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Women suffer in fight for liberties

Gender violence remains a chief obstacle to peace in Pakistan

Silent Thinker, Lahore

Silent Thinker, Lahore

Published: November 22, 2012 06:12 AM GMT

Updated: November 21, 2012 06:44 PM GMT

Women suffer in fight for liberties

The dropping of blasphemy charges against a Christian girl this week is good news. But this does not guarantee her safety.

In an unprecedented move, Islamabad High Court threw out charges against Rimsha Masih, 14, who was arrested and held for three weeks after the imam of a mosque accused her of burning pages of the Qu’ran.

Rimsha was later released on bail after the imam was arrested for allegedly planting evidence against her. 

Another major media story which unfolded last month was that of Malala Yousafzai, 15, a teenage girl the Taliban tried to kill because she encouraged other girls to go to school.

While she recovers in a British hospital, an Islamist group plans to issue a religious decree against her in an Islamabad mosque next week. The reason is because she speaks against jihad and the hijab and she is used as a propaganda tool by the enemies of Muslims, they say.

Meanwhile, the future of jailed Asia Bibi remains uncertain. The case against the mother of five remains buried within the legal system. A provincial governor was assassinated for trying to help win her release after she was sentenced to death last year for allegedly insulting the Prophet Mohammed.

The plight of these three women highlights the very disturbing problem of gender-based violence in the country which has been exacerbated by the fight against Taliban and al-Qaeda linked terrorists and by religious extremism.

Unfortunately the militants have chosen to capitalize on a segment of society “which is generally considered weaker and is always in need of protection,” said Abid Ali, program manager at the Aurat (Women) Foundation.

“We once used religion and norms of a theocratic society to honor women but have ended up turning them into scapegoats. Extremist groups use them for their own objectives,” he said.

Though the issue has only recently grabbed world attention, it is in fact as old as the history of our country. One of my teachers used to tell me tales of an elderly street vendor in Lahore’s historic Anarkali Bazaar who used to cut locks of hair from the foreheads of young girls during the 1950s to promote an Islamic lifestyle.

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Fast forward several decades and we are now dealing with all sorts of outdated traditions including the trading of girls to settle disputes and honor killings.

According to the Aurat Foundation, there were 4,585 reported cases of violence against women during the first six months of this year, a seven percent increase when compared to the same period last year.

The conversion rate of Hindus in rural Sindh province has rapidly increased in the past few years. Surprisingly, the majority of those who embraced Islam were teenage girls. The reasons why they chose to quit their families and faith was never asked. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, the bombing of girls’ schools continues.

The truth is religious zealots have always been against greater freedom for women because they misunderstand the term. They therefore formulate several other interpretations of “freedom” to curb education and women’s ability to think for themselves.

“Our society is fighting for basic civil liberties; equal and undeniable rights which can only exist in democracy and freedom. This is a fight for the soul of Pakistan,” said Peter Jacob, executive secretary of the Catholic bishop’s National Commission for Justice and Peace.

The commission says 12 women, six of them Christians, were among 88 people reportedly accused of blasphemy between January 2011 and May 2012.

Innocent victims like Rimsha cannot win back their homes that have been destroyed after savage mob attacks.

The outrage over Malala could not convince lawmakers to adopt a resolution calling for a military offensive against Taliban bases. Pope Benedict XVI’s appeal for mercy for Asia Bibi remains unanswered.

At the 2010 Catholic Press Congress, the Vatican urged journalists to give hope to the world no matter how depressing the news. It is hard for me to do this while writing this piece. Fundamentalism in society and never-ending electioneering further depresses me. All the major political parties are pursuing an Islamist agenda ahead of general elections which are right around the corner. Short term goals are dominating national interests.

The blasphemy law has achieved the status of a Holy commandment. Any attempt to amend it is deemed anti-Islamic. The Taliban, who once campaigned for a Sharia state in tribal regions, have extended their influence into Karachi, the country’s most business-friendly city. According to recent crime statistics compiled by Al Jazeera, Karachi is the most dangerous of the world's 13 largest cities. 

Pro-women’s groups breathed a sigh of relief earlier this year when the Senate passed a bill banning sexual harassment in the workplace despite opposition from religious parties. However there is a dire need to change the way people think as well as passing legislation. Laws are only respected in civilized and educated societies.

My prayers go to the next government so that we can live in a peaceful country where protection for all vulnerable people in society is ensured, especially women.

Silent Thinker is the pseudonym of a Catholic commentator based in Lahore.


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