The past few weeks have been quite volatile on the Pakistani political front. Among other things, the one item responsible for creating a tempest in our national teapot is Punjab Assembly’s Protection Of Women Against Violence Bill passed on February 24, 2016 to become an Act – the Law.

My first thought upon hearing of this law and the almost hysterical effect it was having on the men sprouting from various segments of the society (religious, media, politics etc.) was to find out more.

What does the Punjab Protection Of Women Against Violence Act 2016 really say?

It is a law ‘to establish an effective system of protection, relief and rehabilitation of women against violence’. The law will come into force for ‘women victims’. The use of the term ‘victim’ is important here since ‘victim’ by definition means a person harmed, injured, or killed as a result of a crime, accident, or other event or action. Hence, it is self-explanatory that the Act will come into force only when violence has already been perpetrated against the complainant. The Law has 31 sections. I’ll summarize what it says, however, you may read the full script here

·         Section 1 deals with the title (name of the Act), its extent and jurisdiction.

·         Section 2 deals with what each term means and is defined for the benefit of this particular Act. For instance, the Act defines ‘aggrieved person’ as a ‘female who has been subjected to violence by a defendant’. Domestic relationship is defined as ‘related to each other by consanguinity (close relation or connection), marriage or adoption’. Therefore, this Act is not just relevant to wives but extends to all women in the household. This Section also defines what it means by ‘violence’ and clearly explains what the Act means by ‘economic abuse’ and ‘psychological violence’. Please note that definitions in any Law don’t have to be the same as the ones we find in an ordinary dictionary. Hence, this section of any Law is extremely important. Subsection (r) defines violence as per this Act, and I quote:

1)      Economic abuse means denial of food, clothing and shelter in a domestic relationship to the aggrieved person by the defendant in accordance with the defendant’s income or taking away the income of the aggrieved person without her consent by the defendant; and

2)      Psychological violence includes psychological deterioration of aggrieved person which may result in anorexia, suicide attempt or clinically proven depression resulting from defendant’s oppressive behavior or limiting freedom of movement of the aggrieved person and that condition is certified by a panel of psychologists appointed by the District Women protection Committee.

·         Section 3 deals with how this Act will be implemented; by formation of committees, appointment of necessary officials, enabling channels for effective delivery of services under the Act, and promotion of this Act to help the general public understand what it means.

·         Section 4 deals with the procedures of how a complaint will be filed to the Court under this Act. Subsection (3) states that the defendant (person against whom the complaint is filed) will be given a 7-day show cause notice of why the complaint is wrong or shouldn’t be lodged. In other words, the defendant will also be given a chance to state why the complaint is unfair and/or untrue before the Court rules out any decision.

·         Sections 5 – 9 deal with the right of the aggrieved person to reside in her house and the range of orders a Court can give based on its satisfaction and evidence provided of the violence committed against the aggrieved person. The orders will encompass protection, residence and monetary situations with regards to the cases involved. Subsection (3) of Section 8 specifies that ‘the Court shall have due regard to the financial needs and resources of the parties before passing any order having financial implications’. This means the Court will not unjustly subject anyone to anything. Subsections (d, e) of Section 7 deal with the notorious GPS tracker and defendant’s exit from the house but these conditions will only be applied for ‘any act of grave violence or likely grave violence which may endanger the life, dignity or reputation of the aggrieved person’. So, this is bad news only for hardcore criminals. If you’re not one, you need not sweat over it.

·         Section 10 deals with the duration and alteration of orders defined in the previous sections as given by the Court. Subsection (3) specifies that an aggrieved person can ask the Court to take back any orders issued in case the matters between defendant and aggrieved person are resolved and reconciled.

·         Sections 11 – 14 deal with the functions, roles, rights and responsibilities, appointments, remuneration and process of accountability of the designated officials and non-official members of the lawful bodies formed under this Act to provide effective services to the public, and the role, rights and responsibilities of the lawful bodies formed and the Government of Punjab with regards to this Act.The most important point raised multiple times in these Sections, and in many other places in the Act, is that the top priority of every official involved will be to ‘maintain an effective system of mediation and reconciliation for resolution of disputes under this Act’. Yes, nobody will be trying to break up the family involved and injure the delicate cultural fabric of our society.

·         Section 15 deals with the power of entry granted to officials under this Act to rescue an aggrieved person from a place. There are a few very important points to note here. Subsection (1) states that an officer ‘shall not rescue an aggrieved person without her consent’. This means the aggrieved person will have to call the officer for help, which means nobody will just jump in the midst of the family to help anyone at any time. Subsection (2) states that an officer ‘shall give reasonable notice to the in-charge of the place or house before entering’ to rescue/meet the aggrieved person who’d have called such an officer. Subsection (5) states that such entrance ‘shall only be exercised by a female officer of the protection system’.

·         Section 16 is dedicated entirely to the fact that any action under Act will only come into play ‘on request of the aggrieved person’ or on ‘information or complaint’ received by the ‘district authorities including police’. Upon reading this Section, it becomes clear that the only people who need to fear this Law are the ones who are criminals or criminally inclined and who want to continue their aggressive control over a woman and continue exercising abuse over her. Anyone who isn’t such a person has no reason to object to any part of this Act for any reason whatsoever.

·         Section 17 – 21 deal with the technical aspects of how the officers might ask for help and of whom with regards to the cases under this Act, penalties for obstructing justice and non-compliance with the Court orders issued under this Act, and the fact that any Court will not interfere or take notice of any offence except for when an officer, empowered under this Act, notifies the Court through proper procedure. Hence, there is no reason to fear Court’s intervention in your private matters without just cause.

·         Section 22 deals with the defendant’s right to appeal in Court against any order issued by the Court under this Act. So this whole Section is dedicated to how the defendant can prove why and how he isn’t the bad guy.

·         Sections 23 – 31 deal with the technicalities, procedures, roles, rules and responsibilities that the Government of Punjab will have in reference to the effectiveness, workings, implementation, audit of this Act, and release of case information, immunity, protection and accountability of officials and volunteers empowered under this Act. Various other procedures and legal matters are discussed that feed into how this Act will function, and how it shall be made better.

Now, that the Act is explained as much as a blog would allow, let’s tackle the criticisms that I’ve heard made all across the media board.

What was the need for this particular law?

This is the first question I’ve heard come from every corner to smear this Act.

Why do we need this law? Don't we already have laws that criminalize any violence against any citizen? How is this law different from those laws?

The answer is quite simple. Yes, Pakistan Penal Code does have a few, emphasis on few, and general laws for offenses like outraging the modesty of women but they are not stringent or tough enough. For instance, Section 354/354A of the PPC already exists but it does not cater to the violent domestic situations detailed in Women Protection Act 2016. WPA is more specific, has a wider scope, and is intended to be applied with greater force.

In case it is still difficult to understand why we need this law, let’s talk about food. You’re in a restaurant and you order rice. Now your simple order of rice does not specify what kind of rice will suit your fancy. Boiled white rice? Pulao? Zarda? Motanjan? Tahri? Biryani? What kind of biryani? For every variety of rice, you’ll need a specific recipe and any change in recipe will alter the taste and smell and look of the dish in question, and every dish speaks for a certain occasion. For instance, biryani means festivity while boiled white rice with lentils is an everyday meal.

Laws work in similar ways – to simplify the argument.

Why don’t we just amend the Constitution rather than make laws?

This is a stupid question but respected panel members in talk shows on television have asked it. I could’ve just facepalmed but I think let’s clarify a few things first.

The Constitution of any country is the foundation of all law for the federal and provincial governments. It provides the framework for the type of government system to be established in the country (presidential, parliamentary etc.), organization of government, kind of bodies needed to enforce such governance, it establishes the rules needed to amend itself, outlines the rights and responsibilities of the citizens towards the State and rights and responsibilities of the State towards its citizens. The Constitution is the foundation of any State and its government. Think foundation of a building under construction.

The ordinary laws, or PPC in our case, is the judicial building constructed upon the foundation laid by the Constitution. It is the PPC that defines the gravity of crimes and decides which crime will be subjected to which punishment. For instance, the Constitution tells us that citizens have a right to freedom of expression. The PPC ensures how this fundamental right is protected under the Constitution by detailing scenarios and laws and penalties that cater to this right and its abuse. Or when the Constitution says all citizens have a right to be protected by the State, it is the PPC that decides which murder trial will receive a death sentence for homicide or should it be classified as manslaughter and get life instead. 

All laws have to be in line with the Constitution or they will be struck down. The argument that WPA is unconstitutional is invalid because the Constitution guarantees gender equality and ‘enables the State to make any special provision for the protection of women’. So you see, there is no need to amend the Constitution. The Constitution already allows this law to be made and enforced.

Women Protection Act is un-Islamic and anti-Sharia.

My question is how? Exactly which Section or Subsection is anti-Sharia?

We all agree that Islam doesn’t allow violence to be perpetrated against women (Al-Baqra, 231) but that doesn’t mean that violence against women doesn’t happen. Even if it’s 1% of the population that suffers from domestic violence (as per personal survey conducted by Mufti Naeem of Jamia Binoria), that makes about approximately 1,930,000 people who are either abused or involved in the abuse somehow. (According to Pakistan Economic Survey, Pakistan’s population was an estimated 191.71 million in 2015; according to World Bank report, it was 182 million in 2013 – you do the math). Do the critics of this Act really believe that no measures need to be taken to protect this slice of our society?

The religious class insists that domestic abuse must be tackled in accordance to the guidelines put forth by the Holy Quran and they frequently quote verses of Al-Nissa that propose mediation. The WPA specifically states multiple times under various Sections and Subsections that the top priority of officers operating under this Act will be to ‘maintain an effective system of mediation and reconciliation for resolution of disputes under this Act’. As for the criticism with regards to why call the officers and not simply rely on family members, perhaps a look at all the women who check into hospitals to get care for their injuries suffered because of domestic violence or the FIRs filed will be enough to prove how ineffective this familial system can be. When all else fails, the victim has a right to call the State for help. Islamic history is full of instances when women complained to the Prophet, his wives or later to the Caliphs about seeking relief and protection from domestic abuse. The Prophet and Caliph represented the State and the Law, hence, asking the State for help in familial matters is not anti-Sharia.

Quite a few scholars casually quote verse 34 from Al-Nissa to justify beating or striking the wife. That’s cute but let’s consider a few things before we grab it to support our lust for abusing women:

a.       The verse calls for pious husbands, which means a husband who is pious according to the standard set by Quran itself. Such a person would most probably be more concerned about self-accountability and self-reflection rather than looking down on and judging other people for their sins let alone beat somebody up;

b.      The term ‘strike her’ and its conditions and reasons are interpreted in a hundred different ways by a hundred different scholars over hundreds of years and none of them have defined it to mean the kind of violence and abuse as described in the Act.

c.       The verse calls for separating yourself from your wife, which is not the same as discontinuing to clothe, feed and shelter her nor does it mean to torture her psychologically.

d.      The verse may say ‘strike her’ but it doesn’t forbid the wife from striking back or complaining or protesting or resisting or dragging the husband to court for striking her. So there. She can very well do all that and it will not be haram. If some of us insist on teaching our men it’s their privilege to strike women, all of us must teach our women to defend and protect themselves.

e.      Lastly, there is not one incident of the Prophet beating or striking or even raising his voice to any of his wives or any woman of his household. There are however countless examples of how helpful and caring and loving he was to his wives and the women related or connected to him, and none of that was a reaction to how these women behaved with him but an example of how men must treat their women regardless of how the women treated their men.

Lastly, the argument of men being superior to women. Sorry, but that doesn’t mean men own the women under their care. This is basically about division of labor, not supremacy. Men have different responsibilities towards their family (provider and protector) and the women are entrusted with a different set of tasks (creator and homemaker). True, a man is made to be head of the household but only in the same way as a company can only have one CEO. However, if the CEO acts like a moron and tries to run the company down, he can very well be fired in favor of someone else who can do the job well. A marriage works much in the same way.

This Act will damage our cultural fabric, spiking the divorce rate through the roof.

I only have one thing to say, a relationship in which a woman’s body, life and reputation is unsafe, desecrated and dishonored is not worth saving. Any attempt to secure such a toxic arrangement should be deemed criminal as well. Nothing is more important than the sanctity of a human life and dignity of a human being. Women are human beings too – the other gender of Ashraf-ul-Makhlooqat without whom man would cease to exist. Any man who fails to respect that deserves no respect either.

We are copying the West and women protection laws don’t protect women.

First of all, countries that have these laws in place, the women there are protected much more than our women. We don’t even have the proper stats available on how many women suffer so how can we even compare? Our women have neither the courage nor the proper means to come forth and report violence. Secondly, it would be interesting to note exactly which Section of the Act is westernized and even if it is, there’s no harm in taking good lessons regardless of where they’re coming from. In fact, there’s a Hadith on that. Look it up. Finally, laws are made as deterrents and to punish wrong doers. Making laws doesn’t mean a crime will totally end and if that is the measure of success then let’s repeal all laws including murder, rape, theft, traffic, custom, tax and everything else. Let’s be without any laws altogether!

My ONE criticism (or concern rather) of the WPA.

Section 12(2): The Committee may accept donations such as land, vehicles, equipment or money for the facilitation of the functioning of the protection system and all such donations shall be used, maintained and disposed of by the Committee in the prescribed manner.

There is no limit that’s notified of on these donations in the Act. There is no prescribed manner either in which these donations shall be made. Will the checks/donations be made out to individual officials, the Committee specifically, the Punjab Government or anyone working under this Act? Will the donations be required to be made anonymously? Will the donors be known? How will the Act guarantee that the donor will not be able to exert unjust control or pressure over the proceedings of the Committee or body to which the donations are made?

Sections 25 and 28 that deal with performance audit and annual reports respectively do not state anything on it either. Section 29(2)(e), however, does mention that the Government of Punjab, within 120 days of commencement of the Act, will make rules relating to ‘use, maintenance and disposal of land, vehicle, equipment and other items or money donated to a Protection Center or shelter home’.

It will be interesting to note what these rules will be. I understand that all laws are made in good faith and depend upon good intentions of the officials and officers for honest execution but given our current environment and culture of corruption, a provision like 12(2) seems to give a freeway to bribes. It will be interesting to see how the Government tackles all that.

The Punjab Women Protection Act 2016 is a superb step towards women protection and empowerment and must be hailed left, right and center. There is always room for improvement, of course, but there is no room for shooting it down. Besides, there really isn’t solid ground to say the things the religious class and other critics are raving about.

Our ‘esteemed’ critics of the WPA totally fail to convince why they oppose the Act except that they just don’t want to give women equal rights neither as fellow human beings nor as citizens of Pakistan. So, this is about misogyny and patriarchy at risk rather than anything else.