KARACHI – Liberal-minded people in this country are concerned at the "hasba bill" passed in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) assembly that seeks to severely restrict women’s rights and institute a "moral police" in the territory that borders Afghanistan.
What is particularly worrisome is that the bill, described variously by liberals as "Talibanization" and the "martial law of the mullahs" gained an overwhelming 68 votes to 34 in the NWFP assembly that is dominated by the ruling, Islamist, Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) party, when put to vote on July 15.
However, the bill which provides for the appointment of a mohtasib, or ombudsman, whose staff will police implementation of Islamic values and codes remains invalid until signed by the President Pervez Musharraf.
The federal government, for its part, has challenged the bill and instructed the attorney general of Pakistan to seek the opinion of the Supreme Court on the constitutionality of the Hasba law in general and specifically on whether it violates fundamental rights guaranteed under the constitution.
The other silver lining is that NWFP governor Khalilur Rehman has opposed it openly, saying that he will not allow the province to be "Talibanized."
Even Interior Minister Aftab Ahmad Khan Sherpao has said that "laws based on hate will not be allowed to be enacted."
A battle of words has begun with secretary general of the Jammat-Ulema-Islam (JUI) party Maulana Fazlur Rehman warning that Musharraf’s decision to seek a reference would create problems for the president.
The MMA has threatened to initiate countrywide protests if hurdles are put in the way of the bill’s implementation. The MMA president and Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) leader Qazi Hussain Ahmed has accused "foreign-funded NGOs" of resorting to propaganda opposing the bill.
A five-member Supreme Court bench will commence hearings on the presidential reference in Islamabad on July 25.
Meanwhile, the bill, reminiscent of all that the former Taliban rulers of neighboring Afghanistan upheld, has been severely criticized by human rights groups, women’s organizations, and political parties, except of course for the MMA and its alliance of religious parties.
If passed into law, say its opponents, matters can only worsen a climate that is already hostile for women, minorities, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
Women in Pakistan are already at the receiving end of laws like the Hudood ordinance, while a law against blasphemy has been used to attack members of religious minorities
According to Akram Khan Durrani, chief minister of NWFP, he and his associates have a mandate to Islamize governance and society after the 2002 electoral victory of his MMA party.
Various Taliban-style activities have begun in the province, such as the defacing of billboards with pictures of women on them, banning music on public transport, banning theater, barring male journalists from covering women’s sporting events, and a ban on men coaching female athletes.
Reacting to the bill, Asma Jehangir, chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said she feared NGOs would now become the targets of fundamentalists. Already, workers with voluntary organizations have been attacked and even shot at.
In Muslim writings, hasba (or hisba) refers to an inspectorate whose business it was to see that conduct in the public realm conformed to Islamic criteria.
Terming it a "full-frontal attack on Pakistan," Sherry Rehman, chair of Central Policy Planning in the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), said the bill was a "concerted political confrontation by orthodox forces to challenge the essence of the Pakistani state."
Politics apart, the most disquieting aspect of the bill, for most concerned citizens, is the appointment of a mohtasib, an ombudsman, who will have complete authority to issue directives to "reform society in accordance with the teachings of Islam" through his "hisba force."
"The mohtasib is more powerful than even the judiciary," says Nighat Kamdar of AWARD, an NGO working with women on HIV/AIDS, in Peshawar. Kamdar said the legislation would serve to make women further invisible.
According to the text of the hasba bill, the mohtasib will also be above the law, as any action taken "in good faith and in public interest" by him cannot be challenged.
He will have the authority to make inquiries into alleged misadministration against any government office. His staff can get any documents from any government office if the mohtasib deems it necessary to watch and protect Islamic values and etiquette and also watch the media.
However, very conveniently, he will not "interfere in any matter" that "relates to or is connected with the defense of Pakistan or any part thereof, the military, naval and air forces of Pakistan or the matters covered by laws relating to these forces."
On this, Rehman said: "About 27 special powers have been given to the mohtasib in order to regulate the powers and lives of citizens that would violate directly the right of the individual. If the MMA was so committed to its version of intolerant Islam, it would have uniformly enforced it on the military as well."
"Since the hasba is clearly a political move to gain control over the lives and minds of people, and to divert attention from real issues, its backers have not even attempted to bring it up at the Center, where it will be challenged and soundly defeated," said Rehman.
In Rehman’s view, given such an arrangement, Islamist rightists would "gain ascendancy and enforce an intolerant version of Islam where pious statements would mask a naked greed for power and arbitrary interference in the fundamental human rights of the individual and justice system of the state."
"The creation of a hasba police is not about enforcing Islam, as Pakistan is not just home to Sunnis, but Shias, as well as minorities. It is about assuming wide-ranging, controversial powers that are directly in contradiction not only with the spirit of Islam but also the practice of democracy as well as fundamental human rights enshrined in the Constitution," she added.
According to the bill, the policing force will ensure observance of Islamic values like decorum at prayer times, check indecent behavior (according to their own definition) at public places, discourage entertainment and business at the time of Friday prayers around mosques, and remove causes of dereliction in performance of prayers.
Critics say the force is designed on the lines of the Taliban’s "Vice and Virtue force" or even the muttawa in Saudi Arabia.
To be fair, the bill also seeks to curb the killing of women in the name of honor, discourages dowry, extravagance in weddings, beggary, and child labor.