One hundred and twenty two years after adult women were first granted the right to vote in New Zealand, we’re still having a debate on women suffrage in parts of Pakistan. Not to mention the fact that women still can’t vote in Saudi Arabia or Vatican City, where canonical texts form the law. In fact wherever religious law is incorporated in a state’s jurisprudence female turnout is limited in elections, despite ‘universal adult suffrage’ being etched in constitutions.
This is precisely what is jarring the electoral process in many parts of the Muslim world, where religion, culture, tradition and social norms are used as a pretext to deny one half of the population a basic human right. And that’s exactly what happened in the PK 95, Lower Dir by-election on May 7, where ‘tribal elders’ of a local jirga decided to continue the millennia old tradition of men deciding the fate of women, ostensibly on their behalf, and barred them from voting.
Peshawar High Court dismissed the petition against the blatant disenfranchisement of women, citing a ‘lack of evidence’ of a ban on female voters. Apparently the fact that not a single woman cast her vote wasn’t evidence enough.
Even though the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has since ordered a re-polling in PK 95, the fact that a high court in Pakistan ignored the barefaced violation of Article 25(2) of the Constitution shows how our state has taken institutional misogyny to a level where state institutions are providing cover for blatant gender apartheid. This is another milestone for a ‘democratic’ country whose Constitution and Penal Code violate and contradict the articles scribed within, mostly to deny human rights.
Paradoxically, no one has described the mechanism of this institutional misogyny better than Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) Chief Sirajul Haq on whose vacated seat the by-election was being contested. Responding to a question on a possible ban he said: “Women were not barred from voting in the PK 95 by-election. They chose not to vote in light of local traditions.”
It is precisely these ‘local traditions’ that form the foundation of institutions of apartheid, murder, rape and other forms of human rights abuse that the local jirgas are. These tribal courts, in line with the culture and scriptures that they champion, are obsessed with controlling ‘their’ women. This allows a group of adjudicators, with their sole qualification being manhood and an unflinching adherence to patriarchy, to give verdicts on the lives of women under the sanction of the judiciary and political parties of a democratic country in the year 2015 AD.
The ‘elders’ (to add more ‘respect’ to verdicts on murders in the name of ‘honour’) sometimes decide the amount of money a man should owe other men in a woman’s life after parading her like a dog and poisoning her to death. This is what happened to 18-year-old Raheela Jeho last month, whose worth was finalised at Rs 2 million after negotiations between her murderer (also her husband), her father and other ‘notable elders’.
That these ‘courts’ exist is detrimental to the legitimacy of the state’s judicial system. That the judiciary is complying with these antediluvian traditions makes the state accomplice to murder.
Wasn’t it the pagan ‘tradition’ of burying daughters alive that Islam is claimed to have forestalled? Aren’t these tribal leaders the torchbearers of the very same religion? And hence, isn’t it shambolically ironic that the Quran is ubiquitously present in these jirgas as the source of law, and guarantor of testimonies?
We’ve had an infinite number of debates on whether religious scriptures do, or don’t, endorse misogyny and gender discrimination, and it’s about time we reached the obvious conclusion: it doesn’t matter.
Instead of obsessing over the ‘true’ interpretation of Islam, it’s time to give precedence to civil law whenever it clashes with the scriptures, which in turn would ensure that the jurisprudence would be in synchrony with the only form of religion that can exist in the 21st century and beyond: one that is humanistic and pluralistic.
Instead of seeking religion’s approval to determine rights, it’s time to go the other way around and sanction religion’s existence in accordance with universal human rights. Digging up authentications from outmoded scriptures to reconcile ancient theologies with modern-day ideals is self-defeating.
It’s time to make state jurisprudence, and in turn the judiciary, robust enough to counter Sharia law whenever the Islamic scriptures are used to justify marital rape, physical abuse, lopsided polygamy, skewed inheritance or other forms of rights violations for women. That would inevitably have to start with complete purging of jirgas from territories that the ‘democratic’ state of Pakistan wants to lay a claim to.
Unfortunately, as things stand, the Constitution of Pakistan and the Penal Code is a muddled compromise between Sharia and civil law, with the latter being subordinate. This in turn has engraved religious and gender apartheid in the state jurisprudence, giving power to hardliners that are equally fond of suffocating religious minorities and women. The jirgas are just the tip of the iceberg.
Pakistan has managed to redefine and exacerbate the term ‘institutional misogyny’, by letting state institutions sanction gender discrimination and allowing the existence of extrajudicial institutions that give fatal verdicts on women’s choices. The aggravation of the definition further highlights the disparity between the concepts of gender equality as it is understood in the West and parts of the Muslim world.
What further worsens this discrepancy, are attempts by the local intelligentsia to redefine basic human rights through cultural relativism. To propagate an Islamic or South Asian version of feminism is to target the universality of gender equality. If a cultural, traditional, or religious idea is at loggerheads with basic human rights, it simply has no room in the modern world whether it’s New York or North Waziristan.
What we’re witnessing instead is Sharia Courts in the UK, in the name of diversity, that sanction Muslim women’s inheritance as lesser than that of men – lest accusations of 'Islamophobia' or cultural insensitivity bellow in London.
When a woman can be stoned to death in front of the Lahore High Court – as Farzana Iqbal was last year – institutional misogyny turns into acquiescence for murderous morality and perverted concepts of honour. By letting tradition, religion, cultural diversity, or allegations of ‘Orientalism’ or ‘Islamophobia’ sanction misogyny around the world, we’re undoing the over a century’s worth of struggle by women who fought for the rights of every single woman in every part of the world.