Pakistan rape reform fails after Musharraf caves in

Jerome Taylor
Tuesday 12 September 2006 00:00

In a setback for women's rights in Pakistan, the ruling party in Islamabad has caved in to religious conservatives by dropping its plans to reform rape laws.

Statutes known as the Hudood ordinances, based on sharia law, currently operate in Pakistan. They require a female rape victim to produce four male witnesses to corroborate her account, or she risks facing a new charge of adultery.

The ruling party in Islamabad, made up of a coalition of groups allied to President Pervez Musharraf, had hoped the new Protection of Women Bill would place the crime of rape within the country's secular penal code, which works in tandem with sharia.

But the government said rape would remain a crime punished by Islamic law yesterday after conservatives in an opposition group, Muttahida Majlis-I-Amal (MMA), threatened to walk out of parliament in protest if the government pushed ahead with reforms.

"If there are four witnesses it will be tried under [Islamic law], if there are not, it will be tried under the penal code," said the law minister, Mohammad Wasi Zafar. "In the case of both adultery and rape, the judge will decide how to try the case." A new amended bill will now be presented to parliament on Wednesday.

The news is a significant victory for the MMA, which have vehemently opposed any attempts to lessen the influence of sharia.

The Hudood ordinances were enshrined in Pakistani law in 1979 by General Zia ul-Haq in an attempt to appease the country's powerful religious elite following his military coup. They have been routinely criticised by local and international rights groups. Previous governments under Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif have tried to repeal the laws but failed.

General Musharraf had told rights groups he was willing to back plans for rape to be tried in the secular courts as part of his much trumpeted "enlightened moderation" ideology. The timing of the amended bill will be embarrassing for the President, who is touring Europe and the United States. Pakistan's Western allies have pressured General Musharraf to improve the rights situation in his country, particularly for women.

The failure of the new bill will be also be a bitter disappointment to women's groups in Pakistan, whichhave campaigned against the Hudood ordinances. Most women refuse to report a rape for fear they will be treated as a criminal. Under current laws, a victim risks courting punishment if she reports a rape allegation as the Hudood ordinances criminalise all extra-marital sex. A woman who fails to prove that she was raped could then be charged with adultery under the same legislation.

According to a 2002 report by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, a woman is raped every two hours and gang raped every eight hours. However, because of social taboos, discriminatory laws and victimisation of victims by police, campaigners say that the scale of rape is almost certainly higher.

Despite the dangers, Pakistani women had begun to fight back. In 2002, a woman named Mukhtar Mai forced the government drastically to reassess women's rights in Pakistan after she dared to speak out publicly. She had been gang-raped by a number of men on the orders of a village council.

The Protection of Women Bill was, until yesterday, part of the government's attempts to reform Pakistan's laws following her rape.

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