for lawyers, where do they live, how do they take care of children, how do they earn, how do they stay emotionally and mentally stable, etc.

Read also: Towards social contexts

And after crossing these burning coals, there is no assurance that courts will dispense justice, so it’s a shot in the dark. In rape cases, convictions are lower than 5 per cent, and drag on for years. In honour crimes, many are killed before they make it to courts. The domestic violence laws are too new to assess patterns.

But things are slowly changing. Families are more willing to stand by women survivors of violence than before in cases of domestic violence, and divorce is much more common now. Women are also becoming more assertive about their right to make decisions about their bodies and lives. Emerging data shows that the police are also becoming more responsive. That’s clear in KP at least, there is a marked improvement, and anecdotally, the same seems to be happening, though more slowly in Sindh and Punjab.

It’s a longstanding debate whether the incidence of violence has increased or its reporting in the media. My sense is that both are true. It is hard to say conclusively because we do not have any baseline data or national level studies, though the National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW) has started the process of conducting the first-ever national survey on violence against women, along with the Federal Bureau of Statistics.

TNS: What is the society’s response? Is that changing in any way?

NZ: As a clear illustration of changing response, look at the narratives around the Samia Sarwar honour killing; where she was shot dead inside Dastak shelter in 1999, when parliament defeated a resolution condemning it, and people said it is part of cultural tradition and those opposing it are those with Western agendas, there was no mass outrage and her father remained acceptable to polite society.

Contrast it to any recent high profile case. No politician any longer defends honour killing publicly. Apart from the Council of Islamic Ideology, an attention-seeking redundant body, and rightwing conservative groups trying to keep their politics alive, no one opposed the domestic violence laws either.

Read also: Not necessarily a physical blow

All sociological transitions create discord. Women’s realities are changing faster than social structures, so they are unable to draw support from wider society. For example, more and more women need to work and have jobs, but if you look at TV serials, working women are shown as home breakers, their morality contaminated by interaction with others, or that the biggest issue in their life is not economic survival but some pettiness with in-laws. Or for instance, this Punjab board textbook that prescribes a daily schedule for women that involves allocating five hours for cleaning the kitchen and house, completely out of sync with women’s lived realities.

TNS: In one of your recent articles, you argued that there is a kind of transition, where state is now intervening on behalf of women, in terms of making laws on violence against women and becoming a party or arresting criminals. How do you see this transition impacting the state of violence against women in substantial terms?

NB: The shift in the state is critical. Violence against women happens everywhere in the world, including in Western countries. But there, states no longer collude, protect and patronise the abuse. Impunity compromises the state’s legitimacy.

With all the new laws, this is the shift we may be seeing. I think the state is consolidating its power by slowly confiscating from others the right to use violence and reserving it only for itself, which the modern state must necessarily do. It is driven by its own genetic imperatives and not by any empathy with women, but that’s fine.

Social changes are always long drawn out and contradictory processes, never smooth and linear. The substantial change will take longer to filter down to women’s daily lives. So, right now we have very good laws on domestic violence in Sindh and Balochistan but many in the police force who won’t register the FIR. Or like in KP, where the government has created the Provincial Commission on Status of Women, but doesn’t listen to anything they say or try to do.

The change does happen eventually. Things we take for granted right now, for instance, women being entitled to get divorce as ‘khula’ were radical changes brought about by Muslim Family Laws Ordinance in the 1960s and met with much resentment and vocal opposition. It took decades, but now is done across Pakistan, without any obstruction.

TNS: There seems a lot of emphasis on laws. How do you look at it? Do we need more laws or do we need more implementation of laws, or do we need something drastically different like a change of mindsets? If yes, how will that come about?

NB: Laws are a critical starting point. Earlier, it was not a crime for a man to beat his wife unless he tried to kill her. So, on what basis do you report? We did not have the political and social consensus to have laws against sexual harassment, domestic abuse, swara and so on. We do now; hence the laws were made.

Implementation is the next step, with its own set of complications. For instance, operationalising the laws requires Rules of Business to be passed, which is a separate effort, and often stalled. Like in the 1990s, a law was passed for abolishing bonded labour, which envisioned special courts for bonded labourers, but they were never notified and don’t exist to date, except in one district.

Most of these laws, with the exception of the law on sexual harassment, do not cover implementation processes. And there are no budget allocations built into laws, so there is no money for implementation. Because if there is money for allocation, law has to be sent to the finance ministry for clearance, which leads to massive delays and frustrations. As it is, we have a glacial bureaucracy; cold and slow moving.

But yes, laws in themselves are not sufficient and mindsets need to change. The relationship between law and society is a complex one; both are shaped by and also directly shape the other. It’s a field of study in itself. Change is shaped by many forces, including media, but the primary driver is usually economics.

I’ll give you a personal example. Decades ago, there was a death in my mother’s extended family in a working class neighbourhood in Karachi’s Pahar Ganj area. Everyone was pushing the deceased man’s wife inside while she wanted to go to the graveyard, and there was a big scandal about iddat. My septuagenarian grandmother stepped forward and placed a box on the table and demanded that everyone who wanted iddat to be observed to please deposit that woman’s salary for two months in it so she didn’t have to go to the factory for work and she and her children could survive iddat.

When no one did, my grandmother escorted her to the graveyard, saying they would buy a home pregnancy test on the way back to resolve the issue. What is interesting here is that since then, iddat is no longer observed in not just that family, but in that entire neighbourhood.

To answer your question, social and attitudinal change is messy and long drawn. And even then, the change will not eliminate violence, but maybe just the impunity for it. It is underway and every small push counts. It is important to remember that structures are always porous, even if they are overwhelming. Otherwise, it is easy to feel defeated.

Farah Zia

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