Laws victimising Pakistani women seen as ‘divine’ by hardline supporters
ISLAMABAD Death by stoning for adultery, amputation for theft, and the prospect of an adultery conviction for women who cannot prove they were raped: these are aspects of a medieval justice system that still prevails in Pakistan under its grim Hudood Ordinances.
They are a series of 25 year-old Islamic laws which run parallel to the mainstream British-inherited Pakistani Penal Code.
An estimated 80 percent of women prisoners in Pakistan are in jail because they failed to prove rape charges, and found themselves locked up on adultery convictions, according to a 2004 report by the National Commission on the Status of Women.
Under the Hudood laws, anyone unable to prove rape, but equally unable to disprove extramarital sexual intercourse, can be convicted of adultery.
A push is underway by women’s and right groups to repeal the laws. But they are meeting stiff opposition from powerful Islamic conservatives, who see the laws as “divinely inspired” because they are based on teachings of the Quran.
MNA Samia Raheel Qazi, vice-president of the Jamaat-e- Islami’s women’s commission, defends the Hudood laws as “the laws that are given in the Quran, and Allah does not give humans the right to change them”.
The laws were introduced in 1979 by General Zia-ul Haq. Critics say the laws are based on a misinterpretation of Quranic teachings that systematically discriminates against women.
“The whole point of laws is that they should assist in the delivery of justice, but these mostly result in miscarriages of justice,” said Sherry Rehman, a female lawmaker from the Pakistan People’s Party who is leading efforts in Parliament to overturn them.
Her recent bid to introduce a bill urging repeal of the Hudood laws collapsed, after expected support from fellow lawmakers failed to materialise. Observers said her mistake was in going all-out for a full repeal of the laws, instead of advocating modifications.
But Ms Rehman will not relent. “Repeal is the only way to deal with them,” she said. “They are such flawed laws and so poorly executed and drafted, that you are left with very little if mere amendment occurs.”
Her stance is shared by the National Commission on the Status of Women, which prepared a report released January on legislation discriminating against women.
Former provincial High Court Justice Majida Razvi chaired the report committee and spent more than a year studying the Hudood laws.
“The injustices have been going on since the inception of these laws and people have raised objections since the inception,” she said.
In the report, Ms Razvi called the ordinances “defective,” and 12 of the commission’s 15 members recommended outright repeal. Their report was immediately condemned by religious hardliners.
Perhaps the Hudood laws’ largest source of criticism is the requirement of four male witnesses – “Muslims of good character” - to prove both adultery and rape charges. Islamic legal scholars are among the critics.
Anis Ahmad, who lectured on Islamic law and comparative religion at Islamabad’s International Islamic University for almost 20 years, says the Quran does not specify the gender of witnesses required in adultery cases. Nor does it advocate witnesses in rape cases.
“This is one flaw that should be amended,” he said. “No one can change laws of the Quran, but every law made by humans is subject to human improvement.”
Ahmad advocates a modification of procedures, rather than full repeal.
Even religious conservatives opposed to repeal concede that the procedures are open to abuse. Some amendments have succeeded. In April 1997, Parliament passed a law making death the punishment for gang rape, rather than jail and whipping, after a surge in the crime.
But Liaqat Baloch, a leader of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, said the basic philosophy of the Hudood laws could never be altered. “If there is something for improvement, then it will be considered, but ending the Hudood laws will not happen,” he said. afp