Musharraf and Women’s Rights

9 Nov
Pervez Musharraf at Columbia University's World Leaders Forum. Courtesy Columbia University

Pervez Musharraf at Columbia University's World Leaders Forum. Courtesy Columbia University

TAKING the “History of Human Rights” course at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University has forced me to think about the freedoms we take for granted today. Being a member of the privileged elite in society, I didn’t stop to question the origins of these rights, what was sacrificed in order to obtain them, and how people lived before their rights were recognized.

Over the years, the evolving concept of human rights has come to shelter more and more groups under its protective umbrella. In the 18th century, in France and the U.K, “rights” only protected landed white males. Slowly, it expanded to include Jews, slaves and women, to name just a few groups. But the issue of human rights remains a battlefield where vast numbers of people fight for their recognition.

For instance, the rights of women in developing countries, and more specifically, in Pakistan. It is said that the health of a society can be measured by looking at the lives of its most vulnerable members. In fact, according to Freedom House (best known for its annual assessment of the degree of democratic freedoms in each country) and the statistics-based website Nation Master, countries with a high regard for “people-gender development” are also countries which tend to have a variety of indicators for good health, high levels of education and literacy, technologically-advanced and innovative economies, and higher usage of mobile phones and televisions, to name a few. In other words, countries that are kind to its women tend to offer a better quality of life for all of its population, rather than just a wealthy, urban elite.

Pakistani society’s most vulnerable members include women. Although educated middle- and upper-class women in urban areas are better-off for the most part, this is not true of those living in remote villages in the rural areas of Pakistan. As Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf pointed out in his speech in Low Library in September 2005, there are 30,000 women working for the “political authority” at all tiers of government, 1 | start: 00:36:29 | end: 00:37:12, but this does not seem to help those women who are denied their basic rights in rural Pakistan.

In those faraway fields, “justice” is meted out by village elders in a panchayat, jirga or tribal court, which take community decisions at the grassroots level. These village councils are often unjust. The most publicized case of injustice imposed by a jirga is that of Mukhtaran Mai, a woman who belongs to the lower-class Gujjar community. She was publicly gang-raped on June 22, 2002 on the orders of the Mastoi tribal council in her village of Meerwala in South Punjab. It was punishment for the alleged rape by her 12-year-old brother of a woman in the Mastoi community. Mai’s family maintains that Mastoi men sodomized her younger brother, and that the rape charge was meant to silence him.

It is indeed true that women are unfairly treated all over the world, and as Musharraf has repeatedly pointed out, rape occurs everywhere and is not unique to Pakistan. But there are few places in the world where not only is there no justice for rape victims, but rape and sexual assault are also prescribed as a common sentence enforced by local village councils.

Mai’s is not an isolated case. Newspapers in Pakistan frequently carry the stories of other rape victims who are denied justice. In some cases, girls as young as five are married off to middle-aged men as settlement in land disputes. In others, women are executed as part as “honor killings” to avenge the honor of wronged members of a tribe. The actions of male members of a tribe are often punished by the rape of the female members of the same tribe. The bodies of women are thought to house the “dignity” and “honor” of a tribe or clan; the value of women comes from their designation as the sites of community honor and revenge. In these remote societies, issues of class and caste trump any notions of “rights”. Besides, as with slaves, Jews and women before they were deemed to have human rights, the rights of women in certain societies today are simply not taken into account. This is the way local courts dispensed justice for generations. If they know another way, they are unable or unwilling to follow it.

Though General Musharraf has stated that his government is doing all they can to redress wrongs and to combat violence against women, it was his government that confiscated Mai’s passport and placed her under house arrest in June 2002. She had been invited on a speaking tour in America by the Asian-American Network Against Abuse of Women (ANAA), and the government was fearful that her remarks would make them look bad in the international press. She continued to speak to the media and lawyers at the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. Until, that is, the 13 men who had been arrested for raping her were simultaneously released in an act of intimidation. It was only due to international pressure that her passport was restored to her and permission granted to leave the country.

The low value that the current regime places on the rights of women is further evidenced by Pervez Musharraf’s recent remarks made to the Washington Post on September 13, 2005. The President of Pakistan stated, “You must understand the environment in Pakistan. This has become a moneymaking concern. A lot of people say if you want to go abroad and get a visa for Canada or citizenship and be a millionaire, get yourself raped.” (Mukhtaran Mai has accomplished the following with the donations she has received from a sympathetic world public. She started two schools in her village, one for boys and another for girls, and is also setting up a non-profit women’s group called Mukhtaran Mai’s Women Welfare Organisation.) General Musharraf’s statements have attracted much condemnation, with complaints coming from Amnesty International, the Canadian government, as well as many rape victims and activists in Pakistan.

The rights of an individual, said utilitarian and influential human rights thinker Jeremy Bentham, depend on the laws that enforce them. “We know what it is for men to live without government and living without government, to live without rights . . . no habit of obedience, and thence no government — no government, and thence no laws — no laws, and thence no such things as rights.” Although his claim — rights do not exist without the laws to enforce them — is challenged by many today, it is true that rights in name only are worth little if there are no enforceable laws to protect them. Which is why, even though the Sind High Court declared all jirgas unlawful in 2004, they continue to operate and mete out their version of “justice” in large parts of the country.

This leads to the question: which political system is best suited for the nourishment of human rights? The only answer the world has come up with so far is: democracy. Although it is not a perfect system, it is, I believe, the best available option. General Musharraf calls himself a “real believer in democracy” 2 | start: 0:35:58 | end: 0:36:29, a claim that is perhaps only slimly supported by evidence. He condones his dictatorship by saying that in the 11 years prior to his military coup, the popularly elected prime ministers looted the country until it was almost a failed state. In such a situation, Musharraf says he would not choose democracy 3 | start: 00:41:15 | end: 00:43:12. Although he clarifies later that he is not against the two political parties of Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, he is against them as individuals who stole from his nation. There are many Pakistanis who approve of Musharraf’s continued dictatorship: it has had, they say, a positive effect on the country’s economy, decreasing the rate of corruption and improving overall efficiency.

However, Pakistan has a long history of military coups by generals who were subsequently seduced by the power of the position, and did not hold the elections they promised. General Musharraf did hold a referendum in April 2002, complete with political country-wide rallies, the setting up of 87,000 polling stations (even in prisons) and reducing the voting age from 21 to 18 years. Some commentators say that this was in order to encourage voter turnout, which, despite these measures, remained at a dismal 30% (according to the government count; the opposition count puts it at 5%). This, despite the fact that there was only one name on the ballot: Pervez Musharraf.

While apologists for the current regime say that the military is the only stable institution in Pakistan, that there are simply no other civil institutions capable of sustaining a stable government and economy, other commentators such as journalist Ahmad Faruqui say that the overpowering presence of the military has made it impossible for other civil institutions to thrive, and continued use of the military will do more harm to the country than good.

Whether Musharraf concedes power or holds on to it will be determined only in the 2007 elections, which he says he plans to hold. But it is certain that his speech at the World Leaders Forum, though instructive, only presented one side of the story. News reports from Pakistan — and time — will tell us the rest.


This essay was sponsored by the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning (CCNMTL) and produced using their technology, Video Interactions for Teaching and Learning (VITAL). It was published in the fall of 2005 on the CCNMTL website.

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