Legitimizing Misogyny in Pakistan
The Council of Islamic
Ideology’s positions are frequently viewed in
Pakistan as an attack on the status and rights of women in
The Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) declared in
a recent meeting in April that Section 6 of the Muslim Family Laws
Ordinance (MFLO), which binds a man to seek prior permission from
his wife before remarrying, to be against shariah law and, in
addition, stated that it was completely acceptable by Islamic law to
marry off a girl as soon as she entered puberty regardless of her
Taken as a direct assault on women, the recommendations have started
a fierce debate about the extent to which women are treated with
injustice and unfairness in a culture of religiously sanctioned
This episode has also raised the important question of whether the
religious scholars are equipped to discuss and debate these issues
in order to incorporate the demands of the modern age in uncodified
injunctions, most of which deal with fiqh, as opposed to shariah.
The recommendations incited an uproar in the media and wider
society, which has become a practice after almost every meeting of
the council. The CII has over the years been reduced to a vigilante
body that is always ready to assault whatever little freedom and
relief women are sanctioned. This time the law under attack was
Section 6 of the MFLO of 1961, which was promulgated by the Ayub
Khan government with the recommendations of a law commission that
consisted of experts as well as religious scholars belonging to
various sects having a predominant presence in Pakistan.
Another institution, the Federal Shariah Court (FSC), had declared
in 2000 that Section 6 of the MFLO was in conformity with shariah.
The FSC, like the CII, is a constitutional body established in 1980
through a presidential order by former military dictator Gen. Zia-ul-Haq.
The irony was that a dictator, who suspended the Constitution, was
giving constitutional backing to this institution. Even more
ironical is the fact that the two constitutional bodies, having
overlapping jurisdiction, examined whether or not the law conformed
to Islamic law and came to different conclusions about the same law.
The CII has existed since 1962 as the Advisory Council of Islamic
Ideology under the Constitution of Pakistan of 1962 that was made
and promulgated by the regime under military dictator Field Marshal
Ayub Khan. It was later carried forward with an expanded membership
and functions by the 1973 Constitution of the Islamic Republic of
Pakistan, which was drafted during Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s reign.
Both Gen. Ayub Khan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto have been accused of
pandering to religious parties in their respective periods. Many
political commentators still believe that it was possible for both
to stand their ground while facing the Religious Right but both
capitulated and legitimized the religious parties through policies
that amounted to appeasement.
Dr. Farzana Bari, a leading women’s rights activist and leader of
the Awami Workers Party, says that the council had no business
bringing these issues to a debate and believes that the
controversial recommendations have managed to become part of
headline news with clerics sitting in the council taking over the
political and social space of the country. At a point when the
Religious Right is already dominating the discourse over the issue
of talks with the militants, the clergy needed little more
encouragement to completely hijack the narrative.
As a result, the debate now is all about what religion sanctions in
literal terms rather than about how religion could be brought into
conformity with the demands of modernity.
Dr. Khalid Masood, a former chairperson of the council, described it
as a continuing struggle between traditionalist religious thought
and the reformists. The reformists, he says, were defeated a long
time ago when politicians obliged the clergy by unnecessarily ceding
them space in the political arena.
This scenario was precisely the case when Gen. Ayub Khan agreed to
establish the body in 1962 and later when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto
succumbed to the same forces and continued it as part of the 1973
Constitution. A consequence of this wilful surrender has been a
steady and gradual increase in the dominance of the clergy and their
capture of the State. The council that draws its composition,
functions and procedures in accordance with Articles 228 to 231 of
the 1973 Constitution proudly claims the establishment of the FSC
among its most significant victories.
As per the Constitution, the council has to “advise” the Parliament
on whether a law is Islamic or not. In addition, the council also
has the authority to take suo moto decisions on certain questions of
law and submit those to the Parliament and legislative houses as its
recommendations. The legislature has to consider the recommendations
of the CII within six months. This procedure has been a point of
friction between the elected legislature and the unelected,
politically nominated council. In a recent statement, the CII
chairperson, Maulana Mohammad Khan Sherani, complained that the
CII’s recommendations were piling up in Parliament, which is least
pushed to discuss them on the floor of the legislature.
Following the CII meeting and issuance of the controversial
recommendations, Marvi Memon, a member of the National Assembly from
the ruling Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N), submitted a bill
calling for harsher punishments for violators of the restriction on
child marriage. The move, which was taken as a direct attack on the
CII recommendation, is being lauded by civil society and has
received overwhelming support from women’s rights activists.
However, for obvious reasons, the move has not been received well by
the council whose chairperson was quick to respond, saying that the
National Assembly should not have even discussed the issue as the
CII had already adjudged it to violate Islamic law.
This stance brings to the fore what Tahira Abdullah, a veteran
women’s rights campaigner, calls the “barbaric, cruel, misogynist
and inhuman mindset” of the CII. Blasting the council, she said, “I
reject his curiously timed mischief-mongering.”
Irfan Mufti, another human rights campaigner and peace activist,
strongly called for the abolition of the CII for being an anti-women
political body rather than a scholarly one. Dr. Bari, Tahira
Abdullah and scores of other activists have joined Mufti in this
demand and have protested in front of the CII secretariat, calling
for its abolition.
Dr. Fouzia Saeed, a women’s rights activist, scholar and author, is
of the opinion, however, that the existing council can be brought to
its senses even if the government is not willing to abolish it. She
believes that the council should be forced to keep its scholarly
credentials by bringing in academics, progressive scholars and
jurisprudence experts who must have the capability to look at
religion with a reformist’s eye rather than interpreting it
Abdullah recalls that this is not the first time that the council
has come up with “ridiculous and offensive” recommendations. In the
past, the CII has declared DNA testing for evidence in cases of rape
as violations of shariah.
Sen. Farhatullah Babar also recalled another recommendation of the
council in 1978 to alter the national flag by incorporating the
Kalima Tayyaba on it. Interestingly, that recommendation was later
taken up by militants who chose to incorporate it into their flag.
In 2013, the CII suddenly picked up the Women’s Protection Act,
which diluted some clauses of the controversial Hudood Ordinances,
and declared it to be a violation of shariah. It is important to
note here that the act came up after a detailed report by the
council in 2006, which called for changes in certain sections of the
Hudood Ordinances to make them conform to the principles of justice
and fairness enshrined in Islam.
The difference in the CII in 2013 compared to 2006 was the
composition and selection of the chairperson: Dr. Khalid Masood, the
then-chairperson of the CII in 2006 was a respected Islamic scholar
rather than an obscurantist political cleric like the current
chairperson. It is lamentable that political parties have not
learned from the past and still get bullied by religious political
In the period of 2009 to 2010, the incumbent Pakistan People’s Party
(PPP) appointed Sherani, a veteran of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazal
(JUI-F), as the CII chairperson purely on political considerations.
In 2013, the same action was repeated by the ruling PML-N to woo the
JUI-F, and Sherani was appointed for a second three-year term as the
It is pertinent to note that the mandatory position of a woman
member has been vacant since the death of Fareeda Ahmad Siddiqi, who
occupied the position in February 2013, although it is questionable
how much a solitary woman’s voice can influence the decisions of the
council that are largely viewed as being “misogynist.”
Under these circumstances, as Irfan Mufti puts it, the CII
undermines the mandate of the elected Parliament and does not have a
moral, ethical and legal justification for its existence. The
government, as Tahira Abdullah adds, must drop its cowardly stance,
stand up against bigotry and abolish the CII.
* Marvi Sirmed is an ordinary woman of Pakistan. This article was
originally published in Newsline’s April 2014 issue.