With the PTI good as gone from power, have Pakistan’s women fared worse or better under PTI’s government? There are two aspects to examine: firstly, concrete action taken by the government in terms of law and policy. Secondly, the government’s narrative on women and the general perception the PTI and its leadership have created.
Regarding legislation, in the first parliamentary year the government did not pass any laws; in the second year two laws directly related to women and girls were passed – the Zainab Alert Response and Recovery Act and the Enforcement of Women’s Property Rights Act. The ICT Rights of Persons with Disability Act was also passed, which highlights special provisions for women and children with disability.
The third-year saw amendments to two sections of the Muslim Family Law Act, adding provisions on divorce and inheritance under Shia jurisprudence. The Anti-rape (investigation and trial) Act, which first came into law as an ordinance, was also passed in 2021. The law was in response to the public outrage after the heinous motorway rape but it is a law that requires heavy budgetary allocations for the establishment of new structures, such as the anti-rape crisis cells, reliance on the legal aid authority, special prosecutors, victim and witness protection system and independent support advisers. There is also repetition of what already exists in the penal code, changes that were made in 2016, and adds to confusion. The law relies heavily on the PM to make rules or recommendations, whereas criminal laws should create systems, without reliance on one person’s whims.
The last parliamentary year saw 21 bills bulldozed into law. Laws passed include amendments to the Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act, to include domestic and contract workers under the definition of workplace and added the provision of gender equality; the National Commission on the Rights of Child Act was, which curtails the Commission’s functions, further challenging its independence; and the ICT Child Protection Act was passed. The definition of rape under section 375 has also been expanded and gang rape penalized.
Indirectly related to women, and important additions to the penal code, include penalising enforced, forcible and involuntarily disappearances. The Legal Aid and Justice Authority Act, which mandates the setting up an authority to vet free legal candidates, was also passed in 2020. The authority is yet to be established.
Some bills have been introduced in the parliament on increasing the marriageable age for girls from 16 to 18 years. However, from the initial narrative taken by the PTI, it was clear that no such law would be passed in their time in government, with many PTI lawmakers being the most vocal against the change. This was the same for the ICT Domestic Violence Bill – PTI was too narrow visioned to see its importance. The ICT domestic workers bill, which attempts to regularise work and pay of domestic workers, has also not been passed.
As can be seen there are some legislative achievements, though gaps still exist, and implementation remains the real challenge. Apart from a few amendments to existing laws, advice to any future government, as was to PTI, is focusing on rehauling the criminal justice system for effective implementation to include mass awareness of the law, among officer bearers and the public.
In the first few months of coming into power, the Minister of Human Rights and the then adviser on health, Zafar Mirza, publicly committed to finalising the policy on ending gender-based violence, which focused on inter-agency working, coordination and collaboration to implement laws on violence against women, and was drafted at the express requirement of the previous (PML-N) government. The draft was never finalised and the policy shelved. Currently, the government was in the process of finalising a gender policy, which promised to include wide-ranging and cross-cutting areas of focus. That will now come to a halt.
While there was much hype by the PTI government about the Ehsaas programme, we should remember it is an expansion of BISP, introduced by the PPP, and so while it is good that it was upscaled and updated BISP, its basis, and hence the credit lies, elsewhere. The KP Sehat Card programme was the first to go universal but it is an offshoot of previous government’s programmes under PPP’s BISP and PML-N’s National Health Programme. In fact, the first free health insurance pilot programme was carried out in Faisalabad under BISP.
It is said around 70,000 religious teachers have been recruited in Punjab to impart Quranic recitation in schools. These teachers are most likely recruited from madrassahs, making them men of a certain regressive mindset, particularly about thoughts about women and girls. Their induction in schools will be detrimental to female students and alienate non-Muslim students, further creating fear and disparity for them in the educational system. About PTI’s introduction of the Single National Curriculum there are various concerns: the most significant being that it goes against the spirit of the 18th amendment with education being a provincial mandate; attempts to recentralise power, which harks back to days of dictatorship; and curtails ethnic diversity.
In his initial days in office, Imran Khan showed slight concern, but never translated into policy, of the maternal mortality rates (currently 186 deaths per 100,000 live births). He also spoke of stunting and population growth but never linked the issues together – of population growth, stunting and malnourishment in children to a woman’s education, health and autonomy and financial and social emancipation. The government also fails to link population growth with child marriage, with evidence clearly showing that child marriage is linked to early and more frequent pregnancy.
However, where PTI has done a real disservice to women is the myopic and orthodox narrative it has crafted. Every time he re-enforced his utopia of Pakistan, women are only seen as pardah-clad homemakers – silent, dependent and content.
Soon after coming into power, Khan made some very harmful statements: western feminism’s negative impact on the role of mothers; the importance of the observance of pardah and the banning of Bollywood movies and social media could help eliminate obscenity and hence solve problems of violent sexual crimes against women and help lower divorces rates; the impact on men of women’s clothes – after all ‘men are not robots’. It also reconfirms the suspicion of women that Khan does not understand that blaming women for violence against them belongs to a different, unfortunate era. The responsibility of government was outsourced to women themselves by simple and ignorant statements that push for pardah as protection. There is a repetitive narrative of how there are no barriers women face because Islam gives them rights, but it is not about what Islam guarantees but the current disparities and inequalities that exist that should be the focus of government.
Khan wished not only to retain the residue of Zia-ul-Haq’s 1980s policies of Islamisation, he wishes to revive them to sell to middle class sensibility. This tie dye combination of religion and politics by the PTI has proven regressive and divisive and policing women’s bodies, choices and agency under the guise of religion is dangerous. This mindset will be difficult for society to rid of, long after the dust settles on the PTI government’s unconstitutional exit out of power.