Pakistan: No end in sight to battle between fundamentalists & women demanding basic human rights Print E-mail

 Sunday Magazine October 1, 2006

Battling unjust laws


Despite intense efforts by Pakistani women's groups, the dreaded Hudood Ordinance doesn't seem like going away.

Violent crimes bind all women together, regardless of their nationality, race or religion.

PRESIDENT Parvez Musharraf and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh might have called a temporary truce during their Havana meeting but within Pakistan there seems to be no end in sight to the battle between the fundamentalists and Pakistani women who are demanding their basic human rights.

Many women in Pakistan had hoped that the day had finally dawned when the dreaded Hudood Ordinance, enacted in 1979 by Zia ul-Haq when Pakistan became an Islamic republic, would be withdrawn. The Hudood Ordinance, according to the Asian Centre for Human Rights, "criminalises adultery and non-marital sex, including rape. It further victimises the women victims by providing virtual impunity to the rapists and prosecuting the victims instead."

Under this law, if a woman is raped, and reports it, the onus is on her to prove that she was raped. She has to bring along four male eyewitnesses. Only then will the law consider her case. On the other hand, if she cannot prove that she was raped, then she could be charged with adultery, a non-bailable offence that can even invite the death penalty under certain circumstances.

Fearless opposition
The women's movement in Pakistan, which is articulate and fearless, has publicly and strongly opposed the Hudood Ordinance. Even during the days of martial law, when there was no right to free assembly and the press was shackled, women's groups held public demonstrations and courted arrest as part of their opposition to the Hudood Ordinance. And this campaign has continued over the last 25 years.

In the 1980s, they had hoped that a democratically elected woman Prime Minister like Benazir Bhutto would have repealed this draconian and unjust law. But nothing of the kind happened. Benazir was unable to stand up to the conservatives inside and outside her government.

The campaign against the laws picked up once again four years ago and received considerable international attention when Mukhtaran Mai, a woman who was gang raped, decided to fight for her rights and went public with the atrocity. A documentary film made on her story titled "Shame" has recently premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. She has travelled to the U.S. and other countries and spoken out fearlessly against the laws that govern rape in Pakistan and that make it impossible for women like her to ever get justice.

Her campaign, in particular, has embarrassed Musharraf (his government even tried to prevent her from travelling abroad but finally had to give in to international pressure). The President had remarked that for Pakistani women, rape was a "money-making concern", a remark for which he was fiercely criticised in Pakistan. It was evident that Mukhtaran's tragic and brave story exposed the harsh reality that the women in Pakistan live with even as the President was trying to project to the world that his country was changing under his rule.

International exposure of these domestic laws and a growing campaign within the country to debate and look again at the Hudood Ordinance finally led to the formulation of the Protection of Women (Criminal Laws Amendment) Bill 2006 which was tabled in the National Assembly on August 21, 2006. The law would have repealed the provision in the Hudood Ordinance that required the rape victim to produce four male eyewitnesses and would have made adultery a bailable offence.

Although women's groups were not entirely happy with the proposed law that would have brought rape under the purview of the Pakistan Penal Code, they saw it as the first step towards overturning the Hudood Ordinance.

But the script for the passage of such a law could have been written in advance. Predictably, the conservative parties like the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal and the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) rejected the bill and accused Musharraf of "following a Western agenda to secularise Pakistan". As a result, the law was amended to try and appease the clerics ­ a section was added that penalises anyone publicising a rape, a provision that would affect campaigns such as those by Mukhtaran Mai ­ and finally deferred it altogether.

So that small glimmer of hope that something might just change has died.

While those campaigning for the repeal of the Hudood Ordinance are not likely to give up, their struggle has been not just admirable but also holds out many lessons for civil society groups elsewhere. For one, it is clear that even the prospect of a new law to replace the Hudood Ordinance would not have arisen if women's groups had not fearlessly opposed it for so many years. It is their relentless opposition to it that ensured that it would not remain on the statute unchallenged.

Ground realities
But the trajectory of the bill also exposes the reality in Pakistan. While certain aspects of life there give the impression that things are changing for the better ­ for instance, the press is far more free and critical than one would have expected ­ you realise that the bottom line is President Musharraf's survival in power and not necessarily justice for his people, including the women. So even if some things have changed, nothing has changed.

One way to judge whether a society is just is to look at the way it deals with issues of violence against the most vulnerable sections ­ women and children. Many a society would fail such a test, including our own. But where there are laws, and a justice system, then at least there is some hope. But when even these are weighed against you, then the future is indeed bleak.

This setback is unlikely to deter those determined women in Pakistan who have fought on this issue for well over two decades. Their Indian sisters can do little else than extend their hand of friendship and support across the barbed wire border. For, violent crimes bind all women together, regardless of their nationality, race or religion.