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Last Updated: Friday, 15 September 2006, 10:59 GMT 11:59 UK
How Pakistan's rape reform ran aground
By Barbara Plett
BBC News, Islamabad

Pakistan's government has put a controversial women's rights bill on hold, throwing into turmoil efforts to reform hardline Islamic laws on rape.

Women pass a poster of President Musharraf
President Musharraf had seemed keen to reform the law for women
Secular parties are furious after the draft law was amended to appease Pakistan's ultra-conservative Islamic parties.

Now the authorities are scrambling to reach a broader consensus before trying for a fourth time to present the bill in parliament.

The imbroglio has been branded by human rights activists as a disaster for Pakistani women.

It is also seen as further evidence that the government of President Gen Pervez Musharraf remains dependent on the Islamists, despite his claims of promoting an Islam of "enlightened moderation".

Un-reported rapes

In Pakistan, rape is dealt with under Islamic laws known as the Hudood Ordinances. These criminalise all sex outside marriage.

So, under Hudood, if a rape victim fails to present four male witnesses to the crime, she herself could face punishment.

This has made it almost impossible to prosecute rape cases.

According to the country's independent Human Rights Commission, a woman is raped every two hours and gang-raped every eight hours in Pakistan.

These figures are probably an under-estimation as many rapes are not reported.

Government panic

Until his ruling party caved in, President Musharraf had seemed determined to reform the Hudood Ordinances.

Women protest against reforming the law
Women allied to the Islamist opposition protested against the bill

Despite vociferous objections from the Islamic parties - an alliance known as the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) - the bill had been approved by a parliamentary committee with the support of the main secular opposition Pakistan People's Party (PPP).

The committee proposed removing rape from religious law and putting it instead in the secular penal code, where normal rules of evidence would apply.

The MMA cried foul, threatening to resign en masse from parliament if the bill was passed.

And in a panic the government set up an extra-parliamentary committee of religious scholars to pacify the Islamists.

This said that rape should fall under both religious and secular law. It introduced a new, very broadly defined, category of "lewdness" into the penal code, and reinstated a clause giving the Hudood Ordinances pre-eminence over any law with which they might come into conflict.

Political isolation

Liberal political parties, civil and human rights activists and lawyers said these changes essentially eviscerated the reform, and allowed powerful religious lobbies to manipulate what is seen as a weak judicial system.

Mukhtaran Mai, rape victim turned campaigner
The case of rape victim Mukhtaran Mai heightened reform calls

They also denounced the government for bypassing parliamentary procedures.

Gen Musharraf must have known any changes to the Hudood Ordinances would raise the ire of the Islamists. Why then did his government collapse so rapidly before them?

Commentators suggest two reasons.

One is that his ruling party is divided, between those who want to keep a tacit alliance with the MMA, and those willing to push for a reform agenda in alliance with the opposition PPP, led by former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

The other is that rarely have President Musharraf and his military-led regime been so isolated.

They are now opposed by all save one of the secular and nationalist parties, with even the Islamists threatening street protests.

Alliance intact

The president has been condemned at home for using excessive force against nationalist rebels in the restive province of Balochistan, and abroad for striking a peace deal with pro-Taleban tribesmen in the tribal area of North Waziristan.

Assailed on all sides, the president's only certain support is the military - and the Pakistani army is not prepared to take on the Islamists over women's rights.

So after a week of parliamentary and extra-parliamentary shenanigans, the alliance of military and mullah that has governed Pakistan for the last seven years appears shaken but intact.

Women remain at the mercy of fundamentalist legislation.

And Gen Musharraf's message of "enlightened moderation" seems intended more for foreign than local consumption.

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