PAKISTAN: Politics, Islam, and the Status of Women in Pakistan

Thursday, April 12, 2012
Southern Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
General Women, Peace and Security
Reconstruction and Peacebuilding

Two months ago, in February 2012, a victory was won in the battle for more effective legal provisions for women in Pakistan, with the Senate approving the National Commission on the Status of Women Bill 2012. By creating an independent Secretariat for Pakistan's National Commission for Women, the law is viewed by many as strengthening the Commission's financial and administrative autonomy. By providing women with more comprehensive protection against discrimination, it has been described as an improvement on earlier legislation, including the National Commission on the Status of Women Ordinance of 2000.

To better understand the importance of this victory, one must examine the historical context and tumultuous nature of the struggle for women's rights in Pakistan. Seyla Benhabib, a preeminent social scientist and philosopher, has stated that, “women and their bodies are the symbolic-cultural site upon which human societies inscript their moral order.” In Pakistan, this accurately portrays how political actors have taken positions (both for and against) women's advancement to further particular political platforms. As Benhabib suggests, in the end this political jockeying causes women to suffer the most harm. For many political actors, especially in Pakistan, the status of women has always been a secondary concern, subordinate to more pressing political exigencies. This has, unsurprisingly, limited the gains made by the movement for women's rights in the country.

From President Ayub Khan to Pervez Musharraf, it is evident that women's rights has been an invaluable tool to advance larger political agendas in Pakistan. President Khan, the quintessential Islamic modernist, propelled his modernization agenda in large part by pushing for women's rights. This strategy made Khan appear to embody progressive, modern values, especially in the eyes of major Western powers. With the United States as one of the biggest sources of economic and military aid during the Khan era, the President acted very much in his own interest in establishing the Muslim Family Law Ordinance in 1961, which restricted polygamy and reinforced women's inheritance rights. Although a step in the right direction, the law passed mainly because of Khan's imposition of Martial Law, which effectively silenced the country's Islamist parties and mitigated backlash to the law from these groups.

By contrast, General Zia ul Haq, who came to power via a coup in 1977 driven by a commitment to pan-Islamism and a desire to reinforce Pakistan's ties with Middle Eastern countries, instituted a series of legal provisions, purportedly in accordance with Sharia, which reversed previous gains and negatively affected women's rights. The Hudood Ordinances, instituted in 1979, enforced harsh punishments for ‘crimes' such as zina (adultery and fornication), included a controversial provision that failed to distinguish between adultery and rape, and established the oppressive Law of Evidence, which mandated that women provide evidentiary proof, other than their own testimony, to prove charges of assault and rape. As a result of these laws, many women suffered greatly.

General Pervez Musharraf, who became President in 2001 after a successful coup, followed a modernization agenda similar to that of Ayub Khan, but with a greater international dimension fueled by external pressure to comply with international human rights conventions, such as CEDAW (Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women). Like Khan, Musharraf's political legitimacy in the West depended largely upon his promotion of liberal reforms, such as amending the controversial Hudood Ordinances in 2006. These amendments were met with an extreme backlash, particularly from conservative Islamic parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI). The JI was able to spin the initiative in its favor, and claimed that repealing the Hudood Ordinances would create a legal vacuum leaving women unprotected.

As these examples demonstrate, the status of women has been a tool for gaining political support both on the international and domestic levels. In the case of Khan and Musharraf, paying lip service to Western human rights norms brought gains on the international level, while for Zia-ul-Haq, the Hudood Ordinances resulted in substantial domestic right-wing political support.

These political maneuverings on women's rights have also reified assumptions that Islam is the main problem for women in Pakistan. As a cutting-edge 1994 Report of the Commission of the Inquiry for Women states, most of these practices are:

… justified in the name of Islam or have been introduced as Islamic laws when clearly they are retrograde customs and traditions, or ill-informed interpretations that bear no relation to the divine design. This distinction has to be clarified once and for all. Ambiguity allows obscurantist elements to re-open debate on settled fundamental principles, and gives rise to insecurity among women within and to an extremely adverse image abroad.

Indeed, in some instances Islamic, as opposed to customary or tribal, interpretations of the law may improve women's day-to-day lives by reducing violence. There are also progressive practices advocated by Islam that are in tension with and may be rejected by Pakistani cultural frameworks, such as the right to education. Although the Hadith makes clear that learning is an obligation for every Muslim including women, some local groups, such as the Pakistani Taliban, have rejected this proposition. At the same time, introducing other aspects of Islamic law into the Pakistani legal system may bring retrograde results. Any substantial legal reforms must take all of these issues into account. Unfortunately, however, as long as positions on women's issues have substantial political consequences, nuanced and reflective approaches to women's issues will be few and far between.