Human rights activists at a protest in Islamabad | AFP
Human rights activists at a protest in Islamabad | AFP

Waris Shah’s epic on Heer’s life and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s documentary on Saba Qaiser’s plight are about two protagonists who have many things in common, a river just being one of those. Both come from Punjab. Both made life choices that their fathers did not approve of. Both received punishment for their defiance — one was shot at and thrown in the water to die, the other was coerced into marrying someone against her will.

Punjab, as seen through the literary imagination of Shah in his narration of Heer’s travails, appears little different from what the province looks like from whatever little is known about Qaiser’s story in Chinoy’s Oscar-winning documentary (one only wishes that Chinoy, like Shah, had addressed a local audience in a local language). Patriarchy, violence against women, the link between a family’s honour and the love lives of its women – or lack thereof – are all common themes between them. That may suggest that nothing has changed in this part of the world, over the centuries, as far as the treatment of women is concerned.

Well, the law on violence against women has changed recently. And Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has promised that another one – on honour killing – will also change soon. Most women’s rights activists are ecstatic (as are Pakistan’s donors in the West); the religious right is aghast (as are the custodians of desi culture). Everyone in between is puzzled about the intrusive nature of a law that gives state officials access to the bedroom of a married couple and the near impossibility of its implementation within a society steeped in the culture of compromise and cover-up.

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The overlapping of religious edicts and common law adds another layer to the confusion. After the state criminalised honour killings in a previous bout of pro-women legislation in 2004, the killers started using the Islamic provisions of diyat in their favour — paying their way out of trial and punishment.

A lot seems to have changed, but Punjab still continues to look the same. Why? One of the basic reasons is that those who draft the laws do not know the ground realities (doing it mostly in accordance with what the donors ask for) and those who oppose them are unwilling to tackle social and moral problems, except through religious orthodoxy.

Promulgating laws for regulating the collective life of a community is the primary responsibility – as well as the essential mandate – of a state. So, yes, there is nothing wrong with enacting laws, especially ones made to support the marginalised sections of society such as women, children and minorities. But then the state should have the will – and the capacity – to implement those laws.

We have a law against dowry? Do we even know that it exists? The same overzealous officials who ensure that wedding functions come to an end before a certain hour in Lahore have never bothered to find out how much money is being spent on dowry in the same weddings. The same government that has put a ban on serving more than a single dish at wedding receptions never takes the trouble to find out how much money is being spent on the jewellery a bride gets from her parents. We also have a law against child labour and one on minimum wage. How many times does the state swing into action against those who employ children or who pay less than minimum wage to their workers?

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Religion, too, is a universally accepted part of life in our society. So, yes, there is nothing wrong if people (both as individuals and groups), want to live honest, pious and charitable lives, especially if it means ensuring that they do not unjustly profit from other people’s miseries and do not voluntarily cause harm to the weak and the infirm. But, then, the custodians of religion should have the courage to be innovative (as many of their predecessors have been in the past) when a religious point of view becomes incongruent with social, economic and judicial realities. So many traditions that religion once allowed are no longer practicable; slavery being the most obvious example. The mullah who agreed to authenticating Heer’s marriage against her will and the mufti raving and ranting against a documentary on a case of attempted honour killing both appear to be utterly incapable of that innovation. And that intransigence of the religious establishment is another common theme in women’s stories from yore; and also those of the present.

Sharif’s promised law on honour killing will face the same approval (from the women’s rights activists and the West) and disapproval (from the mullahs and the leaders of religious parties) and the twain shall never meet. The two sides need to take into account the reality of life as it is lived in the cities, towns and villages — rather than as it is presented in documentaries made in a foreign language and sermons given in another foreign language. Without that, the treatment of women in Punjab, and by extension in Pakistan, will see little, if any, improvement.

This was originally published in the Herald's March 2016 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.