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Becoming irrelevant with passage of time

Council of Islamic Ideology is once again in the news as a Senate standing committee has rejected a private member bill seeking to increase the minimum number of women members of the Council of Islamic of Ideology (CII). The bill had sought that a minimum of one third seats on the council should be reserved for women members. Experts say that having more women on the CII is no solution: the council should be written out of the statute books as it is becoming irrelevant with the passage of time. The CII is among several elements of a regressive legacy that continue to bedevil Pakistan. With the Constitution containing the proviso that no law shall be framed contrary to the Quran and Sunnah, a body tasked with assessing whether laws conform to Islamic principles or not, is entirely redundant. The argument that it has only an advisory role is specious, for even in this capacity the CII has derailed or, at the very least, watered down attempts at legislation seeking to empower women. It serves as a platform for representatives from right-wing groups outside parliament to exercise influence over the process of legislation and introduce confusion in the public debate often through misinformation and flawed reasoning. In an environment where violence against women can take the most horrific forms, the CII uses its bully pulpit – not to mention its Rs100m budget – to try and further rob women of their agency. It has denounced a minimum age for marriage as un-Islamic, rejected the use of DNA as primary evidence in rape cases and slammed women’s protection law – and this is only a sampling of its recent ponderings. The CII has been hell bent upon restricting fundamental rights of Pakistani women. It had declared the Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act (PPVA) and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Domestic Violence Bill ‘un-Islamic’ and drafted its own drafts in response. These drafts were prepared without giving any weightage to the recommendations of the council’s only woman member, Samia Raheel Qazi. The CII has made several outrageous suggestions like those pertaining to minimum age limits for marriage, opposition to DNA evidence in rape cases and ban on co-education after primary-level. If our Parliamentarians cannot do the right thing and disband this council, they should at least recognise that the body does not belong to our day and age as it exists at the moment. The CII needs greater diversity not just in terms of more women members but also in terms of more members with differing opinions on religious teachings. Islam is a dynamic religion that has historically been open to multiple context-specific interpretations. It will be beneficial for the council as well as the country if personnel diverse perspectives on religion are included into the council. That may be its only saving grace. The CII is a controversial body whose legitimacy remains under question, considering it was introduced during a military dictatorship. There is hardly any need for such a council. The advisory role can very well be performed by any parliamentary body. Recently, it also opposed the efforts to eliminate the practices of girl marriages. More than 60 million girls around the world were married under the age of 18 last year, out of which 24% were from rural Pakistan and 18% from urban areas, said Blue Veins Programme report. It is said that if child marriages continue at this rate, an additional 100 million underage girls will be married within the next decade. That is 25,000 new child brides every day for the next 10 years. And the most virulent opposition to ban child marriage comes from the religious right. It was the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) which last year opposed the bill that aimed to increase the minimum of age of marriage from 16 to 18 years. In fact, the CII has at times maintained that a girl can be married off at age 9 “if the signs of puberty are visible.” And it is this religious sanction provided by anachronistic bodies such as the CII that leads to the widespread acceptance of child marriage. In a country in which religion plays a very important role in determining the outlook of the people, it was expected that the clergy would act in a responsible manner and help Pakistan on its way to becoming a moderate and progressive republic. Unfortunately, the clergy has instead chosen to oppose any progressive measure that has been introduced or mulled in Pakistan, and that has laid bare its misogyny and bigotry. While it would akin to indulging in naivety to expect the Pakistani religious right to change its historic opposition to the forces of progress, the state must also not be exonerated for capitulating to the religious right on certain occasions. However, the tide is turning, and the forces of progress are increasingly making the regressive voices irrelevant. After all, the most racket is made by those who fear losing their position.

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