Access to justice against gender-based violence-Express Tribune

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Of late, many violent cases against women have been reported, filmed, and broadcast on social media. We have been hearing about rape victims as young as two years’ old, women beaten to death by their husbands, girls killed by their boyfriends, acid thrown on women by an estranged friend and women stripped naked in public as punishment. In addition, it is common to find the corpse of women on the heap of garbage, unrecognisable in most cases either because of third-degree burn or brutal murder.

Most of the culprits go unapprehend, while those caught have the chance to slip out of the loopholes our legal system provides to the crooks, well connected and influential. Still worse, lack of evidence, concocted witnesses, unscrupulous judges, and the ever slow grinding wheel of Pakistan’s justice system enable the accused to either get out of the court settlement or receive punishment barely matching the offense.

Recently three incidents in a row have exposed the fault line on which women are standing in Pakistan:

Usman Mirza in Islamabad stripped naked a girl for hours in an apartment with his other male friends.

Zahir Jaffar beheaded his friend Noor Makadam in a gruesome murder at his home in the posh locality of Islamabad.

Four hundred boys in Lahore harassed a girl in a park for hours without any intervention from the law enforcers.

In between, multiple stories of harassment of girls at the hands of clerics in madrassas were making round.

Two groups have come forward in criticism of these incidents. One group is critical of a woman’s open demeanor and supported the culture of veiling. They believe that an unveiled and unrestrained woman invites trouble by giving wrong signals to a man. Another group believes that a woman should have the freedom to wear whatever she likes and that the demand for restrained behaviour should be for both men and women.

Pakistan is not the only country where violence against women has been perpetuated despite stringent laws to protect them. Africa is ripe with gender-based violence. Advanced countries in Europe are still struggling to close the gender gap. Even in the US, women have to work twice hard to build their stature equal to men.

Women everywhere are walking on a tightrope. Most of us are beholden to an illusion that women who step out of their homes get the worse out of men. In reality, it is the other way round. Women at home have been exposed to more harassment. Financial dependence on male family members exacerbates a woman’s vulnerability in the household.

Our problem does not lie in how a woman dresses or in the unrestrained behaviour of men. Instead, we are caught in the web of two issues. One relates to religion, and the other concerns the legal system of the country.

We have been unable to identify standard operation procedures to practise Islam in Pakistan. We had traveled through time when headscarves and long gowns were promoted at the government level. We have been at the milestones where women were given free will to choose their attire. During the Musharraf period, Islam and modernity were allowed to run parallel to one another. People celebrated Valentine’s Day and Basant nights in a party style, while Jamaatud Dawa, Alhuda, Jammat-e-Islami, and Tablighi Jamaat were given a free hand to open new outlets, preach and sermonise issues according to their interpretation of Islam. This cocktail of modernity and Islamisation without legal oversight allowed the introduction of religious literature, which was at times hateful, fear-inducing, hyperbolic, violent, and divisible. The mess that Musharraf left turned this country into a fireball.

From bomb blasts to killing innocent children at the Army Public School, it was hell broke loose. We are out of that mess though, we are far from defining the contour of religious norms at the policy level. Had we implemented the National Action Plan in totality, much of this trouble would have been solved.

Maulana Tahir Mehmood Ashrafi, the prime minister’s Special Representative on Religious Harmony, has appealed to the cleric community to use their pulpit to discuss the respect women deserve from society. He is also of the view that both men and women are expected to be chaste in Islam. “It claps both ways. Unless men lower their gaze and behave kindly, women will remain insecure and vulnerable even in thousand veils,” said Ashrafi.

Notwithstanding all these efforts, no amount of public or government measure to eliminate violence against women will be fruitful unless women are able to access justice against gender-based violence. The law of the land is in dire need of overhauling. Once the wheel of justice begins its journey in the right direction, we will finally see a new Pakistan emerge, but not before that.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 26th, 2021.