A bold move on women's rights

A female Pakistani judge heads effort to recommend changes in how laws affect women.

Underneath Majida Rizvi's grandmotherly veneer, is the heart of a revolutionary.

Not long ago, the former Pakistani court justice cast a direct challenge to religious conservatives, saying they needed to restudy the Holy Koran to find out just what the prophet Muhammad said about the rights of women. In a society where the small-but-vocal religious parties are rarely challenged, it was a bold move.

"These people [mullahs] should be taught what is really in the Koran," says Ms. Rizvi, who now serves as chair of the Commission on the Status of Pakistan Women in Islamabad. "There are certain of these religious people who may feel they know enough, but they have no knowledge at all. They have read a few things, they have heard a few things, but they have misled millions."

Such a challenge may seem foolhardy, particularly in a country where support for religious conservative parties - and the Taliban - continues to rise. But a spate of crimes - including so-called honor killings, stonings, and last year's gang-rape of a teenager by village elders - has proved so embarrassing to the Pakistani government that it has decided, once and for all, to find legal, social, and religious solutions to Pakistan's uneven treatment of women.

Critics say Rizvi's commission is likely to join the parade of previous well-intentioned but failed reformers. But Pakistan is seemingly at a crossroads - torn between a Taliban-like Islamic society as pushed by increasingly prominent religious parties and its moderate secular roots. As a result, supporters of the commission say any effort to define the true role of women in an Islamic society is especially critical now.

"Nothing will happen with women's rights, and if it does, it will take 100 years, but it has to start somewhere," says Ardeshir Cowasjee, Pakistan's eminence grise of secular commentators, and a columnist for the leading Dawn newspaper in Karachi.

"Tagore said to Gandhi, 'If no one comes behind your call, walk alone!' " Mr. Cowasjee says, referring to a famous conversation between India's poet laureate, Rabindranath Tagore and the founder of its modern state, Mahatma Gandhi.

For well-educated Pakistanis such as Rizvi, the journey of modernizing and reforming Pakistani society does feel lonely, particularly when supposedly liberal parliamentarians pass laws that enforce pre-Islamic traditions - such as honor killings - that keep women in their place.

But fighting the rise of Islamic extremist parties - many of whom insist that women must wear full veils, quit school, marry at an early age, and accept the rule of men - is a necessary struggle to recapture Islam itself, such moderates argue.

"This will be a jihad, really," she says, using an Islamic term that means a holy struggle in the defense of God. "It is always the woman who is the victim. If a woman is caught in adultery, it is she who is stoned. If there is a dispute between two tribes, they trade their women in marriage to settle the dispute. And what we are asking the religious leaders is, 'Is this Islam that you are teaching?' "

"Islam gives us the right to inherit and to possess property, but if you ask some of these [rich] feudal families if they have transferred property to women who marry outside the family, you'll find out none of them have," she says. "Now isn't that unIslamic?"

If Rizvi's jihad seems doomed, it already has some successes. Consider the case of Zafran Bibi. Raped by her brother-in-law two years ago in Kohat in the conservative Northwest Frontier Province, Ms. Bibi complained to the man's father. But, shamed by the charges against his son, he filed charges of adultery against Bibi. In 2000, she was convicted by a state court. The evidence: She had given birth to a baby by the rapist, her brother-in-law. The sentence: death by stoning.

Fortunately for Bibi, Rizvi came to her rescue as a defense attorney and got the sentence overturned. "I told the court they had given the wrong verdict, by converting a case of rape into adultery," says Rizvi. "Mere pregnancy does not constitute adultery."

The most famous of the cases was the gang rape of Mukhtar Bibi in the village of Meerawala last June. Sentenced by a tribal council to be gang-raped because of the supposed "illicit affair" of her 11-year-old brother with a young lady from a stronger tribe, Mukhtar Bibi became a cause célèbre for liberal Pakistanis and an embarrassment for the secular-minded government of President Pervez Musharraf.

A subsequent investigation by Pakistani police - insisted on by Rizvi and other human-rights advocates - discovered that Mukhtar's brother himself had been raped earlier by men of this stronger tribe, who then covered up by accusing the boy of misbehavior and shaming his family into silence.

Public outcry over the brutal sentence ultimately forced the Supreme Court to take action in September. The court sentenced to death six tribal elders who participated in the rape.

Still, most cases occur without outcry. Moreover, such tribal practices are the tip of the iceberg, says Rizvi. Since the 1970s, many laws have been added to the Pakistani constitution - from diyad (blood money) to honor killing to hadood (blasphemy) - of which women are disproportionately convicted, often with no legal counsel, Rizvi says.

But with very little budget or staff, Rizvi cannot afford to argue every case that comes up. She says her efforts would be better spent publicizing the plight of women and the way that Islam has been twisted to suit the needs of extremists and corrupt politicians.

The commission plans to publish a report on the status of women in Pakistan and recommend changes to current laws that affect women's rights.

"It's been two years since this commission has been created and we still have no secretariat, no budget," she complains, sitting in a bare office in a residential neighborhood here. "I can go on TV or radio and talk about these issues, but this needs a gigantic planning all over the country."

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