Pak defaces women on hoardings
"No nation can rise to the height of glory unless your women are side by side with you; we are victims of evil customs. It is a crime against humanity that our women are shut up within the four walls of the houses as prisoners. There is no sanction anywhere for the deplorable condition in which our women have to live."
- Mohammad Ali Jinnah, 1944
She can tame the tide and even lead a nation bristling with religious zealots, but the plight of the average woman – no matter where she is – is pitiable. Empty rhetoric about the deplorable condition of women in South Asia is only adding insult to injury.
But the recent rage against women, especially in Pakistan, forces one to sit up and think: Is this the same nation where once Benazir Bhutto dared to take on the male bastion?
Rapes, honour killings and a plethora of religious edicts against women are not new to Islamic society, and the status of women keeps getting worse.
In a fresh twist, women's faces on billboards across Pakistan, especially in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), are now being defaced.
Reason? "These multinational companies want to promote obscenity, lewdness and vulgarity," religious leader, Shehzada Babar is quoted as saying in UK's First Post magazine.
The depiction of women sans hijab or headscarf is considered un-Islamic by Muslim radicals and the Taliban, whose influence is growing in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP).
"Although the trend has been noticed in many cities across Pakistan, recently it's been on a decline. However, it is still largely prevalent in the city of Peshawar. The local government there is following a Talibanisation drive in the province," the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) told HindustanTimes.com.
Aatekah Mir, a resident of Lahore, confirms that billboards showing women are being removed/defaced, but says that it is confined to NWFP.
"It is only in the NWFP that billboards with women are being removed. The provincial government there has this ludicrous bill that forbids music and dance mehfils in public places as well as homes," rues Mir.
"They (women) live their lives in utter fear and under restrictions. Even girls studying in the best of the colleges don't have freedom to carry out their dreams or even speak against harsh rules made by men. They are captive in their own houses. They can't move like American girls buying apartments of their own," says writer Abeer Khan.
He adds that for a woman, going on a date is unthinkable.
But surprisingly Mir says that despite all the strict regulations, "just before Eid-ul-Fitr, a concert was held in NWFP and there were numerous musical evenings, ghazalmehfils, fashion shows etc."
The Muttahida Majilis-e-Amal (MMA), which governs the NWFP bordering Afghanistan, had presented a bill in 2005 that banned dance, music and women's photography.
In fact, they had imposed an "unofficial ban" on dance and music after coming to power in 2002. Reports say that the MMA clerics then had set on fire cinema houses and exhibition centres and smashed billboards that displayed females' images.
In early 2003, they banned female sports, ultrasonography of females by male technicians and music in public transport.
While the HRCP and other agencies blame it all on a recent resurgence of Taliban in Pakistan, a South Asia expert says, "Pakistan is already Talibanised."
"Pakistan has never been a progressive Muslim country. It is a theocratic Islamic country and Islam in practice does not believe in liberated women. Pakistan is Talibanised," says Subhash Kapila, a strategic affairs analyst with the New Delhi based think tank South Asia Analysis Group.
"Watching movies is considered un-Islamic, especially in NWFP, where a strong Taliban resurgence has been reported. The authorities have, so far, done little to prevent such actions by the extremists," says HRCP.
Even though deliberations are underway on the passage of a women's protection bill, the HRCP regrets that it won't be of much help.
"Hudood laws won't be sufficient to ameliorate the condition of women in Pakistan. While the initial draft proposed by the government was fairly promising, it has since been watered down to a point where it is meaningless. The compromise reached with the MMA in August 2006 exposed a lack of commitment to change," says Pakistan's rights watchdog.
The Hudood Ordinance is intended to implement Muslim Sharia law, which enforces punishments mentioned in the Quran.
It was enacted in 1979 as part of military ruler Zia-ul-Haq's Islamisation process. The Ordinance is criticised for criminalising all extra-marital sex (zina).
And very recently, the MMA was quoted as saying in The News International that it would launch a movement for an Islamic revolution in the country if the government tried to pass the Protection of Women Bill cleared by a select committee of parliament.
"Pakistan under its two military rulers relies on Islamic fundamentalist parties, which practice the most conservative form of Islam. Women in Pakistan are thus just chattels," says Kapila.
The Women's Protection Bill is still waiting for consensus, and till then, as Hina Jilani, the noted lawyer an human rights activist, puts it: "The right to life of women in Pakistan is conditional on their obeying social norms and traditions."