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Current Affairs

Omens of a Maelstorm

Omens of a maelstrom?
I.A. Rehman
Published 2014-03-20 ,DAWN

THREE apparently unrelated developments point to a groundswell that could ultimately unhinge Pakistan from its democratic moorings.

The three happenings are: the Taliban lobby’s campaign to frighten the government into yielding to the extremists, the Saudi gift of a sackful of dollars, and Maulana Shirani’s design to torpedo women’s rights. All three affairs betray a retrogressive mindset.

The local Taliban’s apologists have been mesmerising Mian Nawaz Sharif with visions of an apocalypse if he resists surrender to their clients. They have created such a nerve-wracking climate of fear that the government has lost its sense of purpose. It is searching for plenipotentiaries before finalising its brief and fixing places of engagement without deciding on subjects at issue. The situation may be bad, but any decisions taken in panic will throw Pakistan into the lap of obscurantists.

The huge Saudi gift also will push Pakistan on to the path of regression. Pakistan values its relations with Saudi Arabia but it is impossible to endorse everything the Saudis do at home and abroad. The quid pro quo can be imagined. The British used to say that they absent-mindedly acquired a colony. Pakistan’s bid to become a client state cannot be attributed to absent-mindedness.

Particularly silly are tales about altruistic contributions to Pakistan’s development fund. It is possible that some other rich friend will throw a few dollars into Mr Ishaq Dar’s kitty, just to show we are not beholden to a single patron. The logic of unearned largesse is relentless. Those who fund the Islamic University can throw out a liberal rector. Bhutto walked the rosy path to the Islamic summit; six months later the Ahmadis were declared non-Muslim.

And, in view of the orthodoxy’s pathological aversion to women’s rights, nobody should be surprised at the new edicts of the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII). It wants the provision of the Muslim Family Laws Ordinance that obliges a man seeking a second marriage to get the first wife’s permission removed and the bar to child marriage in the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929 struck down.

The family laws have been targeted for 50 years. The most virulent attack came in 1979-1980 when Ziaul Haq wanted the CII to undo the 1961 ordinance. After he had constituted a new council soon after usurping power, Gen Zia asked it to re-examine the family laws. The result is worth recalling.

The CII declined to offer the regime full satisfaction and only modified the terms of protection for women. In place of obliging a man to get his existing wife’s permission before taking a second wife, the council made the second marriage subject to a civil judge’s approval. The judge could forbid a man from having a second wife if he was found to be lacking the means or the character required to keep both wives (or all wives) equally contended, or if he had withheld from the second target information about already having a wife. Violations were punishable.

About child marriage also, the council proposed to replace the bar to minor girls’ marriage with a procedure that allowed child marriage subject to approval by a civil judge. The judge could allow such marriage after being convinced of its justification in the child’s interest.

The first recommendation clearly meant that no one had an unfettered right to take a second wife and ignore the first wife’s interest and the condition of the first wife’s permission could be defended by the same logic that justified intervention by a judge. Likewise, the second recommendation meant restriction on child marriage could be placed in the interest of the child.

Significantly, the law under attack here is the one that had originally been proposed for the protection of Hindu girls and had been made applicable to Muslim girls through the Quaid-i-Azam’s spirited intervention. After describing child marriage as a “grave and horrible evil” and an “inhuman practice”, he had declared that “marriage was a contract under Islamic law” and dared anyone to quote a text “which makes it obligatory on Musalmans that they should get their daughters married at the age of 14.”

However, commenting on the CII recommendations the Law Ministry declared the ordinance of 1961 totally un-Islamic, a “black spot on the radiant face of Islam” and called for its complete abrogation.

The Family Laws Ordinance survived Zia’s regime and it is likely to survive the present ambush, though one cannot say anything about its fate 10-15 years from now.

A pertinent question relates to the timing of Maulana Shirani’s strike. He held his hand while the PPP coalition was in power and raised the issue only when his party had joined the new government and it had come under the Pakistani Taliban’s pressure. Fortunately for women, the Nawaz Sharif government, despite all its faith in the Zia legacy, does not appear to be strong enough to defy the country’s women, and risk becoming an international pariah or losing the GSP Plus euros.

Those calling for the CII’s disbandment, in accordance with Allama Iqbal’s firm rejection of a body of ulema for interfering with parliament’s right to interpret Islamic injunctions, are likely to find that the government is not strong enough to do that either.

Things cannot remain unresolved forever. Sooner or later something must give way. Only a strong women’s movement backed by a powerful alliance of democratic and rational forces will ensure that what goes under is not the people’s ideal of democracy and equity.

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