Rape law reform roils Pakistan's Islamists

The new law, passed Wednesday, would empower rape victims by shifting the burden of proof.

Putting an end to a skirmish but not to the longer battle, Pakistan's lower house of parliament voted on Wednesday to amend the Hudood Ordinances, the country's religious-based laws that govern rape and vice.

Before, women who reported rape were compelled to produce four male witnesses to the crime or face charges that they had committed adultery. If the law passes the upper house, it will replace that burden of proof, deemed both virtually impossible and misogynistic, with standard evidentiary procedures.

Wednesday's vote was a chance for lawmakers to show that secular law trumps religious edict in Pakistan. But this small victory for secularism comes only a day after provincial legislators in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), a stronghold of conservatism, passed a bill establishing an Islamic accountability bureau – a kind of vice and virtue squad with analogies to the Taliban.

The bills passed this week promise to reheat the existential debate about what Pakistan stands for and how it projects itself to the world: whether it is driven by "enlightened moderation" or the tenets of religious conservatism.

Even the national assembly's progressive sex crimes bill, officially known as the Women's Protection Bill, came with caveats. Pakistan's minority religious parties managed to squeeze in an amendment making sex between unmarried persons a criminal offense.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's treatment of the amendments to the Hudood Ordinances exposes his waning commitment to secular reform at a time when religious parties are becoming one of his pillars of support, analysts say.

"This is a major compromise on the part of the government," says Farzani Bari, director of the Women's Study Center at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad. "They want to sleep with the strange bedfellows of the mullahs. It is women who will suffer."

Rape is already a common tool of revenge and settling tribal scores in Pakistan. The independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan estimated in 2002 that a woman is raped every two hours and gang-raped every eight hours.

The Hudood Ordinances were adopted in 1979, when a clutch of Islamic clerics argued that such austere laws stem from interpretations of divine precepts in the Koran that adjudicate vice and virtue-related offenses, including rape and adultery. Pakistan's then religious-minded dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq, bolstered support for the laws.

Activists and Islamic scholars have argued ever since that the Koran contains no such dictates. Their movement to repeal Hudood has driven forward in fits and spurts over the years, peaking this summer after a ground-breaking television series brought the issue before the wider public.

The series helped push the debate into parliament this summer, but once there, politics blunted its force, analysts say. Each time the bill came up for debate, a coalition of religious parties called the Muttahida Majlis-e-Ama (MMA) or United Action Front, cried foul and threatened to resign en masse from parliament. Before the new law, extramarital sex was brought before Islamic law but rarely prosecuted. By placing extra- marital sex under the penal code on Wednesday, the government kowtowed to their demands once again, analysts say.

That's because the Musharraf regime, finding itself politically isolated, looks increasingly to the MMA for support, observers say. And the MMA, which faces the same predicament, is only too happy to accept.

It's a curious reversal. There was a time when the MMA and Mr. Musharraf's ruling party, the Pakistan Muslim League, defined themselves as opponents. Indeed, the MMA came to power in 2002 on pledges that it would resist Musharraf's Western-driven calls for liberal moderation. Musharraf's support base has waned the longer he has run the country as a military leader, breaking promises to step down in place of democratic government.

Activists certainly welcome the removal of the four witness rule, but they shudder at what it symbolizes: Sworn enemies are more interested in political survival than human rights.

Not that Wednesday's results please the MMA – they stormed out of the National Assembly and refused to vote.

"After this bill, we feel that government has withdrawn its duty [to create an Islamic atmosphere]," says Fareed Ahmed Paracha, a member of the National Assembly from the MMA. "They are going to create a free-sex society."

The fact the MMA succeeded in stalling the bill for so long is registering as a subtle victory for religious forces. That has many worried because a not so subtle victory came just the day before, when the MMA pushed through a highly controversial bill at the provincial level in the NWFP.

Known as the Hasba bill, it calls for a kind of accountability bureau, headed by a religious cleric, to ensure that – in terms many find troublingly vague – Islamic virtues and doctrines are adhered to in public in the NWFP.

Taken together, the criminalization of extra-marital sex and the Hasba bill highlight why it is troubling for the ruling government to back the MMA, analysts say.

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