The day Nawaz Sharif screened Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy’s Oscar-nominated documentary, A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness at the Prime Minister House, a 40 year-old woman was stabbed by her husband on the suspicion of having an affair with another man in Lahore. Before the screening, the Prime Minister said some token words about how committed his government is about protecting the rights of women and that he would take steps to ensure that the menace of this crime is eradicated from society. I am sure we will be forgiven if we do not believe that this will actually happen. The empowerment of women has not been one of the PML-N government’s priorities ever since it came to power. However, with the Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Bill passed on Wednesday in the country’s largest province, the regime is likely to claim all the plaudits coming its way regardless.

Even getting here wasn’t easy. Although the bill was tabled by the treasury bench, and the government made a commitment to let civil society organisations have their say, the initial drafts were only limited to physical abuse and that too only in the aspect of providing shelters to victims instead of actually criminalising the act, ignoring the obvious psychologically abusive tactics employed against women inside the home. The government made a hasty attempt to get this passed even the civil society organisations (CSOs) made repeated attempts to get their voices heard. The inclusion of psychological torture, stricter punishments and higher penalties was only made after the clamour made by CSOs became impossible to ignore. 

Nawaz Sharif’s words coinciding with the murder of Kulsoom is indicative of the government’s response and its outcome in all such cases; a senior lawmaker will suddenly notice a blatant flaw in the law-enforcement procedure, issue his condemnation, and days later, the issue will be all but forgotten. The Prime Minister, for all his condemnations, will offer no assistance to survivors, and the perpetrators will get away with murder because the law-enforcement agencies will fail to bring up enough evidence, or the myriad loopholes of the legal system will be exploited by the guilty to get away scot-free.

Two years ago, Farzana Iqbal was stoned to death by her family members on the steps of the Lahore High Court, and yet justice was never served. Her case was significant because of the brazenness with which her family murdered her, on the steps of a court, in full view of the police. The father and the brother were arrested and sentenced to death with two others, but at least ten others that were directly involved never got punished. The man she ran away to marry had killed his former wife to marry Farzana. This case is a measure of how bad things can be for women in Pakistan; the men they are supposed to trust the most are the ones who end up being the ones that that destroy their lives.

It should come as no surprise that people such as Mufti Muhammad Naeem of the Jamia Binoria International are using the sanctity of marriage and the importance of upholding sharia as arguments against the passing of this law. I would advise no sane person to watch the video with his protestations, in which he passed some fairly obtuse remarks about how “our women” are being taken away from us. Naeem and all others of his ilk should be reminded that owning a person is prohibited in Islam, as in all other major religions of the world, so there really is no point trying to hold on to customs that have no place in the modern world.

The government would likely have been much prouder if Sharmeen Obaid would have chosen a different subject for a documentary, one that did not show Pakistan in such a “negative light”. All matters concerning “Pakistan’s pride” must be acknowledged, and incorporated into the government’s narrative for political point scoring, even when the issue at hand may not reflect Pakistan’s proudest moments. Maybe our Prime Minister has not realised this, but this is the sort of international popularity Pakistan can do without. The government, instead of patting an award-winning filmmaker, should be hanging its head in shame for allowing honour killings to take place all over the country with relative impunity. Society, rather than criticising her for making the documentary should be lobbying the state to make sure incidents of violence portrayed in the documentary are not repeated.

The bill is a landmark achievement, but the sitting government has to make sure that the law is implemented, and inertia from the past does not allow one to be too optimistic. The bill will criminalise all forms of violence against women and will provides them with special centers, which remove bureaucratic delays. ‘Violence’ itself has been redefined to mean any offence committed against the human body of the aggrieved person including abetment of an offence, domestic violence, sexual violence, psychological and emotional abuse, economic abuse, stalking and cyber crime. The Punjab Assembly does deserve to be commended for finally looking to protect one half of the populace with this new bill, but as usual, passing a law is only half the work. The Bill is the first in a long battle that has to be fought on all fronts. Society and political initiative has to catch up to the laws.

The domestic sphere is most definitely where most of the subjugation takes places, however, that is only because the public space is still not accessible to most women. Additionally, our country is one where the legality of an issue always comes secondary. Anti-women practices such as child marriages, wani, swara and prohibiting women from receiving their inheritance were all banned in 2011, but this has not made a dent in improving the fortunes of women in Pakistan. The men after all, are still in the corridors of power, where they can abuse their influence to continue exerting control over women with impunity. Jirgas, police stations and even government offices are all places where a woman will find no justice. Women are always someone’s wives, daughters or sisters rather than persons in their own right. They cannot be perceived as independent in Pakistan, until using their relationship to men as a reference point is not done away with.

 Kulsoom, a mother of two may or may not have had an affair. Whether she did is irrelevant. Adultery is by no means the most conscionable of actions, but killing someone is abominable in the extreme. The decision to end someone else’s life over a suspicion is even worse. A suspicion alone cannot invoke enough reaction in one spur of the moment; which implies that this crime was premeditated. Either way, it doesn’t really matter. Her husband will keep claiming that Kulsoom was unfaithful and her maternal family will forgive him after they receive money to compensate for the loss of their daughter. It may seem like a small incident, as sadly, we have become accustomed to stories of domestic abuse. But this is the level where things have to change for Pakistan to truly become a country friendly to the fairer sex.

The writer is a member of staff.