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If a husband beats his wife in Pakistan, can she flee? Maybe not.

A Pakistan woman collects mustard in the suburbs of Islamabad, Pakistan. (AP Photo/B.K. Bangash)
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A law unanimously passed last week in Pakistan’s most populated province establishes some pretty basic protections for women.

If a husband beats up his wife, she can call a 24-hour domestic abuse hotline. Punjab Province will also set up a network of shelters offering housing, first-aid and counseling for women abused  physically, emotionally, verbally or economically.  Once a woman calls for help, case-workers and police have the right to enter a house to remove her from the home without her husband’s consent. And in some cases, the man – not the wife – will be the one asked to leave the house.

But now, a powerful committee of Islamic scholars is vowing to block the legislation, saying it runs afoul of Islamic law.

“It is unacceptable,” Muhammad Khan Sherani, chairman of Pakistan’s Council of Islamic Ideology said at a press conference in Islamabad on Thursday. “The law seems to have the objective of pushing women out of the home, and increase their problems.”

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Before the law is implemented, Sherani demanded, lawmakers in Punjab should send the bill to his committee for a formal review.

Under its constitution, Pakistan is an “Islamic Republic” with  democratically elected national and provincial legislators. The Council of Islamic Ideology was created so that legislators can seek clerics’ advice before implementing legislation.

Though the council’s opinion is technically non-binding, legislators often give it considerable weight. In the past, legislators who have ignored the group have been threatened with accusations of blasphemy.

In Pakistan, a formal blasphemy charge can be punishable with a death sentence. Even vague accusations of blasphemy have been known to rally violent mobs – or an assassin – to a lawmakers’ front door.

In arguing against Punjab's women's rights bill, Sherani said Pakistan's constitution already protects females from abuse. He cited articles 31 and 35 of Pakistan’s constitution.

Article 31 guarantees Pakistanis the right “to order their lives in accordance with the fundamental principles and basic concepts of Islam.” That includes observing “Islamic moral standards.”

Article 35 states the government “shall protect the marriage, the family, the mother and the child.”

"Our religion give all rights to women and they are well protected under the Islamic laws so what is the need to do legislation for the purpose?” Sherani asked.

If women are encouraged to flee abusive relationships – and if men are held criminally liable  – Sherani argued more women would end up living in the streets. He added any man conforming to Islamic ideology already knows not to beat his wife.

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Obviously, however, statistics portray a far grimmer picture for what Pakistani women endure.

In a report last month, the British Home Office noted Pakistan has been ranked as the “the third most dangerous place in the world for women,” referring to a 2011 Thomson-Reuters survey.

In 2014, more than 600 Pakistani women were killed in so-called “honor” killings, including 362 in Punjab province, the Home Office noted.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, which supported the bill approved by the Punjab Assembly, has  estimated as many as 70 percent of Pakistani women are victims of domestic violence.

“The bill appears to be a rather comprehensive attempt to institute a system for prevention of violence against women and for protection and rehabilitation of the women victims,” Zohra Yusuf, chairman of the the Human Rights Commission, said in a statement last week. “We hope that the new measure would facilitate the enforcement of law to protect women in the whole country and ways will be found to push through the central bill that has been pending for a long time in order to protect women in the federal capital too.”

Achieving that, however, just got a lot more difficult.

In January, lawmakers in the national assembly began considering a bill to outlaw child marriages by raising the age limit for marriage from 16 to 18.

But the council quickly announced its opposition to the bill, calling it “blasphemous." Under Islam, the council argued, girls should be allowed to marry once they reach puberty.

When the sponsor of the legislation heard the word “blasphemous,” she quickly withdrew the bill.

Shaiq Hussain contributed to this report.

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