Do Laws Change Society or do Norms Change Society?

There are two main approaches to altering the actions of a society.  One way is by changing the laws of that society, and the other is by changing the minds of the people.  When it pertains to women’s rights and their place in society in Pakistan, both changes are crucial to making any sort of improvement in the matter.  Anita Weiss argues in her article, “Moving Forward with the Legal Empowerment of Women in Pakistan” one is more valuable than the other in making progress.  Weiss states, “The empowerment of women in Pakistan can be considered in a variety of contexts, but none is more critical than law…” (p. 2). Weiss makes worthy points as to the importance of law with the empowerment of women, but I argue that there is something more critical than law in this journey to empowerment, and that is the conversion of cultural and traditional norms.

Laws can only change so much. If there is no incentive or personal motivation to follow or enforce the laws, they will only ever be words on paper.  It is also relatively easy to write those words on paper.  Getting “those words” to influence society however is nearly impossible on its own.

When looking at the case of Pakistan, there is a connection that is instilled upon the community that Pakistan equals Islam.  Islam is your nationality, your identity, your culture, and your tradition.  So when officials influence society with interpretations of Islam that do not benefit women’s empowerment, this suppression of women becomes part of the culture.  With this tradition, people are not able to easily separate the phenomenon of inequality with the actual faith of Islam.  The people begin to equate women suppression with Islam when, in reality, there is no correlation between the two.  As Weiss points out, the people “experience their Muslim identity as inseparable from other parts of their culture. Thus, things not in accordance with cultural norms, values, or practices are often considered as contradicting Islam”(p. 3).  To put it another way, if women strive for more rights and empowerment, something that is not custom in their tradition and culture, it is seen as opposing Islam and is therefore less likely to experience actual change.  That is why changing laws will not work alone.  Changing laws will not change the heart and the culture of the people.

Another reason I believe societal shifting is a more critical aspect of empowering women in Pakistan is because intentions matter. Oftentimes, laws are made with the wrong intentions. This is a common occurrence with countries all around the world on the UN Human Rights Watch List.  Many countries will improve their human rights laws just to remove themselves from the list and restore their country’s image rather than improving the laws because of a desire to advance the lives of their citizens.  This was arguably the case in Pakistan under Musharraf’s time when women’s rights entered the stage once more.  Weiss points out that his actions of improving women’s rights, “can be seen as an effort more to improve Pakistan’s standing in the international community than to improve women’s legal standing in Pakistan” (p. 7).   If the intentions are not to improve the lives of women, then the laws will create no effective change and implementation will fall through the cracks.

Implementation of the laws must go hand in hand with the laws themselves.  If the intentions behind the laws is flawed and the customs of the society do not support the laws in the first place, they become nothing but paper with no true significance or ability to incite change.  Weiss provided many reasons why we need both societal and legal changes to improve the women’s lives in Pakistan, but insisting the legal action is the most important part of the solution is inaccurate.

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