In recent years, a government body tasked with advising the Pakistani legislature on Islamic law has come up with many controversial recommendations for women.
Last month, the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) caused outrage when it suggested men should be allowed to “lightly beat” their wives. In 2013, it declared that DNA test results were not acceptable as primary evidence in cases of rape. Two years ago, it endorsed underage marriage for girls as young as 9 “if the signs of puberty were visible.”
Such advocacy has led lawmakers and activists to call for the dissolution of the CII.
Zohra Yusuf, the head of the nongovernmental Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, accused the CII of “promoting” violence against women, in a country where it is already a major problem.
“All their statements seem to be focused on women, and they are regressive,” she said.
Yusuf, whose organization has seen a spike in the violence against women and particularly brutal murders committed in the name of protecting family honor, said the CII injunctions are worrisome because they “encourage” some in Pakistan’s conservative society to violate women’s rights.
Yusuf said the CII’s “recommendations” often attract a lot of attention because of the media coverage and public outrage. She said these can even be misconstrued as official state policy.
“It helps people justify the violence and other negative actions they are engaged in,” she said. “We think that this council is not needed at all because Pakistan’s constitution clearly says that no laws in the country can be against the teachings of Islam.”
Some lawmakers have said the council was supposed to be dissolved by the early 1980s, soon after it submitted its final report. Instead, the CII submitted its final report in 1996 and largely avoided the spotlight by hiding amid Pakistan’s bloated federal bureaucracy.
But that changed three years ago, when Maulana Muhammad Khan Sherani assumed the helm. Since then, the bearded cleric -- believed to be in his 60s -- has periodically caused controversy by making recommendations about women that secular and liberal Pakistanis see as abhorrent.
Even clerics and Islamists from rival sects and political parties have opposed his ideas, which are rooted in the ultra-conservative Deobandi interpretation of Islamic jurisprudence. Deobandi is an Islmic revivalist movement based on a puritanical interpretation of Hanafi Sunni Islam. Its adherents range from Sherani’s Jamiat Ulema-e Islam (JUI) party to the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan.
The controversial draft CII bill on May 26 said: "A husband should be allowed to lightly beat his wife if she defies his commands and refuses to dress up as per his desires; turns down demand for intercourse without any religious excuse; or does not take a bath after intercourse or menstrual periods."
Samar Minallah Khan, an independent documentary filmmaker and rights activist, said the council hardly stands against violent, discriminatory, or exploitative cultural practices such as honor killings or forced marriages to settle disputes.
“For example, women are entitled to inheritance under Islamic injunctions, but they never talk about it,” she said. “[The council’s] work is counterproductive.”
She said the CII often engages in irrelevant discussions around issues that are not central to improving the lot of Pakistani women. “They often divert attention from the real issues,” she said.
Many members of the upper house of Pakistani Parliament or senate called for dissolving the council earlier this year. Senator Farhatullah Babar said a judicial organization called the Federal Shariat Court is tasked with striking down laws that violate Islamic injunctions. “What was the need for the CII?” he asked.
But lawmaker Hafiz Hamdullah, an ally of Sherani and member of the JUI said the CII is a constitutional body that cannot be dissolved.
“People who are calling for its dissolution -- their opinion doesn’t matter, because it is not in line with the constitution,” he said.
Hamdullah said that without the council Pakistani lawmakers will be unable to legislate in light of the teachings of Islam.
“As long as Pakistan exists, we will need to make laws. And that is why we need this council,” he said.