Pakistani religious law challenged
Rights groups condemn ordinances that call for harsh penalties for adultery, drinking, and premarital sex.
KARACHI, PAKISTAN — On the evening that Basira Jiskani ran away from her abusive husband almost a year ago, she felt relief for the first time since she left home. But things only got worse.
Now, Basira faces charges of adultery - her husband alleges that she ran away to marry another man - and a possible death sentence by stoning. In addition, vigilantes may await her back home in southern Sindh Province.
"I want to go back to my village, but I know I cannot," says the 19-year-old, whose parents consented to her marriage to a man twice her age. "They want to kill me back in my village, the landowner, my husband, and even my own family members. They have already declared me an adulteress, so they can kill me anytime."
Basira Jiskani is just one of thousands of women facing trial in Pakistan under the infamous Hudood Ordinances, religious codes which were passed under the military dictatorship of Gen. Zia ul-Haq. Unlike the system of "honor killing," which is illegal but common in Pakistan, the Hudood Ordinances are the law itself. The ordinances stem from Islamic law, which stipulates severe punishments for hudood offenses ranging from adultery and premarital sex to alcohol consumption. Not all Muslim countries have adopted hudood penalties in their criminal justice codes, and Islamic scholars debate whether such laws are a correct interpretation of the Koran.
Many Pakistani politicians, including President Pervez Musharraf, say the laws should be reviewed - some say repealed - since they have a disproportionate effect on women and the poor. But in the past 26 years, the laws seem to have become as unalterable as the Koran itself, and activists say the only way to bring equal justice to Pakistani society will be through a sustained campaign of pressure and resistance.
"Pakistan is a patriarchal society, where the power of feudal lords and tribal leaders has ugly manifestations in controlling women, such as cutting off their noses or simply shooting them to protect the honor of the family or the tribe," says Farzana Bari, director of the Women's Study Center at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad. "But with the Hudood Ordinances, the state becomes a partner in this."
"Political parties, such as the People's Party and even the Pakistan Muslim League, all say they would repeal the Hudood Ordinances when they are sitting in opposition," she adds. "But when they get to power, it is not a priority."
The Hudood Ordinances (hudood means "limitations or boundaries" in Urdu) have now become the dominant law affecting women. Of the 7,000 women in jail around the country awaiting trial, 88 percent are accused of crimes under Hudood, according to the Lawyers for Human Rights and Legal Aid. Ninety percent of these women have no lawyer, and 50 percent do not know they are entitled to contact one. Most women accused of Hudood violations are acquitted, but lose an average of five years to confinement, and lose their reputations as well.
Zia Awan, president of the Lawyers for Human Rights and Legal Aid, a private legal aid group in Karachi, says that most Hudood cases in the courts revolve around a woman's ability to choose her own spouse. In a society where families usually choose spouses for their children, defiance comes at a high cost. Many families, particularly in traditional rural areas, file charges against their own children for premarital sex, rape, or adultery, all in the name of protecting family honor.
Hudood has also unwittingly become a major factor in rape cases. Many rape victims refuse to file charges, because under Islamic law, four male Muslim witnesses are required to prove charges of rape. Women who cannot produce this many witnesses often end up in jail themselves for adultery, a crime against the state punishable by stoning to death.
"One of the first cases I took up 15 years ago, there was a woman who was kidnapped by a man who promised to marry her," says Mr. Awan. "Instead he kept her in a room and raped her. She escaped and went to the police, and there, she was registered both as a victim and as an accused under Hudood." The woman was later found innocent and the kidnapper was found guilty, but by then she had spent 13 months in jail.
Awan praises President Musharraf for other reforms - such as introducing a separate legal system for juveniles, and new stricter rules to control trafficking in children. But he calls Musharraf's public promise four years ago to review the Hudood "half hearted."
Conservative Islamic activists and scholars say the Hudood Ordinances cannot be repealed. To do so would be a rejection of the Islamic system, they say, and an offense to Islam itself.
"Nobody can say that Koranic punishments are unacceptable," says Sen. Ghafoor Ahmad, vice president of the conservative Jamaat-I Islami party and supporter of the Hudood Ordinances. "If you believe in the Koran, then these punishments are there. For theft, the punishment is to cut off the hand. For adultery, the punishment is death."
But Senator Ahmad says that Islam "is not barbaric," but merciful. The Prophet Mohammad brought out these punishments only in the later stages of his prophecy, a time of greater prosperity and less crime among the Muslim community. Ahmad believes that Pakistan should work harder at attaining prosperity for its citizens before imposing harsh sentences.
"If there is hunger or disorder in society, then the first priority should be to solve these problems, not to insist on these punishments," adds Professor Ghafoor.
As for Basira Jiskani, all this talk seems academic - and terrifying. What is more real to her is the oppressive way that women are treated.
Sold into marriage on March 5, 2004, to Mohammad Yousuf Jiskani, the nephew of a powerful landowner, Basira became a kind of slave to her new husband, and to his wife.
On March 21, Basira told her family she was going to the market. The wife sent an older daughter along to keep an eye on Basira, but when the two were out of sight of the village, Basira dashed off. She made it to her aunt's house, then to a human rights office in Hyderabad. On March 31, she filed for divorce.
Back in the village, Basira's family filed charges against Basira as an adulteress, saying that she had been kidnapped and forcibly married to a man from a rival family. Local police have produced a marriage document registering the marriage of Basira with this second man. Basira denies getting remarried and her lawyer notes the document does not bear her signature or thumb print.
In the meantime, Basira spends her days at a women's shelter in Karachi. Together with other women escaping abusive husbands, she learns embroidery and other skills.
"We talk about our troubles together, we cry together, we laugh as well," says Basira. She looks down and becomes silent. "I just want to have my life back."