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Rule of Law or a Talibanised Shariat – Pak Activists demand referendum

"A religious alliance in Pakistan's Northwest provinces is ushering in strict new laws that threaten the rights of women and remind of the Taliban rule in Afghanistan. Open attack on rights and liberty of Women and girls clearly indicate that the Pak-Tal peace deal makes no sense for women and civilians of Pakistan."

HNF Special Report : July 9, 2009

The law, passed last month, says a husband can demand sex with his wife every four days unless she is ill or would be harmed by intercourse a clause that critics say legalizes marital rape. It also regulates when and for what reasons a wife may leave her home alone.

Women’s rights activists scheduled a protest that was attended mostly by young women. But the group was swamped by counter-protesters, both men and women, who shouted down the women’s chants. Some picked up gravel and stones and threw them at the women protestors, while others shouted Death to the slaves of the Christians! Female police stood in a series to create a protective barrier for the protesters. The government of President Hamid Karzai said, ‘the Shia family law is being reviewed by the Justice Department and will not be implemented in its current form’ as Governments and rights groups around the world have condemned the legislation, and President Barack Obama has labeled it abhorrent.

Though the law would apply only to the country’s Shias, 10 to 20 per cent of Afghanistans 30 million people, it sparked an uproar by activists who say it marks a return of Taliban-style governance. The Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan from 1996 till 2001, required women to wear all-covering burqas and banned them from leaving home without a male accompanist of the family. Shia backers of the law say that foreigners are meddling in private Afghan affairs and demonstrations brought some of the emotions surrounding the debate over the law to the surface.

You are a dog! You are not a Shia woman! One man shouted to a young woman in a headscarf holding aloft a banner that said we don’t want Taliban laws. The woman did not shout back at the man, but told him - This is my land and they are my people. Women protesting the law said many of their supporters had been restricted by men to join the protest.

Fourteen-year-old Masuma Hasani and her whole family including the parents and her younger sister, whom she held by the arm, came out to join the protest rally. ‘I am concerned about my future with this law. We want our rights. We don’t want women to just be used’, she said. As the back-and-forth continued, another demonstration of Shia women, who said they support the law, began. ‘We don’t want foreigners interfering in our lives. They are the enemy of Afghanistan’, said 24-year-old Mariam Sajadi.

Sajadi is engaged and, as she said, she has no objection in seeking from her husband a permission to leave the house as put forth in the law. She again said that the other controversial article, such as one empowering the husband with the right to demand sex from his wife every fourth day, has been misinterpreted by Westerners who are anti-Islam.

The now-famous video of a young woman being flogged by Taliban group brought women in cities across Pakistan onto the streets in February.  Soon after, Islamic law (Sharia) was imposed in Pakistan's Swat Valley. When President Zardari met Obama and the Pakistani army bombed Taliban strongholds in the Northwest Pakistan, another front was taking shape - a civil society movement of Pakistani women protesting ‘Talibanisation of Pakistan’.

These middle and upper-class women of Pakistan's bustling cities, long accustomed to the social freedom, have much to fear. Inter Press Service correspondent Ashfaq Yusufzai quoted Taliban spokesperson Muslim Khan saying that, 'Female education is against Islam. They (women and girls) are required to sit at home and not to venture out.' Yusufzai notes that total 188 girls’ schools and 97 boys' schools were destroyed by Taliban since late 2007.'

>>> Scroll down to read rest of the Story


As a part of socio-economic and cultural issue based website, we’ve been tracking how the world covers women and Sharia. While interviewing the young woman activist Amna Hamid, the revelation was that many Pakistani women have a nuanced perspective who never see Islamic law as the source of oppression. Amna says that ‘her mother of course supports Sharia, but that when it comes to the Taliban, the kind of Islam they are even alien to our culture’. Clearly, for these women ‘Sharia’ and ‘Talibanisation’ are not seen as one in the same.

In a paper she presented recently, Asifa Quraishi, Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Wisconsin and a well-known expert on women and Islamic law, expresses her frustration with the western perspective saying, ‘...we [Muslim women] are a topic of feminist attention because Islam itself is considered to be a primary problem standing on the way of feminist work.’

There are as many Sharias as there are nations who follow it in some form. Lynn Welchman, director of the U.K.'s Centre for Islamic and Middle Eastern Law told,  ‘Over 50 countries are members of the Organisation of Islamic Conference, and you can expect there will be some form of compliance with Sharia -- either in people's personal lives or enforced through the courts by the state. A lot of states in the Middle East are taking more elements of Sharia into their state laws.’

But why the Sharia took such a brutal makeover in Pakistan? A news report describes Swaths of Pakistan where people live as near-serfs in feudal political fiefdoms, where power is concentrated in a few hands and judicial corruption is rampant.

A woman interviewer locks horns with a woman politician who defends the Taliban. The contrast between the thoroughly modern interviewer lobbing angry questions, answered by a veiled and smooth-talking politician, is striking. According to a 2005 study by UNESCO, only 28% of Pakistani women are literate, a low number compared to most Islamic countries -- and perhaps, a factor that makes Pakistani women vulnerable to manipulation by those with something to gain from kowtowing to the Taliban.

Souheila Aljadda, in ‘what others need to know about the difference between Sharia and Talibanization’ wrote, "Most Muslims would say that what Taliban is implementing is not Sharia law. Sharia does not regulate a woman to stay in her home, or force women to remain uneducated’.  She suggested that women in tribal cultures might seek Sharia, perceiving it as more just than traditional laws that are often extremely biased against women. Many Muslim women see Sharia as the ideal because of Islam's history of social justice. If women in the west want to help the women of Pakistan, perhaps the first order of business is to understand that decrying ‘Sharia’ rather than ‘Talibanization’ could be leading in exactly the wrong direction’.

Nighat Orakzai strode purposefully down the wood-paneled corridors of the Northwest Frontier Province assembly building situated in the heart of this overcrowded dusty border town. She was determined to fight legislative moves introduced by the ruling Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal--a six-party religious alliance--that threatens basic rights of the population in this impoverished region.

‘They are pursuing a political agenda, using religion as a way to whip up emotions on issues that, at the end of the day, are not issues that address the basic needs of people’, she argued passionately last month at the opening of the current assembly's sixth sitting since elections last year. ‘In fact, instead of addressing basic needs like job creation and education, the result is a deteriorating situation’ she feels.

Orakzai is one of a dozen women in the assembly of this impoverished area along the Afghan border. They are there as a result of an inclusion process instituted by President Pervez Musharraf last year. The spunky outspoken 43-year old mother of four doesn't describe herself as a women's rights activist. For her, that would be too narrow. She says she is a concerned mother and a politician seeking a better life for people of her home province.

‘Women's rights are human rights’, Orakzai fumes, ‘and with this government we see the protection of neither. We don't even see the rule of law’.

>>> Scroll down to read rest of the Story


Recently, over a 100 student activists of the Jamaat-I-Islami, one of the religious alliance's front group, rode around Peshawar with bamboo sticks and ladders tearing down advertisements for soft drinks and tea products containing the images of women as part of a loosely defined ‘anti-obscenity’ campaign. Peshawar police did nothing to stop the mob that was led by Jamaat-I-Islami's district chief and a former mujahedeen commander Sabir Hussain Awan. Religious zealots have also attacked musicians, cable networks, cinemas and video stores.

In this regard, Orakzai argues that not only is the tearing down of billboards according to one small groups' rigid interpretations of Islam illegal but that nowhere in the Koran it is stated that a woman's face is ‘obscene’.

‘Instead of creating jobs, they're destroying them’, Orakzai said in a furious mix of Urdu and broken English. After winning their surprise landslide victory last October, the religious alliance outlawed male coaches of female sports teams, moved to ban male doctors from treating female patients and to segregate educational institutions. Now the question is, if women will not be educated and will not joins professions like Doctors and surgeons, Teachers, lawyers and health workers, who will look after the female patients and the women in trouble?

‘It reeks of Taliban-like influence and I argue there is no place in Pakistan for that type of religious extremism and this must be opposed’, says Ilyas Bilour - a male assembly member from Awami National Party. Despite opposition parties' willingness to join hands on certain issues, the religious alliance holds a commanding 74-seat majority in the 122 seat provincial assembly which is enough to sideline the opposition parties.

Going by what the Taliban have in mind for women in Swat, the worries are well placed. Women are already not allowed to work except in totally segregated environments as the Taliban considers it ‘non-Islamic’ for a woman's voice to be heard in public. Again, the Taliban groups have demanded Nizam-e-Adal (Islamic Justice System) regulation to be enforced in the Malakand division of the NWFP comprising the districts of Swat, Dir and Chitral.

Last year, Taliban destroyed 162 girls' schools in Swat, which until two years ago was a famous skiing destination. Roughly 88 boys' schools have been torched during this time. Parents have been warned against sending their daughters to "un-Islamic" schools. On Jan. 20, Pakistan's National Assembly in Islamabad passed a resolution that condemned the "ban" imposed by militants on girls' education and destruction of schools in Swat.

Women are likely to come under greater pressure and their tribulations will certainly increase’, says I.A. Rehman, director of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan while Muslim Khan, spokesperson for the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP), insists that ‘'women will benefit the most from the enforcement of the shariah. We want to give women their rightful place in Islam. Women are not supposed to work in factories, or even work in fields. That is a man's work and we will not allow them to shrug off their own responsibilities. Ibrash Pasha of Khwendo Kor, working for the empowerment of women in Dir, has just one question – ‘has anyone consulted the women on whether they are happy with this decision?’ He has demanded that a referendum be held to decide whether such a law is really required for their safety and well being.



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