BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Languages
Last Updated: Wednesday, 15 November 2006, 20:04 GMT
Strong feelings over Pakistan rape laws
By Syed Shoaib Hasan
BBC News, Karachi

Mukhtar Mai at Islamabad press conference 5 March 2005
It is not clear how the bill might affect rape victims like Mukhtar Mai
The vote by Pakistan's lower house of parliament to amend laws concerning rape and adultery has been met with mixed emotions, but the bill's likely impact is far from clear.

While the government called the legislation "historic", the religious parties are calling it "un-Islamic" and "a secular conspiracy" against an Islamic Pakistan.

The Women's Protection Bill was passed after much wrangling and posturing between the government and the religious opposition.

The bill seeks to amend the heavily criticised Hudood Ordinance laws which govern the punishment for rape and adultery.

Under the controversial Hudood Ordinance, brought in under Gen Zia-ul-Haq from 1979, a rape victim had to provide four male eyewitnesses to the crime. Failure to do so would open the way to her being charged with adultery.

The punishment for adultery is lashings and stoning according to traditional Islamic law, although such punishments were never implemented in Pakistan.

'Un-Islamic'

The new Women's Protection Bill brings rape under the Pakistan Penal Code, which is based on civil law, not Sharia.

It's going to change things, but not a great deal
Lawyer Imrana Khwaja

Liberal politicians and women's' rights activists have welcomed the reforms as progress - but say they do not go far enough.

Most campaigners want nothing less than the total repeal of the Hudood Ordinance which covers much more than sexual morality but also matters such as drinking and theft.

Nevertheless, many are calling Wednesday's vote "a small step in the right direction".

Iqbal Haider, general secretary of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, says: "I must emphasise that these are not a substitute for the repeal of the Hudood Ordinance.

"However, this is a positive step, although much needs to be done."

Religious hardliners are up in arms, however.

"We have been against the bill from the start," says Samia Raheel Qazi, a women MP from the conservative MMA alliance, and daughter of senior MMA leader Qazi Hussain Ahmed.

President Musharraf
The legislation is being seen as a key test for President Musharraf

She maintains that the bill goes against articles 2a and 227 of the constitution of Pakistan, which state respectively that "Islam will be the state religion" and "No laws will be passed which are repugnant to the Koran and sunnah."

"The Hudood Ordinance was devised by a highly qualified group of ulema (Islamic scholars), and is beyond question," she says, adding that five elected assemblies since Gen Zia's time have found the laws valid.

She is convinced that the current legislation is part of an American agenda, and adds: "This is not the act of a sovereign parliament... It's a military dictatorship imposing its will on the people."

'Historic'

A majority in the parliament evidently, however, does not share these views.

Lawmakers in the NWFP assembly
Pakistan's religious parties have threatened protests

MPs from the government coalition have hailed the legislation as a "great victory".

Haider Rizvi, an MP from the MQM, a minority party in the ruling coalition, says: "This is a historic day in the fight against the forces of feudalism and fundamentalism."

The MQM has played a key part in pushing the legislation through, bearing in mind the known religious leanings of its majority coalition partner, the PML-Q.

"When these laws come into effect, the false accusation which inflicts such cruelty and injustice on defenceless women will be brought under control," says Mr Rizvi.

He points out that there have been 5,400 cases against women in Pakistan under the Hudood Ordinance, and a majority of them are concerned with rape and adultery cases.

"Previously, all women were treated as guilty - now they can stand and ask for justice without any fear of legal action."

Enforcement

The new laws propose that all charges concerning rape and adultery will be heard by a sessions judge who will determine whether there is enough evidence to warrant an investigation.

Reporting rape cases will now be much harder, most analysts believe

If the accusations are found to be false, then the complainant will immediately have a case registered against him or her, with a punishment of 80 lashes.

Observers and analysts feel that given that the writ of the law is hardly ever enforced, and then usually on the side of the powerful, it still remains to be seen how poor rural women such as gang rape victim Mukhtar Mai would benefit from the proposed new legislation.

Mr Haider says the "real test will come with enforcement".

Imrana Khwaja, a lawyer and former women's rights activist says: "It's going to change things, but not a great deal."

She says there are loopholes to be exploited. For example, someone complaining of adultery can still decide to have the case heard in an Islamic court. As in rape cases, the complainant has to produce four witnesses to back up the accusation.

"Rural communities always react strongly against adultery cases, and finding four witnesses to testify on the complainants' behalf from the community is not hard," she says.

Another other factor is that reporting rape cases will now be much harder, most analysts believe.

Complainants will have to report rapes in district sessions courts rather than local police stations, which are open round the clock.

While women will feel safer in the court, many in rural areas will have to travel miles to register their cases.

And they will not be able to do so during long hours when the court is closed - hours which could be crucial in gathering forensic or circumstantial evidence.



VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
The changes to Pakistan's rape laws



RELATED INTERNET LINKS
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites



FEATURES, VIEWS, ANALYSIS
Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

PRODUCTS & SERVICES

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific