The gendered cost of NATO in Pakistan

Pakistan's Domestic Violence Bill has become the latest fatality in the barter between women's rights, NATO, and issues of national security, says Afiya Shehrbano Zia

The Domestic Violence Bill was first introduced in Pakistan’s National Assembly in 2006 by a woman member of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Sherry Rehman, currently Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United States. At the time, the leader of the PPP, the late Benazir Bhutto, was in political exile and the party served as the main opposition under General Musharraf’s government.

Under Musharraf’s rule, many prodigious pro-women laws and policies were passed, including an unprecedented leap in quotas for women’s seats at all tiers of government. This enabled many younger, aspiring women politicians as well as those in public service, to make significant headway in promoting gender equitable national policy.  Simultaneously, they served as symbols of Musharraf’s purported plan to redefine Pakistan’s image as a country on the path of ‘enlightened moderation’.

Whereas under Benazir Bhutto’s earlier government (1990-93) there used to be just two women in the National Assembly (NA) under Musharraf, in 2002, there were some 60 women in the National Assembly, 17 in the Senate and some 30,000 women councilors at the local government levels. Apart from political representation, the setting up of a National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW) and a National Policy for the Development and Empowerment of Women, the Honour Killing and the Women’s Protection Acts were major achievements for women’s rights. These nudged the country’s position upwards on international indices such as, the Gender Empowerment Measure.

A Political Trojan Horse

General Musharraf’s rule, however, was a political Trojan horse for women in several ways. Firstly, women in Pakistan have had a chequered relationship with dictatorships. In particular, the military rule of Gen Zia ulHaq (1979-88) had targeted women as part of a regressive Islamisation campaign. The drive to put women into the ‘Chaddar and Chardewari’ (the veil and the four-walls/domesticity), the Zina (Adultery) Laws, which landed many women accused of adultery in prison, and a proposed dress code which feminists successfully resisted, are just a few examples.  Simultaneously, Zia’s regime rendered women invisible from all public venues through policies that disallowed sportswomen from participating in regional or national competitions and disapproving of their participation in the performing arts. The attempt to gender segregate Pakistani society also led to the proposal for Pakistan’s first ‘Women’s University’. Pakistan’s feminists have historically resisted military rule as antithetical to democracy and as obstructive of the due rights of the working classes, minorities and women, including representation, of, by and for, themselves.

However, soon after his coup in 1999, Musharraf’s photos in the international media cradling his two dogs in his arms (one named ‘Whisky’), appeased the international community, which hailed him as a ‘liberal’ alternative leader for the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. The coup was also welcomed by many members of the Pakistani elite, who were alarmed by the increasingly conservative and Islamist policies of the preceding, civilian Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif.

Women activists who were committed to liberal, democratic agendas faced a dilemma. Should they collaborate with an army General, who believed in ‘enlightened moderation’ and women’s empowerment, but also insisted on abrogating the constitution and retaining his position as chief of army while brokering deals with parties to become the President? Adhering to a principle of non-engagement with such a military-led regime would mean foregoing the opportunity of unprecedented access to the corridors of power that could enable women activists to push for more egalitarian agendas in both, policy and governance structures. Democratic governments, even when sympathetic to women’s issues, face too many checks, bureaucratic hurdles and opposition from religious lobbies, which this “liberal” dictator could simply overrule.

Women from many sectors including, activists from NGOs, respected judges and lesser-regarded aspiring politicians, gave into the temptations of co-optation by a military leadership, thus legitimizing his rule. Those who remained more sympathetic to PPP leader-in-exile, Benazir Bhutto (who challenged Musharraf’s legitimacy until she returned in 2007), retained an oppositional stance in the hope of her return some day, to restore democracy. However, on the woman question, from nearly every quarter, there was considerable activity and cooperation with the General’s government. Women activists, who had previously fought against military rule, even received awards from the army general, in recognition of their services, primarily in the field of art and culture. 

There was also another side to the ‘controlled democracy’ that General Musharraf ‘gifted’ to the nation. For the first time, Islamist political parties such as the Jamaat e Islaami, formed a sizeable representation in parliament including its women members. In principle, the religio-political parties oppose women’s participation in any/all public life. However, in order to qualify as a candidate in the 2002 elections, a new rule required that hopefuls had to be university graduates. Since men in religious parties tend to be educated at madrassahs(religious seminaries) rather than secular institutes, this led to many women graduates fielding in proxy for male candidates. Also, the reserved seats for women could not be wasted. The Jamaate e Islaami  was just one of the 5 faith-based parties that formed the religious alliance, the MMA. This alliance was elected into the provincial government of the North Western Frontier Province (now, Khyber Pukhtunkhwa), bordering Afghanistan. The women members of these Islamist parties played a crucial role in the provincial as well as, at national level politics and probably posed the most effective challenges to subvert Musharraf’s ‘liberal’ policies for women.

Deferred not defeated 

The curve of legislative knowledge took a fast upward turn during this period, particularly for women politicians who were motivated by personal and political ambitions. Between 2002-2007, an average of 10 interventions were made by women members on each of the days when the National Assembly sessions were held. Out of a total of 240 private member bills tabled, Naeem Mirza and Waseem Wagha record that 101 were introduced by women members. However, after sifting, ultimately a total of only 70 were taken up for legislative consideration, 40 of which were those introduced by women.

One private member bill was the Prevention of Domestic Violence Bill moved by Sherry Rehman in 2006 after it had been on the list for debate for a year. It was supported by other opposition members of the PPP including Aitzaz Ahsan, who later led the nationwide lawyers’ movement (2007- 2009) to restore the Chief Justice ousted by Musharraf in 2007 - which many attribute as the cause that ultimately led to the removal of Gen Musharraf from office.

The Domestic Violence Bill (DVB), as expected, was challenged by the representatives of the religious parties but also, by the male Parliamentary secretary, who belonged to Musharraf’s own ruling party – the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid faction). The main objection raised by the men opposing the bill was that although they were not opposed to the notion of women’s empowerment, no law could be supported if it contradicted Islamic injunctions.

The main debate on the DVB centered around how one particular verse of the Quran,  as traditionally interpreted by men, sanctioned Muslim men to discipline recalcitrant, disobedient or wayward wives by admonishment, followed by a ‘light’ beating if needed. The proposed DVB that sought to criminalise such behavior would, according to the male objections in parliament, contradict this provision. Although Islamist women in parliament did not support the bill, they did however, object to the men’s interpretation of the verse during debate. Eventually, the debate in 2006 was adjourned by the speaker and referred for advice from religious authorities and scholars. 

Not for the first time, Musharraf’s own party concurred and compromised on laws regarding women. The cracks in liberal facades were visible from the beginning but at this point women supporters understood that relying on the General’s personal goodwill was a self-defeating strategy. By 2007, the country was overtaken by events such as the deposition of the Chief Justice, mass protests, emergency rule, the return and popular reception of Benazir Bhutto in October and her assassination even before the year ended.

General elections in 2008 saw the victory of the PPP under the leadership of the late Benazir Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari. With many challenges facing the new government, legislative progress and policies for women gained momentum only towards the second half of this government’s rule. The Domestic Violence Bill was passed by the new National Assembly in 2009 but lapsed within the 90 days stipulation period when the upper house, the Senate, returned the draft with some objections. However, several other rights-based laws were passed including, the bill for the Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace (2010), after many years of lobbying, negotiating with religious parties and male resistance. In particular, the points of contention included the definition of victim, the gendered nature of the crime and the concern over false accusations.

NATO Negotiations

At the initiative of women activists and the NCSW, and with the support of women parliamentarians, the Domestic Violence Bill was tabled once again by the National Assembly at the beginning of 2012 for review and possible enactment. No-one could have predicted the bad timing due to a totally unrelated event.

A few months earlier, in November 2011, an ‘inadvertent’ US-led NATO attack on a Pakistani checkpoint, Salalah on the border with Afghanistan, further strained the already shaky, post- Bin Laden, US-Pakistan relations. The resulting deaths of 25 Pakistani soldiers and the subsequent refusal of an apology by the US government outraged the nation.  As a sign of protest, the government shut down an airbase used for the controversial drones,  as well as, two NATO supply lines to Afghanistan that run through Pakistan and account for 40% of provisions.

 It is in this context that the Domestic Violence Bill suddenly became a flashpoint in this climate of very strained US-Pakistan relations and in view of the fact that this is the last year of the incumbent government’s term in office. Both conditions led to a conducive environment for deals and negotiations all around, particularly on women’s issues. 

 The DVB as collateral damage

When finally tabled in parliament for review in early April 2012, the conservative opposition party (Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, PML-N) colluded with the religious party (JamiatUlemaIslam-Fazlur, (JUI-F), to resist the Domestic violence Bill as a ‘ploy to westernize Pakistani women and culture’. This led to a spontaneous reaction amongst women’s rights activists in the capital, Islamabad, to campaign against the misogynist attitude of chief of the JUI-F, Maulana Fazlur Rehman. There was a face-off between the women’s rights groups and the JUI-F party members, outside the National Assembly. Some women activists reportedly managed to enter the house in order to register their concern. But this was seen as an intrusion with intent to disrupt parliamentary procedure. A volley of accusations ensued between the Maulana, (colloquially mocked as an ideological opportunist who is willing to lend political allegiance to any government who can offer him a lucrative deal) and the women activists.

The Maulana reportedly dismissed the Bill’s contents as an attempt to impose a Zionist/Westernised agenda and its proponents as ‘home-breakers and shameless women’.  The JUI–F also accused rights based NGOs of depending on American dollars to work against Islamic Shariah.   Simultaneously, the Maulana withdrew from the Parliamentary Committee on National Security, set up to review relations with the US and which included the task of building consensus towards renewing NATO supply lines. The women members of the JUI-F also expressed their objection to the ‘freedoms’ associated with the DVB, which, in their view, challenges the sanctity of marriage and the rightful dominance of the husband. According to them, domestic violence is often an impulsive act on part of the husband when the woman tries to become head of the household.

The timing of the JUI-F’s subsequent threats to oppose the Bill under any circumstances and the Maulana’s total withdrawal from any parliamentary joint-sessions was suspect because at this time there was increasing international pressure on the government to re-open the NATO supply routes. The ruling party, so close to election time and under a strong wave of anti-American national sentiments, was unwilling to risk the fallout of being the only one to support the unpopular but necessary decision of re-opening the supply route and normalising ties with the US.

Maulana Fazlur Rehman had to be convinced to rejoin the Parliamentary Committee on National Security and lend political cover to a ‘consensual’ joint resolution to reopen NATO routes. Within the week of his withdrawal from any parliamentary activity, he was convinced to return to parliament and based on a consensus of all parties, a resolution to normalise relations with the US (including re-opening of NATO supply routes) was passed. The government has to make the official announcement of the decision to reopen NATO supply routes but at least all the actors are now afforded an equal and collective defense of plausible deniability in response to any potential backlash. The opposition lawmakers and the reluctant Maulana Fazlur Rehman never explained why they dropped their earlier objections to renewing US ties or opening NATO lines.  

For all practical purposes, the DVB that was supposed to be reviewed during the same time period has become collateral damage in the barter between women’s rights and issues of national security. Whether religious lobbies were officially offered such concessions by the government is a subject of conjecture but given the record of male attitudes in parliament across all parties, this would not be a far-fetched supposition. The women parliamentarians are preparing to introduce a different domestic violence bill but it is one that needs a lot of work and does not carry the history, process or effectiveness of the deferred but practically speaking, defunct version of the bill. Also, effectively, any new bill will now be carrying an additional amount of political baggage.

About the author

Afiya Shehrbano Zia is a feminist researcher and activist based in Karachi, Pakistan.  She is the author of,‘ Sex Crime in the Islamic Context’ and several published articles on women, religion and secularism