The killing of a female Punjab provincial minister on 20 February, 2007, has sent shock waves throughout the country. The minister was shot dead by a religious extremist when she was speaking to the local people in her home town, Gujaranwala.
When the killer was arrested he said to the police that the motive behind the killing was religious. The minister was not a good Muslim and had violated the teachings of Islam, which forbids women to take part in politics. He revealed that he had killed many women and in 1994 had even tried to kill Pakistani People’s Party chairperson, Benazir Bhutto.
According to the killer, no Muslim female should become a political leader or minister. His views are shared by many in this Muslim society. Religious parties and clerics openly campaign against women’s rights. For them, every woman raising her voice about women’s rights and equality is ‘Westernised’ and ‘immoral’ and needs to be harshly punished, up to and including by killing.
This murder, of someone belonging to the ruling party, has exposed the high-sounding claims of the government that women are safer in Pakistan than ever before. But according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, every two hours one woman in the country is raped and one woman is gang raped every eight hours. This, say the rights groups, is probably an under-estimate since so many rapes are still not reported.
There has been a marked increase in the number of incidents of violence against women. The national and regional media is always full every day of these horrific crimes and violence against women.
When parliament passed the ‘Women’s Protection Bill, 2006’ in November of last year, the government made claims that this bill would protect women in Pakistan and it would also enhance their status in society. The government spokesmen and officials gave the impression that this law would bring revolutionary change for women and that violence against them would decrease.
But experience has shown contrary results in the last few months. This is because the ‘Women Protection Bill, 2006’ simply sanctions the violence of the notorious ‘Hudood Ordinance’. It gives it a cosmetic ‘make-over’ with the aim of making it more palatable to the public at large. The changes include a reduction in the sentence for the crime of ‘lewd behaviour’ - from a death sentence down to five years imprisonment and a fine of $200.
But women can still be accused and harshly punished for adultery. The judges are now left free to decide how to proceed with rape cases. Previously, under the Hudood Ordinance, a woman had to provide four male witnesses to confirm that a rape had taken place. Now those four good Muslim men are no longer required as witnesses!
The new women’s bill still does nothing to ensure the safety of rape victims nor does it do away with the fact that a woman can be prosecuted for engaging in consensual sexual relations. It is best described as ‘Hudood Ordinance - the Remix’!
Prior to the implementation of the Hudood laws in 1979, by the barbaric military dictator Zia ul-Haq, Pakistan’s penal code did not label sex outside marriage as a crime. Adultery and pre-marital sex were considered personal ‘sins’, not matters for the state. According to the Hudood laws, marital rape is not a crime. This allowed husbands to rape their wives without punishment. Yet, these same laws make adultery, sex between unmarried couples and prostitution liable to extremely severe punishments. The ordinance stipulated that a person could be found guilty with or without the consent of the other party. This meant that women were more likely to be convicted than men because there would be medical evidence.
As already mentioned, if a woman wanted to prove she had been raped, she had to provide four male witnesses to the crime, all of whom had to be good Muslims!
This Hudood Ordinance has brought unbearable misery, discrimination and horrible conditions for women, especially poor rural women. The police, feudal lords and influential rich people used these laws to cover up their rape and violence against women. Many domestic workers in the cities and female agricultural workers in the rural areas were raped and tortured. Then, when they complained to the police about these crimes, they themselves would be prosecuted under these laws. Police sided with rapists and arrested their victims on charges of adultery.
General Musharaf himself has admitted that these laws have been widely misused and needed to be reviewed. But after months of debate in parliament and the media, the government only came out with a few minor amendments to these laws. These amendments will not make a huge difference, as events have proved.
This new law has changed nothing as far as poor, rural women living in feudal and tribal areas are concerned. On 27 January, 2007, a shameful act took place in the town of Abaro in interior Sindh. Eleven men gang raped a 16 year old girl and than forced her to walk around the village naked. Her only ‘crime’ was that she is the cousin of a young man who dared to marry a girl of an influential family without the consent of the family. The male members of the family felt insulted about this marriage and they decided to take revenge. They stormed the house of the man’s cousin and kidnapped her. Then the 11 men gang raped and severely tortured the poor teenage girl. They were allegedly taking revenge and ‘restoring the honour’ of the family who, they felt, had been defamed by a so-called ‘love marriage’. After the gang rape and torture, she was forced to parade naked in the village. This is how ‘honour’ is restored in this feudal society!
When the family of the victim complained to the police, they refused to register a case and even pressurised a doctor not to issue a medical report of this gang rape. When the news of this horrendous crime was reported in the media, the government and the Supreme Court intervened and ordered the local authorities to register a rape case. This is not the only case highlighted in the media. Four more gang rape cases were reported last month, including one in a police station!
All the Islamic fundamentalist parties, groups and clerics oppose even the weak new amendments to the law. They have organised protests, public rallies and demonstrations against the Women’s Protection Bill. They insist it will turn Pakistan into a free sex zone and will also protect prostitution!
The rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the country and the introduction of the Hudood laws in 1979 have actually given a significant boost to crimes against women. Because these laws protect men and allow women to be easily prosecuted, there has been a significant increase in prostitution, rapes, gang rapes, forced ‘naked parades’, domestic and other violence against women and sexual harassment at work and in society as a whole.
Women were safer before the introduction of these hateful Hudood laws. Pakistan was not a ‘free sex zone’ before. In fact, there were fewer women involved in prostitution before these laws were introduced. History since 1979 shows that they urgently need to be repealed in order to begin to improve the status of the women in society.
So women in Pakistan are celebrating another International Women’s Day under extremely difficult conditions. In the 21st Century, women in Pakistan are still suffering under the customs and traditions of the middle ages in many areas of the country. Demanding women’s rights, let alone exercising them, is still seen as a crime. Even animals are treated better than female human beings in some parts of the country.
The conditions of poor working class women cannot be changed or improved significantly under capitalism. Feudalism, tribalism and capitalism co- exist in Pakistan, which has created terrible conditions for working class and poor rural women. Crimes, violence, and anti-women practices and traditions cannot be stopped only through laws. The main root causes of the problems faced by women also need to be addressed. Feudal and tribal traditions will only end when reactionary feudalism and tribalism are abolished.
The capitalist class has failed to do away with them and complete the tasks of transforming Pakistan into a modern developed society. In neo-colonial countries like Pakistan, only the working class will complete this task through a socialist revolution. The capitalist class is not capable of abolishing feudalism and tribalism and establishing a modern capitalist state. The ‘stages theory’ promoted by Stalinism, which says that workers and youth have to struggle first for a democratic capitalist society, builds the illusion that this would bring a solution. Such ideas offer no way forward for the working class.
To abolish the pernicious and deep-rooted elements of feudalism and tribalism in our society, it is necessary to abolish the capitalist system which has strengthened and protected them. The working class is the only class capable of overthrowing this rotten and reactionary system.
A fighting programme based on the theory of ‘permanent revolution’, linking the abolition of feudalism with the struggle for socialism, will enable the working masses to overcome the evils of both feudal and capitalist barbarism. This would free women from the brutal repression, discrimination, exploitation and violence that they suffer in class-ridden society.
Socialism will guarantee genuine freedom and equality to women. A united struggle of the working class including male workers as well as women, youth and poor peasants is necessary to overthrow the present rotten and reactionary system. The issue of women’s rights and equality is one of the key issues faced by the working class movement. No struggle for social change can succeed with one half of the population left out of the movement. The task of the socialists in Pakistan and world-wide: to organise women in the struggle for social, economic and political justice – for socialist change on an international scale.