One would normally think that passage of a law empowering women and protecting them from social ills like domestic violence and stalking would be seen as a good step in any society wishing to progress.
Not so in the case of a law passed recently by the legislature of Pakistan’s Punjab province. While the legislation—the Protection of Women Against Violence Act of 2016—that outlaws, among other things, economic and emotional abuse of women as well as domestic violence and stalking, was passed unanimously, it has drawn considerable controversy among Pakistan’s conservatives.
Not least among these was Maulana Fazlur Rahman, the chief of the religious party JUI-F, who criticized the law and said that it had made the legislature a “slave to women”. This drew a sharp and quick response from its MPs who demanded that the cleric apologize. To his credit, the Chief Minister of Punjab Shahbaz Sharif province strongly defended the new law saying that it was in line with the vision of Pakistan as envisaged by its founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah and that society could not progress unless half of its population had adequate legal safeguards and protection.
Typifying the kind of responses that women in Pakistani society often have to deal with was a related exchange on a national watched news channel between an MP of the same legislature and a cleric who heads a well known seminary in Karachi. The latter called Pakistan’s sole Oscar-winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy a very derogatory term in Urdu which most nearly equates to ‘prostitute’ in English. While the anchor on whose channel this happened did little to keep such remarks in check, the female MPA did manage to rebut the cleric and defended the Oscar winner saying that people like her were an asset to any society and excellent role models.
The remarks by the two clerics—one against what by all means is a progressive piece of legislation designed to safeguard the rights of women and the other against a woman who has brought much fame to Pakistan—reflect an underlying sentiment of disdain among large segments of Pakistani society of women who seek to be independent and try and step out of the sphere marked for them by family and society.
However, that such debates are increasingly happening and drawing a strong reaction as well—the TV exchange led to considerable outrage and support for Obaid-Chinoy on social media in particular—is in itself a good thing because it shows that Pakistani society is changing by having debates of issues that up till now were deemed either sensitive or in the exclusive domain of men.