Women's issues that reach public forums, are followed by most women with bated breath. The answers will affect them all. The question is not merely whether or not `A' will be allowed to marry `B'; or whether `C' will be allowed to keep her children. The question behind every women's issue is of freedom, equality and of human rights. It is an issue of the freedom of an adult Pakistani muslim woman to make her own decisions; it is an issue of how much equality of the sexes is going to be recognized by the law-makers; it is an issue of the rights of a muslim woman to live a life of dignity.

There have always been differing perceptions about Islamic law. There is the progressive, liberal, common-sensical view; and there is the fanatical narrow-minded, extremist view. Progressive views are frequently silenced by the fury of fanatical zealots, screaming `westernized'. Believing themselves to be sole repositories of God's word, the violent, knee-jerk reaction of these fanatics to any disagreement is to declare a person either a qaudiani or a kaffir; both terms being interchangeable as far as they are concerned. In the end, their view prevails, as discussion or argument is rejected. The sanctity of religion itself is supposed to have been violated if their radical interpretations of 'shariah' are questioned.

The less learned are frequently puzzled by the fact that Islam is divided into many sects; each claiming to follow the `real' teachings of the Holy Prophet. Each sect believes in the message of Muhammad (pbuh) as enunciated in the Holy Quran. Therefore, the difference of opinion would seem to lie in dialectics. Yet, each sect claims its own interpretation to be the only correct one. Does all the divisiveness and hatred then simply boil down to interpretations of an archaic dialect of Arabic?

Without claiming any deep scholarly knowledge about Fiqh or Shariah, I am sure that the gentlest of all Prophets, the most merciful of all men and the most unassuming of all teachers would shudder at the violence done in his name.

Another problem that confuses the unlearned is why it always becomes a question of religious, moral and ethical proportions when a young woman takes control of her own life. Over the years, many defiant young men have rebelled against their parents' choice of a bride, marrying their sweethearts instead. They were either cut off without a penny, or forgiven; many young men have left their parents' homes to live independently; and that was that. The police were never expected to bring them back. Yet, if a girl marries of her own choice, she can be imprisoned as a common felon, depending on how her parents take the news of her marriage.

This leads to another puzzle, the more conservative the parents, the more insistent they are upon arranged marriages. Objectively speaking, arranged marriages are an anomaly. On the one hand, conservative families encourage a girl to behave as a non-sexual being. Then, overnight she is expected to go to bed with a total stranger, because her parents and the Nikah-nama (marriage contract) say so. 'Love marriages are reviled. This may be because the basic assumption of a `love marriages' (as opposed to loveless marriages?) is of a sexually aware female; someone who not only knows what she wants, but has the confidence to take it. This behaviour is opposed to the view emphasizing the `good' woman as pious, pure, submissive and domesticated and non-sexual.

Frequently, boys and girls are married off (by their parents) when they are too young to be aware of the responsibilities that marriage entails. One would expect that there should therefore be no problem when a young man and woman decide to marry, if they are old enough to understand the duties and commitment that marriage demands. This is not so.

Trying to understand the underlying religious and cultural demands of marriages, I remember reading an `illuminating' article by Mr. Marwan Ibrahim Al-Kaysi (`The News" Sept. 7th. 1995). Among other things, Mr Marwan says:

1) `The ideal bride is one who most adheres to Islam, is decorously shy and sensitive, one who has moderate material demands, and is preferably a virgin'.

I have no quarrel with these fine qualities, unfortunately the characteristics of the ideal groom were not given; neither about his personality nor state of physical purity. Maybe simply being a man is enough?

2) `A woman (age no criteria) cannot give herself in marriage without a guardian....: I wonder what a woman can own then? What can she bestow upon another, if not even her own self?

3) `The ideal and most blessed marriage (in Islam) is that which involves the least burden upon the bridegroom.' It seems that we are fast approaching this ideal in Pakistan where the demands of the groom's family are increasing by the minute.

4) (On the nuptial night) `The husband should place his hand on his wife's forehead and ask Allah's blessing on her by saying: O Allah, I ask You for the good in her and in the disposition You have given her, and I seek refuge in You from the evil in her and in the disposition You have given her.'

Thus protected and blessed Mr. Marwan believes the man is safe to consummate the marriage. Yet he omits to mention how the bride is supposed to protect herself from the devils in her husband's personality and character. What if he is a sadist?

5) A woman is advised that `wealth, rank, good position and job or any other material privilege do not alone add up to proper attributes for a future husband'. Yet the `proper' manly attributes are not given. Neither is the man enjoined upon not to ignore material privileges when choosing a bride.

6) `Silence is taken to indicate consent in matters concerning herself, if the woman is an orphan or a virgin (and therefore modest). Similar modest silence is not acceptable if the woman is a divorcee or a widow'.

Of all that I read of Mr. Marwan's views this is what inflamed me the most. Is modesty an attribute of the hymen? Are non-virgins immodest?

These excerpts give an inkling of the type of thinking the women of Pakistan are up against. Being a signatory of CEDAW [an international document on the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women], Pakistan is obliged to take appropriate steps, including legislation, to modify or abolish existing laws, regulations, customs and practices which constitute discrimination against women. After the fanfare of the Beijing Conference has died down, the women of Pakistan are still waiting for the government to fulfil its obligations to CEDAW, in providing justice, equality and fundamental human rights to half its population.

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