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Pakistan laws are ‘springboards for extremism’

The fundamentalist Taliban has been defeated in Afghanistan. But in a province in neighbouring Pakistan, a coalition of religious parties has banned male doctors from conducting ultrasound scans on pregnant women.

In August, when the government-appointed National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW) proposed the repeal of discriminatory and punitive anti-women laws called Hudood, the religiously-dominated parliament of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province was outraged.

Its members immediately passed a unanimous resolution in support of Hudood – introduced in the name of Islam by then military dictator General Zia ul-Haq in 1979 – calling the recommendation "a conspiracy against Islam" and vowing that they would allow no tampering with these "divine laws".

The 23-year-old laws, particularly those dealing with the offence of zina – unlawful sexual relations before or outside marriage – have made life a living hell for thousands of women. Women who are raped but cannot provide four male Muslim witnesses are charged instead with adultery – punishable by imprisonment, flogging and, in extreme cases, death by stoning.

Karachi lawyer Parveen Parvez says Hudood "is used mostly for revenge" citing parents who lodge false charges of adultery against daughters marrying against their wishes and abusive men whose wives file for divorce. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) most of the 2,200 women incarcerated in 2001-2002 were charged or convicted under Hudood.

The NCSW believes Hudood is responsible for increased violence against women – particularly rape, which often goes unreported because of the impossibility of proving the crime. A 2002 study by the HRCP found one woman was raped every two hours and one subjected to gang rape every eight hours in Pakistan.

"Hudood should be repealed completely as it provides legal protection to violence against women," says former Supreme Court judge Majida Rizvi, who chaired the NCSW. Challenging those who say Hudood is God's law, she asserts: "This is a man-made law."

Dr Aslam Khaki, an Islamabad-based lawyer and religious scholar, adds: "The motive behind [Hudood] was political, not religious. [Zia] had come into power after toppling a popularly elected government and he had to justify his act. The slogan of 'Islamisation' was convenient for this purpose."

Now, religiously-inspired political demands by Islamic fundamentalist parties who made a strong showing at the October 2002 general elections have alarmed moderates and cast doubts on President Pervez Musharraf's pledge to curb their power. Many observers believe Musharraf unintentionally swelled the fundamentalist vote when he barred former prime ministers and leaders of the two main political parties – Benazir Bhutto of the Pakistan People's Party and Nawaz Sharif of the Mulsim League – from contesting the elections.

In June the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) assembly unanimously passed a resolution calling for the imposition of Shariah, or Islamic law. The Bill was proposed by the ruling Muttahida Majlis Amal (MMA or United Action Front). This six-party alliance of previously divided religious groups – that some jokingly call 'Musharraf, Mullahs and the Army' – swept to power by promising 'Islamisation' and cashing in on anti-American sentiment in the NWFP, which borders Afghanistan.

The MMA also forms part of the government in Balochistan, another Pakistani province bordering Afghanistan. These two are Pakistan's least developed provinces, particularly for women – one indicator is their abysmal female literacy rate of between 3 per cent and 8 per cent.

MMA constituents have been openly sympathetic to the Taliban. Although they insist they themselves are different, having assumed power through the ballot, the MMA has banned music on public transport, gambling and the sale of alcohol.

In October, the NWFP assembly forbade male doctors and technicians from conducting ultrasound scans on pregnant women – on the grounds that the health workers may gain sexual pleasure from it.

On the streets, MMA-inspired vigilantes launched an 'anti-obscenity' campaign, defacing billboards picturing men and women together, destroying cinemas and beating up musicians.

"We were given the mandate to implement Shariah," declared MMA member of parliament Hamidul Haq. "The blood of the Taliban has borne fruit and Shariah has been implemented in NWFP."

To give the Shariah law teeth, the MMA in NWFP intends to legislate an Accountability Bill (called Hisba) which will establish a special police force modelled on the Taliban's infamous Department of Vice and Virtue, which savagely beat women for transgressions of dress or daring to venture out in public without a male relative.

The MMA has pledged to avoid the excesses of the Taliban, saying dress codes will be voluntary. "This can be done through propaganda," MMA's Mohammed Ibrahim told the Toronto Star in September. "Those women who are without veils can be persuaded by the propagation of virtue."

Female members of the MMA, including seven of the eight women who hold reserved women's seats in the NWFP assembly, have denounced the excesses of party followers. But they staunchly support Shariah law, the proposed morality police and restrictive measures such as mandatory dress codes, segregating educational institutions and banning sport for girls and women. In the capital Islamabad, veiled MMA women supporters demonstrated in favour of retaining Hudood.

Some observers say these trends show that having women in positions of power in itself is no guarantee that they will pursue a pro-women agenda. "Just because there are women in parliament doesn't mean [positive] changes will occur," says Sassui Paljo, a legislative assembly member from Sindh province.

Opponents of the Accountability Bill warn it will create parallel judicial, police and accountability systems – nothing less than a "creeping Talibanisation". Non-governmental organisations in NWFP, particularly in areas close to Afghanistan, which work on women's empowerment through education, skills training or micro-credit, are continually under threat from fundamentalists.

Sabina, a young programme officer at a women's resource centre, believes the legislation will only encourage religious militants. As it is, she says, "we have to be very careful in the field, and we strictly speak from the Islamic, the legal point of view…"

Afrasiyab Khattak, an outspoken lawyer and prominent human rights activist in Peshawar, echoes Sabina's fears. Laws based on religion have "acted as springboards for extremist elements," he says. "They [MMA] have a majority in the provincial assembly, so the Hisba Bill is bound to be pushed through," he fears. "But we will resist it."

Beena Sarwar is a Karachi-based journalist. She works as a producer with Geo TV and writes on women's rights and human rights issues for the daily, The News.

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