Friday, November 17, 2006

Women's Rights bill submitted in Pakistan, last straw for MMA

A new bill on women's rights was submitted this thursday in the Pakistan national government. Apparently that was the last straw for the religious alliance of the MMA, who have decided to resign from the government.

The focus of the bill is to combat six specific anti-women practices. In the words of the federal Minister for Parliamentary Affairs, Sher Afgan Khan Niazi

“One, it seeks action against those who deprive women of their inheritance or property rights. Two, it legislates against vani or the custom of giving the hand of women, mostly under-age girls, to settle murder disputes. Third, it criminalises forced marriages. Fourth, it proposes legal action against those who issue three divorces to their wives in one sitting. Fifth, it makes women’s marriage with the Quran a crime. Sixth, it puts an end to the custom of watta-satta,” he explained, adding that the bill incorporated the views of religious scholars.

More details on the current practices:

1. According to the Qur'an, women receive half the property that men do in inheritance law. In Pakistan, most women are expected to give up even their half share of property to their brothers out of "respect," but in rural society it means that basically gets NO share of the inheritance.

2. Vani is usually a child marriage to pay off a family member's debts or crimes. If my father were to murder a man, he could marry me off (at the age of 12 or 10 or maybe even 7) to pay for the crime. I would then be married off to a family that would be engaged in a continual blood feud with my family and I would likely be treated as a slave in their house.

3. Criminalizes forced marriages. This is a difficult one, because usually the girl or boy will not even stand up to the parents to say that they do not want to go through with the marriage. Most children, in rural or lower class families, do not even dream that they would have a choice when it comes to marriage. They are obliged to respect their parents wishes and marry whomever the parents choose. In some cases, young good looking girls are married off to better off old men looking for a second or third wife. The girls are pressured into the marriage because their families are poor and will take advantage of the money they will get for the bride.

4. In Islam men can legally divorce their wives by saying "I divorce you" three times. The Pak government is trying to make this illegal so that men will not divorce their wives so easily or in a fit of rage. Divorce is a big deal for women because after being divorced a women is considered as "used goods" and may not be able to marry again. As women move out and move in with the in-laws when they get married, a divorced women is kicked out of her in laws house and may or may not be accepted back at her family's house. She will be seen as someone bringing shame on the family and may even be killed by her OWN parents in order to cover up that shame.

5. In some parts of the country, particularly interior Sindh, women are married off with the Qur'an. The motivation for this does not seem to be religious fervor, but rather a desire to keep the family property and not divide it. As this is an agricultural society, when daughters are married off it is tradition to give some land to the groom's family. If the daughter is married to the Qur'an (legally!), she can not marry any man and therefore the family lands stay intact. The girl becomes a spinster.

6. Watta Satta - is the custom of bridal exchange or bartering. For example, if my parents wanted to marry me off, they would seek a family that also had a daughter of a proper age to marry my brother. Basically it means that one girl is exchanged for another girl (in the groom's family) at the time of the marriage. If you want to marry off your daugther, you need to be willing to allow your son to marry the proposed groom's sister.

Aside from these practices, which are the current topic of the women's rights law, there are the problems of karo-kari (honor killing), swara (similar to vani), pait likkhi (arranged marriage before birth or when children are very young) and many other similar practices.

The MMA opposes a lot of bills presented in the national assembly, but apparently women's rights was something that was too much to bear. They will be officially resigning from their seats in a month's time.

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