Pakistan’s charade debate

Global Edition of  The New York Times | September 7, 2006

The Boston Globe | September 3, 2006

By Imaduddin Ahmed

LAHORE, Pakistan

THE BATTLE for basic women’s rights — including the right to have a rapist prosecuted — is back on the agenda in Pakistan.
Since 1979, laws known as the Hudood ordinances have placed a heavy burden on Pakistani women. Among other things, the ordinances criminalized extramarital sex. They also stipulated that if a complaining rape victim failed to produce four credible male witnesses to prove the rape, she had indulged in extramarital sex and thus committed a crime. In 1979, there were 79 women in jail; by March 2006, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, more than 6,000 were in custody. Three-quarters were awaiting trial for violating the Hudood ordinances.

To Pakistan’s shame, it has taken 27 years for a bill amending these misogynistic laws to appear in front of its legislature. Among other changes, rape would be added to the country’s penal code. Four witnesses would no longer be required to prove the crime, and indirect and circumstantial evidence could be considered. Extramarital sex would become a bailable offense, so the accused at least would not languish in jail.

Whether women will ultimately benefit from the debate remains to be seen.

The country’s president, General Pervez Musharraf, is supporting the amendments. But religious parties fiercely oppose any changes. Members have ripped up the bill in parliament, staged street protests, and declared that the amendments will promote vulgarity and obscenity in society.

The whole battle began in 1979, with General Zia ul-Haq’s so-called “Islamization” of the law. Needing to legitimize his military dictatorship in the eyes of the populace, he introduced the Hudood ordinances, claiming that they reflected Islamic law. (They do not.)

Zia died in 1988. Yet two democratically elected civilian prime ministers failed to repeal or change the oppressive ordinances. Benazir Bhutto wanted to change the law but her Cabinet, fearing the breakdown of her ruling coalition with Islamist parties, warned her not to. Nawaz Sharif and many members of his party had been nurtured by Zia and, in fact, wanted to further Islamize Pakistan’s laws.

Musharraf deposed Sharif’s government in 1999. Like Zia, he brought his own radical changes — this time to legitimize his rule to Western governments and the liberal citizenry, including women’s rights groups. Musharraf introduced minimum quotas for women in the local, provincial, and national governments. He also deregulated and privatized the media.

That step led to broader discussion of whether the Hudood ordinances were truly Islamic. At last, people could hear alternative views from qualified Islamic scholars, as opposed to the rigid opinions listened by many on Friday sermons. In a series broadcast this year on the channel Geo TV, Islamic scholars concerned with the misuse of religion have all but discredited the Hudood ordinances. Some have called for the ordinances’ repeal. The government now has religious justification to repeal the ordinances.
Nevertheless, the amendments offered by Musharraf’s ruling party fall short of demands by jurists, Islamist scholars, and women activists for an outright repeal of the ordinances.

Musharraf’s party and its coalition partners hold about 60 percent of the legislature’s seats. A simple majority would be enough to pass the amendments. Yet the ruling party has entered private negotiations with religious parties to come to a “compromise.” Why?

Ultimately, women’s fundamental rights are not the deciding issue. Musharraf is struggling to legitimize his rule. Amendments to the Hudood ordinance are a bargaining chip to use to keep the religious coalition from bringing up questions about his own authority.

Who are the beneficiaries of this debate? Musharraf, for one, hopes to win plaudits from the Western and domestic press for his “efforts” against the country’s opportunistic Islamist politicos. With their recent antics, the religious parties are playing into Musharraf’s hands, and playing to their own constituents. If they can water down the amendments significantly, they can boast that they preserved Pakistan’s “Islamic” law.

Depending on how the negotiations go, women will be lucky to take anything positive from this charade.

Imaduddin Ahmed is an editor at The Friday Times and a former employee of the Aurat Foundation, a women’s rights organization.

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