Civil society working on women’s rights in Pakistan restricted by Council of Islamic Ideology

Blue Veins Logo1Civil society organisations (CSOs) working to improve women’s rights in Pakistan are facing difficulties after the Council of Islamic Ideology has made several attempts to limit their work as part of their clampdown on women’s rights in general. CIVICUS spoke to Qamar Naseem from Blue Veins, a CSO in Pakistan that provides legal assistance to survivors of gender-based violence and trains lawyers and judges to better deal with the cases on gender-based violence in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

1.What is the general situation for civil society in Pakistan? 
There are systemic threats to CSOs in Pakistan and especially in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. In recent years, there has been a perceptible rise in restrictions on civic space. The independent civil society is under threat not just from the government but also from powerful non-state actors including influential business entities and extremist groups, as well as, religious leadership subscribing to fundamentalist ideologies. 
We are increasingly experiencing and witnessing criminalisation of dissent and there are efforts to criminalise the work of CSOs as the civic space is shrinking alarmingly. Attacks on CSOs have increased significantly in recent years while authorities have shown no interest to safeguard human rights defenders and CSOs. 

2.What is the current situation for civil society working to improve women’s rights in Pakistan?  
Several actions by the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) have resulted in restrictions for groups working on women’s rights. In January 2016, the CII rejected a bill to ban girls under 18 to marry and punish those carrying out child marriages. The CII called the efforts to ban child marriages “blasphemous” and anti-Islamic. This is very dangerous for civil society, as it can result in legal implications and life threatening risks to civil society organisations and activists working to end child marriage because they can face blasphemy charges. 

Attacks have already started to emerge in the rural areas on activists working on the issues of child marriages and civil society workers are now showing reluctance to conduct and participate in community outreach activities in relation to child marriages. Their fear is justified because there are large numbers of examples, which proves that blasphemy is an unpardonable offence in Pakistan. The clearest example of this was when Taseer was assassinated for requesting a presidential pardon for a blasphemy accused, and members of the public hailed his killer as a hero and approved of the murder. This poses grave threats against civil society and the important work that CSOs has done for years to improve women’s and girls’ rights.  

On 20 August 2016, the CII rejected a bill criminalising domestic violence, which was passed by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province government. The CSOs working to end gender-based violence are now at risk of even further resistance and rejection from the local community, as the CII raise fingers against civil society saying that we are against Islamic values. It is clear that the government listens more to the CII than civil society, which also was proven when the government allocated even more resources for the CII in June of this year. 

3.What are some ways forward to counter the problem of civil society being restricted for their work on women’s rights in Pakistan? 
It is important that religious arguments are countered by religious arguments. Currently, the chair mainly rules the CII and his interpretations are not the same as many other religious leaders’. The current situation has gotten out of hand, as we see extreme forms of violence backed by religious interpretations and no limit from stopping people from immorality. A few bad religious leaders have hijacked the debate while many are being silent and don’t know what to do. Religious leaders must say that this is not Islam and stand together against these myths created in the name of religion. 

We think that the right way forward for civil society is to make sure to be in dialogue with religious leaders and find common solutions. So far, we have seen that most CSOs in Pakistan have chosen to work in isolation and exclude religious leaders from the solution but we must remember that interpretations differ and that we can work together. The public and the government consider religious leaders as gatekeepers, especially on women’s rights, and, therefore, engaging with religious leaders can result in greater gains in terms of impact, sustainability and reach of our projects. 

In the past, civil society has had success in mobilising religious leaders to support initiatives such as a HIV AIDS awareness programme, which was a complete failure before they came along. Polio vaccine programmes are also successful now because religious leaders allow them. We saw clearly at a recent conference we held on child marriage that political parties in Pakistan would be willing to ban child marriage if they have the support from religious leaders. For this reason, we are working on a fatwa saying that working to end child marriage is not blasphemous, which we hope will be signed by 300 religious leaders. Additionally, we are making a booklet that counters the religious arguments used by religious authorities against civic space by proving that in fact the Quran and Hadith encourage dialogue, research and expression.