As a Muslim woman, I cannot serve as ‘one whole’ witness in the court of law—only as half a witness. So by law, I am inferior, weak, unreliable and half a person.
Very much aware of my status as a woman in this country, I am still legally free to drive, vote, work and write. The hypocrisy of secular legislations versus theological laws is confusing in the urban culture of Pakistan, and both somehow contrast sharply with reality. It was a huge feat for the women of Pakistan when the Women’s Protection Bill was passed, although the remnants of the Ordinance it replaced are still scattered [according to the Hudood Ordinance. inspired by sharia, a rape victim will be tried for adultery if she cannot produce 4 adult Muslim male witnesses to the rape]. Furthering the paradox towards the positive edge, was the sexual harassment bill that was given the status of a cognizable offense and signed into law with immediate effect in 2010. Despite all the secular legislative progress, the situation of women continue to be fragile and real change seems faraway and sometimes impossible due to the acceptance [by both genders] of certain religious decrees and cultural norms. Our going out, working, and speaking out remains wrapped in a layer of social and religious cellophane that seems too resilient to infiltrate.
India, on the other hand, seemed relatively much more liberated to me simply because it is not an ‘Islamic’ republic. In fact, according to the concept of secularism, albeit different from its traditional sense, the Indian State recognizes all religions and gives equal rights to all. Despite the acceptance of many orthodox cultural practices, at least in the cities, Indian women seem to be much bolder on the streets. They can choose to wear whatever kind of clothes they want and work side by side with the menfolk with greater tolerance than in Pakistan. So many Westerners are fascinated with India and I know so many foreign women who comfortably traveled alone, commuted freely and came back with new found spirituality [read: mystical yoga lessons]. I used to be envious that Indian women are legally complete as witnesses. Heck, even some of their Gods are females! However, my perception of womens empowerment in India got severely affected and my mental myth shattered when the whole world got to know about the Delhi gang rape of a young girl [RIP] in a bus. I sympathized with the women of India even more with the knowledge that even if they are legally equal citizens, in reality, they are just as vulnerable as we are-maybe even more.
The recent rape case in which the editor of Tehelka magazine, Tarun Tejpal is the accused shattered myths and broke many hearts. Tehelka magazine was known for its hardcore reporting style and the accused was one of the movers and shakers that gave the publication its vision and authenticity. Against all impressions, he ended up not only abusing his physical power as a man, but also his professional supremacy as the editor when he finger-raped the young journalist in the elevator of a hotel. His own apology letter addressed to her was a bold testimony to his over-confidence that probably convinced him that the victim will not pursue this legally. A journalist should know when the laws won’t favor him, especially since the civil society has fortified tremendously against sexual offenses. Although the bill for sexual harassment got assent from the Indian president in 2013, what Tarun has done goes beyond sexual harassment and enters into rape territory. According to Indian Penal Code, the punishment for that is imprisonment for life or 10 years.
I recently met a Polish man who is in the IT business and does not know much about Pakistan. The only thing he knew about us was that ‘porn’, ‘boobs’ and ‘donkeys’ are some of the most googled words in Pakistan. I honestly always thought that the reason we are so sexually frustrated was religious suppression. But looking at what is happening in India, I think the cultural influence is much greater in creating a system of violent patriarchy and sexual crimes. And in that aspect, I guess both our countries are still very much one nation.