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The promises he made on women’s day

Pakistani dictator General Parvez Musharraf’s series of pledges to the country's women included a review of religion-based laws that are used with impunity to control women. But little has changed.

In March 2000 Pakistan's military ruler General Parvez Musharraf boldly announced that his government would review discriminatory anti-woman legislation, the Hudood Ordinances, introduced by his comrade-in-arms, the late dictator Gen. Zia ul-Huq over 20 years ago.

Ten months after Musharraf made his pledge – on International Women's Day – Pakistani women are still waiting for justice.

Based ostensibly on Islamic Shari'a (legal code of conduct), under Hudood, false allegations of adultery or fornication – zina – are routinely brought against women. In cases of rape, a woman, if unable to prove she has not given her consent to sexual intercourse, may find herself convicted instead. Should she conceive as a result of rape, courts can and do interpret the pregnancy as proof of consent.

An early victim of zina, Safia Bibi, luckily escaped punishment. A blind 18-year-old in 1983, she was raped and made pregnant. Although she pressed charges against her attacker, the court sentenced her to three years in jail and 15 lashes for having sex outside marriage. The judge said the sentence was light, because she was young and disabled.

Pakistan's nascent women's movement -spurred into action by Gen. Zia's discriminatory legislation – agitated for justice. Fortunately, domestic and international protest secured Bibi's acquittal on appeal.

After the 1979 introduction of Hudood, cases of reported adultery jumped from a handful to thousands.

In 1980, 70 women were in prison; by 1988 over 6,000 women were accused of Hudood crimes and jailed, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). Courts habitually fail to offer bail, parole or probation to women. Figures collected by the HRCP in 1998 from 20 jails in the state of Punjab found that of nearly 1,000 women prisoners, almost 90 per cent spent months awaiting trial, vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse at the hands of their jailers. More than a third of the women did not have a lawyer.

After nearly two decades of Hudood – which also applies to non-Muslims – it is now rare for a man to be convicted of rape. Since 1979 "eye-witness evidence is primary, and forensic evidence is only accepted as corroborative or circumstantial," says attorney Hina Jilani.

The 1984 Laws of Evidence exclude women's testimony altogether in hadd (maximum) punishments which call for death sentences by flogging or stoning, and halve the value of their evidence in lesser punishments and in civil matters. Non-Muslims are not allowed to give evidence, in direct contravention of the 1973 Pakistan Constitution, which guarantees equality to all citizens regardless of caste, creed or sex.

That did not stop Gen. Musharraf from waxing eloquent on International Women's Day. For good measure, he also pledged that police and courts would be compelled to investigate and prosecute cases of so-called "honour killings" of women.

According to the HRCP such killings in 1999 claimed the lives of over 1,000 women, deemed by husbands or families to have blackened family honour by deviating from social norms or tribal law.

Such 'deviations' include seeking divorce from abusive husbands, or wishing to choose their own marriage partner. Their murderers are rarely brought to justice.

In 1999 Samia Sarwar, an abused mother-of-two seeking divorce from a drug-addicted husband, was executed in her lawyer's office by a gunman hired by her own family. Her attorney, Hina Jilani, narrowly escaped death in the attack. Despite witness identification of the assailant, no arrests have been made – an outrage that has led to protests and demonstrations for justice in cities across the country.

Human rights campaigners believe that as many as half of all women imprisoned in Pakistan are falsely charged with the crime of zina. Husbands use it to intimidate wives, parents to prevent daughters from choosing their own spouses, police to blackmail women and feudal landlords to browbeat their tenants.

Samina, married with seven children, endured severe beatings. When she filed for divorce her husband hurled acid at her, forcing her to flee to a shelter. In retaliation, he lodged a false case of zina against her and another man alleging they had run away together. With legal help Samina secured bail and the case was dropped. Her divorce has been granted but she lives in fear. "He's still lurking in my neighbourhood. I'm scared for my life," she says.

Despite the huge numbers of women accused and held in jail awaiting trial under zina, few are actually tried and convicted. At the same time, the few cases that make it to appeal usually end in acquittal -it is proof, say human rights activists, that the law is exploited to control women.

Defenders of Hudood disagree. Justice Tanzil-ur-Rahman, former chairman of the Council of Islamic Ideology and a member of the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party, says the only problem is some rotten apples in the judicial barrel.

"I agree, it has been zulm [cruelty, oppression] for women. These judges are corrupt, inefficient. They don't believe in humanity let alone Islam."

Like other supporters of the controversial laws, Rahman believes that the solution is to 'Islamise' all laws, removing any clash between Islamic law and the existing civil statute books.

But removing the Hudood Ordinances is a political hot potato. Twice-elected female Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto promised but failed to deal with the anti-women legislation, unwilling to antagonise religious leaders.

So far, Gen. Musharraf has ignored the demands of women's and other groups that the ordinances be repealed. Instead, he says, he will introduce a package of legal reforms for women and include the issue of Hudood in other legislative changes.

Following his Women's Day pledge, Musharraf did set up a permanent commission on the status of women -a longstanding demand of women's activists. However, the scope and powers of this body have yet to be announced.

Campaigners charge that no government in Pakistan has been willing to confront the religious establishment and right-wing political parties and challenge Zia's anti-women legislation.

Says Zohra Yousuf, HRCP secretary general, "Political bigwigs have this fear of being considered un-Islamic, because fundamentalist Islamic factions are well organised and have the power to create trouble."

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Panos London

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