Pakistan: No hope for women raped and jailed for adultery

While a Presidential fiat grants bail to 1300 females facing trial for various offences, it is unlikely to permanently benefit those charged with adultery under Pakistan's notorious 'hudood' laws - long criticised by rights groups as being anti-women.
President Gen. Pervez Musharraf's reform ordinance, ushered in on Jul. 7, excludes from bail women charged with murder, acts of terrorism and economic crimes. It must gain parliamentary approval in four months, or lapse.
''If Parliament does not pass this into an act, then on November 7 this year, these bailable offences will automatically become non-bailable,'' explained Nasir Aslam Zahid, a former judge who recommended complete repeal of the Hudood laws in his well-known 1997 report, ‘The Commission of Inquiry for Women'.

Zahid, who now runs a legal aid centre for women in Karachi's Central Prison, was critical of the presidential order on other counts and said it should have helped release women charged with economic offences. "It is always men who make their wives and sisters scapegoats for financial misdemeanours carried out in their (female relatives') names.'' Rights groups have long been campaigning on behalf of a large number of rape victims who ended up being falsely accused of adultery and been incarcerated under the 1979 Hudood Ordinance (HO) laws.

Musharraf's reforms closely follow a public debate, hosted last month, by Geo TV, a private television channel. While little real headway was made during the debate, in which religious scholars and jurists supported or opposed HO, participants were unanimous that it was undesirable in Islam to keep women in prison.

Earlier this month, the President also directed the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) to draft an amendment to the HO, after consulting all schools of thought.

Some officials said that the President has indicated the government's intention to scrap the HO laws completely. And this has provoked the ulema (religious scholars) to vow, at a recent convention, that they would protect Hudood laws. The ulema also condemned statements issued by civil society groups, demanding repeal of the HO, as ‘westernised' and made at the behest of the government.

Promulgated in 1979 by the then military dictator Zia ul Haq, to strengthen his campaign of Islamising the country, Hudood laws have since been running in tandem with the country's secular legal system. Subsequent governments tried to do away with them but invariably buckled under pressure from the religious right. Even Musharraf, after promising to amend the laws when he took over power five years ago, was forced to backtrack.

Hudood covers a range of crimes, but the most controversial of them pertains to rape. If a woman cannot prove that she has been raped by producing four witnesses she could end up being charged with adultery -- punishable by being stoned to death.

According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), of the nearly 6,000 women and children in prison, 80 percent have been charged with adultery under the HO and most are from disadvantaged sections of society.

While the apparent move against Hudood laws has been hailed by civil society and rights groups, some remain sceptical. Far too often, and on too many issues, the government has first parried and then bowed to the religious right.

"The President does not always know what he is talking about. The institutions that could do the work of ending discriminatory laws have been undermined, and only bad rhetoric is left," says I.A Rehman, noted rights activist and director of the HRCP.

Musharraf's inability to act stems form the fact that he draws political backing from fundamentalist parties such as the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal and the Pakistan Muslim League. Both support the HO and other discriminatory laws.

Even now the government has not called for a repeal but requested an amendment, Rehman points out. "The government never wanted to repeal the HO. It is afraid of going to the parliament as it avoids debate on any issue and it is not equipped to deal with the mullahs (religious leaders).''

‘'The government is asking CII to review the HO because it wants a compromise. It knows the council will not call for a repeal," says Rehman. He predicts that at the most the amendments will "make prosecution more difficult, plead for easy bail to accused and suggest a harsh penalty for false accusation."

Ayesha Mir, a women's rights activist working for ‘Shirkatgah', looks at the president's order as a ‘'positive step". But she is also concerned about rehabilitation. Where will they go once they are freed? What plan does the government have for their protection and security?"

Rehman, thinks that rights activists can now ‘'claim credit for prying open the Pakistani ruling elite's mind. It has taken them 26 years to move this first step''.

There are other questions left unattended. "The big hitch is the bail (money) which most women won't be able to pay and so they will remain behind bars,'' said Zohra Yusuf, a member of the HRCP.

Zofeen Ebrahim