The struggle for equality continues -by Jahanara M Wattoo

The writer is head of social media PPP Punjab
The writer is head of social media PPP Punjab

Every year, on March 8, we celebrate International Women’s Day. Like in other parts of the world, we also celebrate the day in Pakistan to highlight women’s issues and vow to protect their rights. Human rights organisations and civil society groups organise seminars, rallies and different events to highlight the history and importance of this day.

The recognition of women as equal citizens and giving them equal opportunities in every field would spur girls on to do great things and break some of the social taboos in the process. If we really want to follow the teachings of faith, then we need to give equal rights and status to women in society as well as the state. Moreover, we need to stand against all those forces who are threatening the basic human rights of women and girls in the name of faith.

The Quaid-e-Azam, who was a progressive and liberal Pakistani, believed in female empowerment and gender equality. He supported the Child Marriages Restraint Bill in the Legislative Assembly introduced by Rai Sahib Haridas Sarda in 1927. At that time there was a huge protest from conservative clergy against this bill.

In 1988, Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto became the first female prime minister to lead an Islamic state. It is really an honour for Pakistan. During the previous government of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), for the first time in the country, women parliamentarians were in great numbers. For the first time in Pakistan’s history, a woman was made the speaker of the National Assembly. Posts for the information minister and the foreign minister were also filled by competent and gifted women.

Today, women are working in all sectors ranging from village farms to Parliament and are thus contributing to national development in spite of adverse circumstances. Instead of creating a more feasible and favourable environment, conservative religious forces want to push them in the ignorance of medieval ages. Amid reservations, criticism and campaigns from various quarters especially women rights groups, including some of its own members, the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) has endorsed that girls as young as nine-year-old were eligible to be married “if the signs of puberty are visible”.

Earlier, in Punjab, we launched a signature campaign and started an online petition on the instruction of PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari against the CII’s legal advice to the legislature, advocating the removal of the law banning underage marriage as well as a law regarding a man’s second marriage. The PPP leaders of Punjab appealed to various civil society groups, women’s organisations, media and human rights groups to join the campaign. Soon after that, the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act of 2013 was passed by the Sindh Assembly which declared marriage below the age of 18 punishable by law.

The PPP believes that the new recommendations by the CII are a culmination of a series of belligerent attempts by the right-wing lobby to undo the momentum towards achieving women’s equal status and empowerment initiatives taken by the previous PPP government. Right now, Pakistan faces numerous issues and challenges. Instead of focusing on issues ranging from terrorism to poverty, Pakistan’s clergy is focusing more on non-issues and pushing women towards more backwardness.

We call on the supreme legislative body, the Parliament, to adhere to international human rights obligations by not passing these anti-women recommendations by the CII. The council’s anti-women recommendations will further undermine women’s status. We are against these retrogressive moves and believe that the recommendations will not only snatch the rights and freedoms of the women of Pakistan but would also undermine their equal status in Pakistan and make them second-class citizens.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 6th, 2014.

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