A tipping point in Pakistan
Given the track record, and growing influence of regressive conservatives in Pakistan, this news item was unusual. The Pakistan Senate’s Functional Committee on Human Rights has recommended that the Council of Islamic Ideology [CII], be dissolved. The CII was established in 1962 by the semi-benevolent dictator Field Marshal Ayub Khan, when he forced through his new Constitution, to recommend ways by which all laws could be in conformity with religious doctrine.
Demanding dissolution of a Constitutional body is hardly routine, but the tipping point seems to have been CII’s suggestion that husbands should be allowed “light” violence against “errant” wives, with the decision on quantum of crime and punishment being left, naturally, to the husband.
It is true that CII’s recommendations are not mandatory, but they affect public discourse. This preposterous instance of misogyny and, indeed, misogamy, made headlines across the world, eliciting ridicule mostly. But ridicule is an inadequate response.
The misuse of religious power is always a delicate matter, since vested interests always blanket themselves in hypocritical piety. So a little perspective is in order.
First, Council of Islamic Ideology has been misnamed. It may be a council of sorts, although it surely does not meet the first requirement of any democratic committee, which is representation from all sides of the house. In any case, it is not Islamic. When Islam defined a social and moral code in the 7th century, its revolutionary vision was far ahead of its times, particularly on gender issues. This is why women were among the most eager of converts. Islam gave women inheritance rights and a form of alimony when no one else did.
But over time, male monopoly over the interpretation of law has ruined its liberal original spirit and turned practice into male gender aggression. Islamic jurisprudence includes the concept of ijtihad, by which you can interpret the law in order to preserve its basic intention. Let us take a very familiar example. The Holy Quran enjoins the faithful to cut off the hands of thieves. But this is no longer done in any Muslim country, because societies have found other ways to control the problem. In Pakistan, the utterly non-benevolent dictator General Zia ul Haq tried to revive this punishment during his long and brutal decade in power. He failed. If there can be amendment in one area of law in the light of changing conditions, there can surely be in any other where regression has occurred.
We saw, for instance, how Indian conservatives rallied successfully to mobilise public opinion during the 1980s after the Supreme Court ruled that Shah Bano, an elderly lady, deserved far more than the pittance she was getting as alimony. The money offered by her ex-husband was not enough to buy one meal, let alone survive for a month. This was an instance of how a progressive Muslim law had been reversed by gender brutality, by men who treat wives and other female relatives as their possession rather than individual human beings. Such a mindset takes shelter in false religiosity.
This problem has become a crisis in Pakistan. The Hindu reports that “Some of [CII’s] rulings are that DNA tests were not acceptable as primary evidence in rape cases and a model bill prohibiting mixing of genders in schools, hospitals and offices. While the Council has been proactive in taking cognisance of complaints under the dreaded blasphemy law, it has refused to entertain pleas for measures to punish those who file false complaints under the law.”
What is, however, encouraging is that influential sections of Pakistani opinion are ready to challenge such abuse of authority. People are willing to speak up. Members of the human rights committee are one, but not the only, example. A major Pakistani English daily, Dawn, condemned the Council for Islamic Ideology for flooding “the airwaves with distorted interpretations of religious and cultural norms” and urged the country’s legislators to ensure that in a democracy, “laws impacting women are passed through Parliamentary consensus”. Implicit in this advocacy is the belief that obscurantism will not survive, let alone thrive, in Parliament.
The Quran reserves a very special place in hell for hypocrites, and those who exploit a great faith for selfish, personal ends must surely be hypocrites of the worst kind. In whatever shape they come, in whichever context they exercise their malevolence, hypocrites should not “be taken as friends” but treated as deceivers and cowards. Hopefully, Pakistan will unmask and expose its hypocrites.
—MJ Akbar is the Editorial Director of The Sunday Guardian.