Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Amidst all the tragedy and confusion, at a time when the nation is desperately seeking answers and guidance in the quest to eliminate terrorism and religious extremism, one group of men decided that they could no longer remain silent. Earlier this week, in a meeting featuring a truly diverse and impressive collection of robes, beards, and hats, the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) decided to comment on the burning issues of our times, providing instruction and direction to a hapless parliament and a rudderless citizenry. Henceforth, counselled the sages of the CII, men divorcing their wives by declaring their intent to do so three consecutive times would be punished, even though the divorce itself would remain valid. Warming to this theme, the CII then reiterated its commitment to polygamy, arguing once again that men could marry multiple wives without the permission of their first, and that this did not constitute valid grounds upon which a woman could be granted a divorce. Buoyed by the strength of their convictions, and possibly mistaking the bewildered silence of their audience for enthusiastic support, the members of the CII then deigned to declare that women could, in fact, become judges in Pakistan. Mindful of the fact that this pronouncement could, prima facie, be misconstrued as an endorsement of the liberal-secular-Western agenda that has been seeking to destroy Pakistan these past seventy years, the CII was quick to clarify its statement; women could become judges, but only if they were above 40 years of age and were fully veiled. Why? To quote the Chairman of the CII, ‘This is a mature age, when women no longer remain attractive or marriageable’. Even then, according to the CII, women could simply not be allowed to rule on Hudood or Qisas cases.

The Chairman of the CII should be given credit for at least one thing; rarely has someone met with such success in encapsulating and articulating Pakistan’s entrenched misogyny so succinctly and yet so comprehensively. In just 13 words, the gentleman in question was able to go over some of patriarchy’s greatest hits in Pakistan; women under 40 lack the mental faculties to pursue careers and should only be valued on the basis of their physical attributes and saleability in the marriage market, women over 40 are of no interest to anyone and can therefore appear in the public sphere without disturbing the sexual order or subverting the virtue of honourable men, all women, regardless of who they are or what they do, must be veiled, and no woman can ever be the equal of a man.

The absurdity of the CII’s statements on women is so self-evident it is scarcely worthy of comment. As demonstrated by its pronouncements last year, in which it endorsed child marriage and forbade the use of DNA evidence when investigating rape cases, the CII is a body that unabashedly promotes and pursues a retrogressive anti-woman agenda. This is also true for its latest ruling regarding divorce, which has proven to be controversial for all the wrong reasons. For some hardline religious scholars, imposing any kind of limitation on a man’s right to divorce runs contrary to Shariah law and so, the CII’s recommendations are unacceptable. For the PPP, which has welcomed the move, the logic underlying the CII’s arguments make sense; in a context where rates of divorce are going up, impeding the ease with which a divorce can be obtained, with a view towards facilitating reconciliation and protecting the ‘sanctity’ of marriage; is a definite step in the right direction.

The problem with framing the debate in this way is that it obscures the real issue with divorce in Pakistan, namely the tremendous imbalance of power between men and women. For starters, it is not immediately clear why divorce must necessarily be seen as a bad thing. It is obviously a difficult decision for the people involved, and can have broader implications for children and family, but is also sometimes necessary and preferable to a lifetime trapped in a dysfunctional relationship. Yet, even a cursory look at divorce and family law in Pakistan makes one thing abundantly clear; there in one rule for men and another for women, with no prizes for guessing which of the two has the better deal. For all intents and purposes, men have an unconditional right to divorce which can be exercised at any point in time. The only responsibility men have is to inform the relevant Union Council of the proceedings in order to formally conform the divorce. Yet, because the onus for doing this is entirely on men, there have been cases where some, after divorcing their wives as per Islamic tradition, have deliberately chosen not to register this fact with the authorities. The result of this has been the relegation of some women to an uncertain legal status under which they are unable to prove that they are no longer married, leaving open the possibility that their ex-husbands could subsequently claim the divorce never took place. In the past, this has led to women being charged for adultery under the Hudood Ordinance for the ‘crime’ of contracting a new marriage after believing they had been divorced. Men, on the other hand, with their license to engage in polygamy, are free to have multiple marriages without fear. As such, even after being divorced, women are often left at the mercy of their ex-husbands, unable to go on with their lives without the approval of the latter.

The problem gets worse, Even though women have the right to divorce in Pakistan (and, indeed, in Islam), this is often treated as being optional, with millions of women in Pakistan being deprived of this right when signing their nikahnamas, often due to pressure from their own families and those of their husbands. Absent this legal protection, women can only get a divorce after obtaining a judicial order from the courts, with this in turn being determined by whether or not the petition for divorce meets certain conditions laid down by the law. The difficulty many women face in going to court for this purpose, coupled with the tremendous social pressure to remain married, the stigmatization of female divorcees, and the economic precarity and lack of security experienced by many single women in Pakistan (itself a result of deeply embedded patriarchal norms), essentially means that it is often difficult, and sometimes virtually impossible, for women to escape abusive and unhappy relationships.

The CII claims that it is interested in reducing the numbers of divorces in Pakistan. If there is a concern about men arbitrarily divorcing their wives in a context where society offers scant protections to such women, surely it makes more sense to focus on addressing this lack of support. By fetishizing marriage as a goal in and of itself, the CII clearly has little interest in the fate of women seeking to escape failed unions, and even less for those who are successfully able to do so. More than anything else, the CII’s recommendations are aimed at systematically eroding the few rights women do have in the Land of the Pure. Rather than continuing to pursue its misogynistic and frankly worrying fixation with women and the regulation of female sexuality, the CII would do Pakistan a favour by keeping its opinions on these and all other matters to itself.

If, however, the CII is unlikely to refrain from voicing its opinions any time soon, it would be heartening to see it use its platform to unequivocally and unreservedly condemn, without prevarication, religious militancy, terrorism, and hate speech. The likelihood that this will happen is, of course, very low; the spirit of Islam is apparently better served by oppressing women, persecuting minorities, and debating whether or not the 14th of August should be a national holiday (another agenda item from the CII’s last meeting).