Pakistan: Pakistani Women, religious extremism and traditions

Five women shot, wounded and buried alive

The grotesque story of five women in the Jaffarabad district of Baluchistan, who were apparently shot, wounded and then buried while still alive, not only shock the people but also has re-focused attention on the issue of ‘tradition’ and its impact on the daily lives of people. The women were punished for the decision taken by three teenage girls, who are among the victims, to marry by choice. These women were shot and buried alive because, they rebelled against the traditions of tribe. This forbids women to marry by choice. These teenage girls were from influential Umrani tribe. Their “crime” was to refuse to honour the decision made by the tribal elders to arrange a marriage for them, without their consent. Throughout Pakistan, every day many women and young girls are killed just for marrying by choice. At the same time female health workers, teachers and women working for NGOs are killed by reactionary militant religious groups. These innocent women workers are killed because they were not following the strict code of “morality” imposed by these reactionary groups. These same groups claim to be the liberators of humanity. These barbarians have also alleged that women are participating in prostitution. Local Taliban and al-Qa’eda linked militant groups are attempting to impose their own brand of Islam in parts of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and tribal areas. They want to establish Taliban style government and law. These groups are targeting girls’ schools and shops selling CD’s and televisions. They are attacking and bombing the music shops and girls’ schools. They have banned female workers in the public and private sectors.

Pakistan is a country where women are already deprived of their basic democratic, political and economic rights. The women are fighting for their basic rights. In many parts of the country, women have to confront old traditions and customs going back centuries. Honour killing, social and economic discrimination, repression, domestic violence, discriminatory laws and sexual harassment are the main problems faced by women in Pakistan. The previous regime made bold claims after introducing new legislation called the “Women’s Protection Bill”. However, in reality little has changed for working class and poor women since the implementation of this bill. The new government also makes similar statements on women rights.

The rise of religious extremism is making the lives of women more miserable and oppressed. The few freedoms and democratic rights enjoyed by women in these areas are being crushed by the extremist groups. Girls’ education has been declared a “western conspiracy” and thus banned. More than 300 girls’ schools have been closed down, many of them destroyed. Women have also been banned from markets and shops. A strict dress code has also been imposed. Every woman must be fully covered, from head to toe. They are not allowed to take part in the political activities and are barred from voting in elections. Women have become invisible in the areas controlled by the reactionary religious groups.

Why attack women rights?

For these reactionary militant groups and tribal elders, woman are a symbol of family honour and dignity. It is regarded as an insult for somebody outside the family to see the face of a female family member. These people consider female members of the family as their personal property and thus they believe they have the right to treat them as they wish. They want to confine women to the home to “save their honour and dignity”. They strongly believe that if women are allowed out of the home to receive an education, go shopping or get a job then society will become “immoral and vulgar”. They also believe that women are responsible for promoting prostitution, immorality and vulgarity in society. They think that it is women who attract males to commit atrocities. So, they argue, it is necessary to segregate women from social, political and economic life.

The reactionary religious groups impose their code of ethics on women in the name of Shariah and Islamic teachings. The tribal chiefs and elders impose their code of morality in the name of “tradition and custom”. This male chauvinistic interpretation of Islam and morality is not confined to the most backward areas of the country. It also exists in the big cities and towns. The reactionary religious groups are punishing women and trying to impose Shariah law in NWFP and tribal areas. At the same time women are being punished to enforce “tradition and custom”.

The causes of such outdated and reactionary ideas are rooted in the fact that our society remains deeply tribal and feudal and firmly patriarchal. The ancient reactionary rotten system that imprisons people to overlords remains firmly in place. In the 61 years since independence, the capitalist class in Pakistan failed to abolish feudalism and tribalism from the country. Instead it has strengthened these historically obsolete social systems to maintain the status-quo and their own rule. Feudal lords and tribal chiefs remain the second most powerful section of the ruling class following the military and civil bureaucracy. So both the military and civilian governments need their political support and backing. In return they give them a free hand in their respective areas to impose their own will.

Can laws alone bring change?

Many laws have been introduced to stop the practice of barbaric and inhuman traditions and customs, but these legislations failed to stop the practice of these traditions. A piece of legislation was introduced in 2005 which declared honour killing a heinous crime and the death penalty was imposed as punishment under this law. But this strict law and capital punishment failed to reduce the number of honor killings. There was more than 800 such cases reported in 2007. The number of unreported cases was many times higher. While customs such as ‘swara’ and ‘vani’ are banned by law, they continue to take place. The ‘swara’ and ‘vani’ are practiced in some parts of southern Punjab and NWFP. These customs allow young girls to be offered to settle the dispute between rival families. For instance, if a person is accused of murder, wants to settle a dispute with deceased family, they can offer their daughter or sister to ‘absolve’ themselves of the crime. Young girls, two or three years old are simply passed to the rival family. This custom is used to settle all sorts of disputes, without involving the law or police. Other traditions include child marriage. Forced marriage and marriages to the Holy Quran also continue, despite the existence of the laws and widespread social consensus against them. The marriage to the Holy Quran is a custom that exists among the feudal families of Sindh. Under this custom, the male members of the family refuse to allow the female members to marry and declare that they have been married to the Quran. The main reason from this custom is to safe guard part of the land which otherwise will go with a marriage of daughter or sister. Under the presence of the laws, these barbaric and inhuman traditions and customs are still flourishing. Laws alone can not abolish these reactionary and vicious traditions and customs. What is really needed is the united struggle of working men and women and the poor not only against these traditions and customs but against the whole system which create such appalling conditions for women. The struggle of working and poor women, and young girls against these traditions and conditions are not separate from the struggle of the working masses to overthrow the system of capitalism, feudalism and tribalism. Capitalism can not create the conditions in which women can enjoy full rights, freedom and equality. Socialism is the only system which guarantees equal rights and opportunities to women. Women can enjoy full liberty and freedom in a socialist society, free from all exploitation, repression and discrimination.

Role of the SMP

The SMP (Socialist Movement of Pakistan, CWI) is determinedly campaigning against the rise of religious extremism and the erosion of women rights in the different parts of the country. The SMP continues to produce pamphlets and leaflets on these issues. SMP members are busy campaigning against these horrors of feudal dominated Sindh province and the NWFP, which is dominated by the reactionary religious groupings. The SMP is playing an active and leading role in organizing fight backs against the forces of darkness and reaction. Our campaign against domestic violence, discriminatory laws and inhuman traditions has played important role in developing a political awareness of these issues in working class communities and trade unions in cities, towns and rural areas.

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