Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Pakistan’s Christians at crossroads on divorce

(PIG) Zia is credited with the wholesale Islamisation of Pakistan. Yet not only did he make Muslims ‘better Muslims’ – it would appear he also transformed Pakistan’s Christians into ‘better Christians’. The dominant discourse in both the religious majority Muslim groups and religious minority groups became one of forsaking notions of human rights at the altar of particularist interpretations of their religions. 

Yet all that is set to change for the latter. Or is it? 

The Lahore High Court last week struck down an important Zia-era amendment to the Christian Divorce Act 1869. The question before the court had been whether General Zia-ul-Haq had constitutional legitimacy to delete Section 7 of the Act – pertaining to the particular grounds permitted for divorce – without first consulting the Christian community. Most of the community’s representatives responded on a basis that does not sit well with constitutional legitimacy. 

Yet, notwithstanding the objections of obscurantist elements, the restoration of Section 7 must be welcomed, especially when it comes to the plight of women. For during its long absence, the only recourse available to Christians for divorce was Section 10, pertaining to adultery. For a wife, the burden was to prove additional cruelty or desertion in addition to adultery.  This prompted many couples to convert to Islam to seek automatic dissolution of marriage. For a husband, the charge of adultery proved convenient since it incurred no liability of maintenance.

Chief Justice Mansoor Ali Shah observed that the Christian clergy and political leadership were united in their rejection of divorce – except in cases of adultery. He went on to note, however, that the Christian leadership had no opposition to Section 7 before the good general did away with it back in 1981.
Yet one worrying development is the apparent conflict with religion. The Christian clergy stated before the court: “no one can change any verse or order of the Holy Bible”. Federal Minister for Human Rights Kamran Michael and Punjab Human Rights and Minority Affairs Minister Khalil Tahir Sandhu both voiced their support, with the latter reportedly telling the court that “divine laws could not be changed in the name of fundamental rights.” Such views are particularly worrying, given how close they are to the rhetoric promoted around Islam in the Zia era and its aftermath. Clearly the “Zia-isation” of the Christian community has proceeded abreast of that of the majority Muslim population of Pakistan.
All of which seemingly places Pakistan’s Christian community at the crossroads. Now is the time to decide whether it seeks validation of Zia’s blatant move to interfere in personal laws – or whether it stands for the constitutional and international human rights guarantees enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on Elimination and Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). These international standards require equal treatment of men and women before the law – and that, of course, includes fair and just mechanisms for marriage dissolution.

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