By S.M. Sagheer
Born together and separated at birth 70 years ago, India and Pakistan are moving on some of the key social issues bedevilling their respective societies, having common roots. They are attempting it at the same time, but in opposite directions.
On the day India’s Supreme Court gave a historic verdict uniformly raising the age of marriage for a girl at 18 and making sex with a minor, even if wedded wife, a criminal act, Pakistan Senate’s Standing Committee on Interior rejected ‘The Child Marriage Restraint (Amendment) Bill, 2017’, terming it “un-Islamic.”
A bill seeking to raise the age of a girl’s marriage from 16 to 18 was rejected by the House even though the mover of the bill was not present. Senator Sehar Kamran was not present and it was decided to hold a voting on the bill without the mover. However, 3 other bills were deferred for the same reason.
Significantly, the rejection came from member of a ‘secular’ party, the PPP, that once espoused socialism and liberalism and gave the country a woman prime minister – twice before she was assassinated.
The chairman of the committee, Rehman Malik, who was Interior Minister in Benazir Government, said the bill, which suggests increasing the minimum age for girls to marry from 16 to 18, was contrary to Islamic injunctions. “I have also discussed it with religious scholars and they also believe that girls can be married before the age of 18 according to Islam, so these kinds of bills cannot be passed,” he announced.
It was under the PPP rule that the Ahmedis were declared non-Muslims and have since been persecuted. The women’s lot worsened under the watch of subsequent regime of Asif Ali Zardari. Some members of the Senate supported the rejection of the bill, even as they noted that early marriages rob children of ‘innocence, youth’.
Consulting religious scholars has become an escape route for Pakistan’s political class to avoid legislating on social and gender discrimination issues. This is irrespective of the party in power. The verdict of the clergy, among the most regressive in the Islamic world, is foregone. Despite not being bound by procedure, Pakistani parliamentarians habitually seek the opinion of the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) regarding such bills. This is despite the fact that the CII has been without a head for almost a year and cannot give an opinion.
Parliamentarians have therefore been resorting to asking the opinion of Islamic scholars in their individual capacity. Maulana Sherani, who last headed the CII was a controversial man whose views were the most backward when it came to rights of women, their rape, divorce and inheritance and their imprisonment, He even justified a husband’s right to beat his wife (or wives).
Talking to Dawn, Senator Kamran, a woman lawmaker, said she had asked Mr Malik to defer the bill as she would not be able to attend the meeting and that she wanted to convince members about the draft law. Malik chose not to give her that opportunity. Kamran has been arguing that when Pakistani women citizens are not issued driving licences before the age of 18 and that they are also not allowed to vote, how can they be allowed to (or forced to) marry before attaining adulthood.
“Girls as young as 10 are being married off in Pakistan even though the legal minimum age for their marriage is 16. This is because they do not get their Computerized National Identity Card (CNIC). That is why I suggested the minimum age for getting married be raised to 18. If the government thinks 16-year-old girls are adults, they should also be issued driving licenses and allowed to cast votes,” Ms Kamran said.
The Senator said that because of the vagueness in existing law, pre-teen girls are being married off to men four times their age and that due to this, they are deprived of an education, get physically weak and develop complications from early pregnancies, some even resulting in death. “This bill was important for addressing these issues,” she said.
The draft bill says the leading cause of death for girls between the ages of 15 and 18 is pregnancy. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child also suggests the minimum age for marriage should be 18. The practice of marrying off young girls is common in Pakistan, particularly in low-income families and since no action is against the offenders, the minimum age should be increased to 18, was the argument.
One of the committee members, Tahir Hussein Mashhadi told Dawn though he had voted to reject the bill, he believed that children are robbed of their innocence and youth due to early marriages and that there is a need to look into the matter. “The chairman was of the view that girls of less than 18 years of age could be married off according to Islam and that the bill was therefore against Islam,” he said.
“However, it is a fact that children need to be protected and society should also look at moralities. We snatch innocence and youth from children with early marriages. In the past, girls were strong, healthy and more responsible, but the girls of today are not mature and healthy enough to take on the responsibilities of marriage. All these things need to be considered when doing legislation,” he said.
Child marriage and gender discrimination are not the only issues awaiting clear and firm legislation in Pakistan. The committee also deferred discussion on other bills due to the absence of the movers. These include ‘The Prevention of Witchcraft Bill, 2017’ and ‘The Criminal Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2017’ moved by Senator Chaudhry Tanvir Khan and ‘The Criminal Laws (Amendment) Protection of Rights of Transgender Persons Bill, 2017’ moved by Senator Rubina Khalid.
Practice of witchcraft and discrimination, even social and economic ostrasization of transgender population is common in Pakistan.
Some social reforms were undertaken during the Musharraf era when the military ruler had personally chaired the cabinet meetings to clear laws, subsequently watered down by parliament on imprisonment of women.