TOPICS : Old Islamic laws trigger new debate

Zofeen Ebrahim

Age-old discriminatory customs are not uncommon in Pakistan, where a three-man village jury can allow a landlord to rape a woman to take revenge, and a whole tribe can be forced to flee its village if a woman dares to marry outside the tribe. Likewise, a lawyer in a rural village in this South Asian country can be beaten for hours then paraded naked through the streets for speaking out on behalf of women who are suffering, after which police refuse her request to file a report on the incident.

Working against this backdrop of blatant human rights violations, it is not surprising that President Musharraf feels proud of his efforts to curb abuses, especially those efforts aimed at improving the lot of Pakistani women. At a human rights conference held in the capital in May, for instance, he sought to build on this record by announcing the establishment of an independent commission that will be empowered to scrutinise current laws and recommend reforms.

Among the legal reforms Musharraf called for was a law banning honour killings, which still occur even though they are illegal. He said a legal ban on honour killings would strengthen the government’s efforts to eliminate this “intolerable practice”. Far more contentious, however, is his call for a broad, public debate on a series of controversial Islamic laws in Pakistan called the Hudood Ordinances, in which the newly formed human rights commission is expected to play an active role.

Supporters of the laws, which they say are based on an interpretation of the Koran, have vowed to block any attempt to amend or rescind them. However, some opponents question whether Musharraf will back his rhetoric with action and whether the commission will be effective in helping him do so.

The Hudood Ordinances have been a bone of contention between women activists and the government since they were promulgated in 1979 by former military dictator Zia-ul-Haq. They cover a range of crimes and apply to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Among the most controversial provisions is the requirement that a woman must have four male witnesses to prove rape, or face a charge of adultery, a state offence.

Overturning the Hudood Ordinances is not “just an NGO issue or of a group of liberal women who are against anything Islamic, as is so commonly believed,” said Nuzhat Shireen of the Aurat Foundation, a women’s support organisation. Ayaz Amir, a senior columnist for the English-language newspaper ‘Dawn’, is outright sceptical. “What good will a commission do? There’s no shortage of commissions in Pakistan. And various NGOs of course have made a fat killing out of the ‘human rights’ business.

The National Commission on the Status of Women (NSCW), a watchdog organisation revived by Musharraf in 2000, called for the repeal of the Hudood Ordinances last year, saying that otherwise women’s status would remain unchanged. Alluding to the president’s recent statement that being a military man has at times facilitated his efforts to empower women, Uzma Noorani of Women Action Forum asked: “When one man in uniform can bring in these ordinances without debate, why can’t the other repeal it the same way?” — IPS