Pakistani Women: Is it premature to celebrate International Women’s Day?

Definitely not! Today is International Women’s day, I am in Pakistan, and women are cheering – at least those I have spoken to. ‘What is there to celebrate?’ I ask. Only a week ago Pakistan’s Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy won her second Oscar for her documentary on honor killing - highlighting a sad state of affairs.. ‘Precisely for that reason,’ they tell me, ‘and more’.

It was after watching a private screening of this documentary, that the prime minister of Pakistan declared war on honor killing. Well, not exactly in those terms, but he promised new measures to stem the tide, and vowed to look into the law that lets a murderer walk away unscathed—by paying blood money. My look gives it away: Is ‘looking into’ a guarantee?  The paradigm has shifted, and the movement is gaining strength, they tell me. Look at what we accomplished in the assembly.The Punjab assembly (the largest province in Pakistan) has just passed a women protection bill, criminalizing abuse against women—all kinds of abuse—physical, psychological, sexual, economic. . . .  A hotline, rapid response, shelters, restraining order, and a GPS bracelet for the abuser, are just some of the provisions. What is noteworthy is that the bill passed. Ten years ago, this could not have happened. 
So why now? 
Change did not come overnight, they explain to an understandably ignorant American—me. It took decades of activism by women-led NGOs (and men), backed by leaders in government, arts & culture, lawyers, religious scholars, and the media.  My sister, an attorney, walked me through the legislative history. The Hudud law was rendered irrelevant by an amendment that relied on the Qur’an as its point of reference. Previously, if a woman brought charges of rape, she was condemned to stoning for committing adultery. The amendment requires four witnesses to the adulterous act. Try finding four witnesses. That one clause has rendered the law null and void, by default. The religious right tried to fight it, but they couldn’t counter the evidence so clearly laid out in the Qur’an, which by the way, does not mention stoning (the punishment is lashes).
I was always of the belief that the only way to fight religious extremism, was with religious scholarship. A secular or military approach won’t do it. Now, seeing Pakistan’s example, I am convinced.
I go to my second source: the media. I scoured the newspapers, and found jewels. On these pages, in black & white, I see freedom of expression. Male & female journalists, lawyers and artists, writers and scholars, they all had an opinion on Women's Day, and the women protection bill. It was celebrated with slogans: silence has been broken, a debate has been forced, we have opened our eyes and ears to the injustices. . . . Opinion writers were challenging: so you have a law, but how are you going to enforce it when the culture and mindset is so patriarchal? Social scientists were outlining strategies. My favorite piece was the opinion page—a center spread with the title, “If I were a woman”, calling male writers to submit a piece on this topic; and submit they did. I have been tweeting these deliriously validating writings. Here is one.
But there is the sad side to this story. The religious right is furious over the passage of the women protection bill. Their take: It will break up families.

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