OVER A COFFEE: The Domestic Violence bill —Dr Haider Shah
It is interesting to note that both Hindu and Muslim clerics showed uncanny solidarity in opposing the new law as they argued that their scriptures fully endorsed child marriages
Popular perceptions are generated when similar events happen on a regular basis. In the last few days, the media’s attention was grabbed by the relentless killings in Gilgit-Baltistan on the basis of religious beliefs and the Senate’s rejection of the Prevention of Domestic Violence bill that aimed at minimising domestic violence after members opposed the bill on religious grounds. What perceptions such events shape about our religion and Pakistan is not hard to imagine.
Social justice and equity can be defined as the removal of all obstacles in the progress of all sections of a society. The obstacles can be physical, social or legal. A progressive society is one that uses legal reforms to remove social obstacles and help the less privileged sections overcome their handicaps. Only a draconian society deems it appropriate to use laws and social taboos to further exacerbate the pre-existing handicaps of a deprived section of society. J S Mill once observed, “Among a rude people, the women are generally degraded, among a civilized people they are exalted.” Unfortunately, inheriting this rude social behaviour, we take it for granted that all vulnerable humans can be dealt with with violence. What Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) leaders said about the bill was not surprising; however, after listening to the comments made by Khwaja Saad Rafique of PML-N in a TV talk show, I was extremely disappointed.
No piece of legislation has ever revolutionised any society. Real change only happens when social norms change and reform is internalised by society. A new law, however, serves a more important purpose. It is a solemn declaration by the state that it is no more a party to any inhuman custom. The law declares the intent of the state that it is not happy with the status quo and would use all its resources to engineer the desired change. For instance, 15th-17th century Europe was gripped with hysteria about witchcraft as thousands of women were burnt at the stake or subjected to the ordeal of drowning in water to prove their innocence. In 1735, the Witchcraft Act formally abolished witch-hunts and associated trials but public persecution continued as it took some time before people realised that the offence was an imaginary one.
Saad Rafique spoke on behalf of those who have inherited the mindset of Indian sepoys of 19th century British India. A book detailing the apprehensions of Indian sepoys regarding some changes in laws in the early 19th century mentions that Hindu sepoys agitated the withdrawal of the right of refusing foreign service and feared that they would be polluted if they crossed the sea. They whispered to each other that the Lord Sahib (Viceroy) had given orders to all commanding officers to destroy the religion of the country as a law had been passed to allow Hindu widows to remarry. Similarly, in 1890 the government introduced a law to raise the age of consent from ten to twelve, after the death from haemorrhage of a very young Hindu bride when her husband consummated the marriage. The majority of the then Indian intelligentsia strongly criticised the new law as an intrusion into family life and interference with religion. It is interesting to note that both Hindu and Muslim clerics showed uncanny solidarity in opposing the new law as they argued that their scriptures fully endorsed child marriages.
There is no better alternative to a happy family living peacefully. Our religious sermonisers believe in seeing no evil and hearing no evil by shutting their eyes and waxing their ears. But utopias do not exist and all families do not experience ideal situations and the law has to take care of all possible adverse situations. The bill tries to address this wilful gap in our laws and envisages the mechanism of a conciliatory committee and protection team to ensure the welfare of the victims of domestic violence. If the conciliation efforts fail to bear fruit, it is the prime responsibility of the protection team to not only ensure the safety of the victim but prosecute the perpetrator of violence as well. The opponents are fidgety about including ‘verbal and psychological abuse’ in the definition of domestic violence. The offence has been clearly defined in the bill. Statutory law only provides the main skeleton while courts flesh it out with their interpretations. It is unfair to assume that while applying this provision of the law, courts would not be attentive to the cultural context. Laws are organic in nature and if after implementation any imperfections are observed in the proposed law, the legislature can always modify or reform the law. The opponents of the bill have used a very generic language rather than pinpointing which provision of the bill violated Islamic principles. They must be reminded that we need to benchmark our laws against the rest of the world and bring them at par with the needs of the modern world in which we live today.
If the PML-N is genuinely imbued with religious fervour, it has ample opportunity to exhibit it in Punjab by shutting down all banks as the holy scripture clearly provides that those who deal in an interest-based business are fighting a war against Allah and his Prophet (PBUH). If it is looking for a point-scoring game against the federal government, it should avoid playing it on such a sensitive issue. With Nawaz Sharif’s daughter and the golf playing Marvi Memon coming to the centre-stage of the party, one hoped that the party would be more sensitive to the feminist cause. But some dinosaurs in the party still seem to be calling the shots. Natural selection laws, however, do not favour those who fail to evolve.
The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org