BY Ayesha Babar

When the Women’s Protection Bill was first passed in Punjab in Pakistan, there was much celebration and fanfare around it. The Bill, although not perfect itself, was the first time that it was realised by lawmakers that there is indeed a need for legislation to protect a group in Pakistan who are very often seen as second class citizens – women.

The passing of the Punjab Protection of Women against Violence Bill (PPWA) 2015 was a historic step towards women empowerment in many ways. It was finally recognized that crime against women had evolved in many different forms that were not covered by any other law of the land. Amongst these crimes are domestic, emotional, psychological and economic abuse, stalking and cybercrime. Such was the debate around the bill that it took nearly 8 months for it to be passed by the Provincial Legislature, which was being challenged by not only the opposition parties, particularly the right-wing, but also, some members of the government benches.

PPWA was finally passed in February this year. While most members of society welcomed it as a first step, there were some voices that disagreed with the rights being given to women and went as far as to term the PPWA ‘unIslamic’.

Chief among these voices has been The Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), which is a 20 member constitutional body formed to advise parliament on keeping all laws in line from a religious point of view.

Violence against women protest march London
The Punjab Protection of Women against Violence bill was finally passed in 2015

The Council went so far as to take all its criticism of the PPWA and present its own version of the PPWA. The draft proposal was released last week, much to the shock of people. There was instant outrage at the contents of the document as the Council proposed ‘a light beating’ for wives, who do not obey their husbands, to instil fear!

The Council has also suggested different actions that could lead to the wife being subjected to this ‘light beating’ – refusal to dress up as per the husband’s wishes, or turning down demands for sexual intercourse without any religious excuse.

Understandably, the reaction has been severe. Muniba Mazari, one of the United Nation’s Goodwill Ambassador to Pakistan, has been vocal about her criticism.

‘REAL men don’t hit women!’ she shared on twitter, followed by a rather poignant message that has since gone viral.

Twitter and Facebook both saw angry citizens raise their voices against this proposal. The Council, however, has remained adamant and is standing by its draft. Maulana Muhammad Khan Sherani, went as far as to say, ‘Do not try to relate our proposal (on beating women) with violence. Light beating does not mean violence.’

This certain clause is not the only one that has caused concern. If the Council would have its way, there would be a blanket ban on women in the public space as they wish to put a stop to women in the military, welcoming foreign guests, and having male friends.

Critics are arguing that the Council, even though mandated to work in the light of Islam, has failed to understand Islamic law and interpreted different aspects of the sharia in the most obsolete way.

Interestingly, the Council is an almost all-male committee (there is apparently only one woman on the Council and she was not present when the draft was being finalised). Following the absurd recommendations and serious doubts about the composition of the Council, calls for the CII to be disbanded have become increasingly stronger.

Thankfully, the Council is just an advisory body which can only make recommendations and none of its proposals are legally enforceable unless they are incorporated as an amendment to the PPWA and passed as legislation (lawmakers have already expressed that they will not be taking these forward!)

Clearly, it seems that the irony of this being a proposal for a ‘Women Protection’ Bill is lost on the (not-so) esteemed Council!