Tuesday June 27, 2006
Stirring the Hudood pot
Read also: Debating the Hudood laws
By Nirupama Subramanian
A Pakistani TV show has sparked a debate on the contraversial Hudood ordiances.
Participants in the TV programme were united in making recommendations for amendments Contrastingly, the ruling MMA will not support even amendments to the Hudood laws
CAN TELEVISION succeed where governments and non-government organisations alike have failed?
In Pakistan, an ambitious private television station known for its campaign-style journalism recently took up the religiously sensitive issue of the Hudood laws for a debate on its talk show programme.
Since 1979, when General Zia ul Haq ushered in the Hudood laws as ordinances, human rights organisations in Pakistan and abroad, women's rights organisations, lawyers and others have railed against them as unjust and discriminatory, and some Islamic scholars said they did not reflect the true spirit of Islam or the Shari'a. But their protests failed to move successive governments, democratic and non-democratic, into doing anything about the laws.
Now, after a series of discussions with Islamic scholars aired on a programme called Zara Sochiye (Just Think), Geo, the TV station, says it has set the ball rolling for reform by showing a consensus on the need to change the Hudood laws. Ifthikar Ahmed, a host on the show and a prime mover behind it, said a range of Islamic scholars who took part in the programme they were the only participants had agreed on the need for amendments to the Hudood ordinances.
"We have identified the problems, we have identified the anomalies in the ordinance, now we want Parliament to take it up," Mr. Ahmed said.
Geo invested big money in publicity for the programme. And last week, after the debates ended, the TV station ran two-page advertisements in local newspapers with the slogan: "Thank you for thinking. When will Parliament think?"
The term Hudood literally means limits set by God and the divinely ordained punishments to those who violate this. Geo coined an unwieldy tagline to its programme to make clear it was not challenging "god's limits" but only human interpretations of these: "No debate on Allah Hudood (Allah's laws as prescribed in the Quran and Sunnah) Is the Hudood Ordinance (Man's interpretation of Allah's Law) Islamic?"
Five ordinances make up the Hudood against the offences of adultery and rape; drinking and sale of alcohol; theft and robbery; bearing false witness; and prescribing the correct procedure for whipping. The most contentious is the one relating to zina or adultery and rape. Human rights activists say that under this, men and women get caught in false complaints of adultery. The police immediately arrest those accused, even before four witnesses can verify that the man and woman did commit adultery, as the Hudood laws of evidence demand.
On the other side of the coin, a woman who complains of rape must produce four witnesses to prove her accusation or may find herself charged with adultery and thrown behind bars. A National Commission on the Status of Women said in a 2004 report that 80 per cent of the women in Pakistani jails were there because they had been accused of adultery when they could not prove rape.
The TV station says participants on its programme were united in making several recommendations for amendments, such as the police should not register adultery complaints unless the complainant brings four witnesses; that women accused of adultery should not be sent to jail; that when the court finds an accused innocent, it should automatically award the accusers 80 lashes; that pregnancy should not constitute sufficient proof of adultery.
The response to the programme was "very positive," say those behind it. A Geo representative who did not want to be named said the TV station expected hate mail but "no one has been calling us to threaten or abuse us."
In an editorial comment, the Daily Times lauded the show and the open debate on the controversial ordinances. The newspaper noted that before this the explosion of private TV in Pakistan had not translated into space for anything other than the views of orthodox clergy on Islamic subjects, especially after 9/11. "But after six years of freedom and `market-driven' Islamisation, the private TV channels are paying back good dividends," it said.
Following the buzz created by the programme, Pakistan Television, the state-owned TV station, decided to run its own debate on the Hudood laws. A Supreme Court lawyer, Aslam Khaki, filed a petition as the programmes were being aired, challenging the provisions of the Hudood law before the Shari'a federal court, although he said the timing of his petition was not connected to the programme. He had challenged one provision in 1997 but his petition has not been heard even once. This time, Mr. Khaki said, there was more hope "because people are more aware" and "there are some points that have been agreed upon by the religious scholars," a reference to the TV debate.
Still, it may be too early to proclaim a "consensus" across Pakistan on the need for reforming the controversial ordinances, or on the type of reform. While Geo advocated only amendments, many women's groups want a total repeal of the law, and are furious they were not invited to participate in the debate.
"Where were the women on the show? Why was it a debate between men when the ordinance has to do mainly with gender issues? They were discussing amendments, we want the ordinance to be repealed," said Tahira Abdullah of the Joint Action Committee on Women's Rights.
Ms. Abdullah said it was noteworthy that TV was actually talking about the issue, but said Geo had virtually negated 27 years of struggle by the women's groups for action against the laws through its gender-restricted "one-sided debate." She questioned the motives of the programme in not inviting a single woman participant.
At the other end of the spectrum, evident from the PTV debate whose participants included a National Assembly member from the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, the six-party alliance of religious groups will not support even amendments to the Hudood laws, let alone a total repeal, if the matter ever comes up before Parliament. The party holds the key in Parliament to all matters that need a two-thirds vote.
The contrasting views mirror the larger debate in Pakistan between those who want their country to be "secular" and those who believe that everyone who utters that word is an agent of the West and of the agenda imposed by the United States post-9/11, and therefore will do everything to oppose it.
"The programme may have the achievement of showing that a few religious scholars agree on the need to change the Hudood laws. But it has done nothing to close the divide in Pakistan between the so-called liberals who are part of the Western-imposed project to `modernise' the country, and those who are totally opposed to any changes precisely because they think it is part of a western agenda," said Khalid Rehman, director of the Institute of Policy Studies, a think-tank seen as reflecting MMA views, and that of it main constituent, the Jamaat-e-Islami.
But Geo says it did not want to get caught in this "politicised" trap. The TV station says that as the laws were justified in the name of religion, it decided to take them for examination to religious scholars, and that is why no one else was invited to participate in the show, "not even political parties."
Said Mr. Ifthikar Ahmed, the host of the show: "We have taken a step. Now it is for the others to take it forward," he said.