Let’s not obfuscate matters, please
It has recently been reported that new legislation has been proposed regarding reproductive health —including the sensitive issue of abortion. In response, parliamentarian Ms Kashmala Tariq (according to media reports) has opposed the proposed legislation on, among other things, the basis that a foreign agenda might be pushed through in the garb of bona fide legislation.
I can respect the fact that Ms Tariq raised certain issues. Legislation that might sound good in theory can still do a lot of damage if the specifics of the law are not tailored in a way that takes into account the effects on all stakeholders. Of course this does not mean that the purpose of the legislation should be hijacked. And this brings me to the point about where objections can get absurd.
Without prejudice to other possible categorisations, people in Pakistan fall under two heads: those who believe that the world is against us and hatching conspiracies and those who don’t. Education and even exposure to the world, in my experience, has frighteningly little to do with such things. More relevant might be one’s own spirit of curiosity and willingness to challenge the various viewpoints thrown at you. What foreign agenda Ms Tariq has in mind, I dare not speculate. Hopefully she does not imagine that clarifying the law on abortion or giving women greater autonomy over their bodies will lead to some sort of abortions galore.
Granted the text of the proposed legislation has not entered the public domain and the objection as well as my criticism is engaging with the issue in a very general way — nuance being a casualty — but this happens each time legislation dealing with women’s’ rights comes forward. It would make sense if the issue related to definitions in the law, e.g. the domestic violence legislation attracted justifiable criticism for ambiguity. I can understand the use of rhetoric for gaining political capital but a line does need to be drawn before things get out of hand. I am not naïve enough to think that women care more about other women’s rights so I will not place any higher burden of responsibility on Ms Tariq. However, as a legislator and as a civic educator for her community, it is incumbent upon Ms Tariq not to confuse issues to further people’s ignorance.
No country in the world, alone or in conjunction with others, is out to influence the laws of Pakistan in a way that will make women parade naked or get abortions for fun. Imagining that everyone else in the world has an agenda against us makes us look like idiots. There is no other way to put it.
Women in Pakistan are deeply vulnerable: to physical, psychological and sexual violence. An awfully large number of women have their choices made for them — this reality should not be forgotten regardless of how many pretty lawn designers or models you may see. The encouraging and discouraging things about living in this society often overlap; there are so many battles one can take on.
The foreign agenda that so worries our legislators and right wing analysts does not exist. What does exist is the possibility that we can learn from the experiences of other countries, including Western countries, and decide what works best for us. Western nations do not have one policy towards issues such as abortion. Some countries still prohibit it except in very limited circumstances and yes their basis is religion too. Others allow it only for a limited time. There is a considerable amount of debate on whether the foetus should be treated as a person. And at what point do you start treating the foetus as a person? At conception or after a certain number of weeks?
These are all relevant and important questions that each society has to grapple with. Pretending that Islam offers the only answer or that the possible answers furnished by other countries are part of some agenda against is fundamentally flawed. Investigating things is encouraged in every religion so even if a holy book may not provide an answer itself, it would hardly prohibit the practice of learning from others.
Hopefully enough of us can join in this debate when the provisions of the law become available and can contribute meaningfully. I am often accused of being an apologist for foreigners and their way of doing things — particularly Americans. I can assure you that there is no one American way of approaching such issues. The country, like other societies, is full of diverse viewpoints. The sooner we stop misleading our people, the better.
I have nothing against people voicing their moral positions or ones that they deeply cherish. But I am not willing to give them the comfort of not having those challenged. What is at stake are the rights of the women of Pakistan. These are women without whom the men of Pakistan would be, frankly, useless. They raise us, nourish us, support us and don’t ever lose the patience of dealing with men even though we continue behaving like boys. It is high time we stand up for their rights and ensure that our systems allow women to make their own choices.
The writer is a Barrister and has a Masters in Law from Harvard Law School. He has a special interest in Antitrust law. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @wordoflaw