Friday, November 17, 2006

Pakistan's New Rape Law

Looks like a vast improvement for the women of the country (though it still has to pass in the upper house of the parliament). Under the previously applied interpretation of shariah, proving rape required either a confession from the rapist or at least four male Muslim witnesses. The number of rapes that go unpunished under such system must approach one hundred percent. Even worse, if a woman under the previous system was unable to prove that rape had taken place she herself could be sentenced for adulterous behavior. An almost perfect system for guaranteeing that few rapists will ever be caught, and also a system which encourages rape, in my view, because rapists need to fear no punishment.

Many religious scholars have argued that such a system does not have a religious basis, and women's groups have lobbied for change for years. That the change finally happened and that rape crimes in Pakistan will now be treated under the secular law code is surely a great victory for human rights and women's rights in general, right?

Well, perhaps, but there are political twists and turns in the whole process, and some of those are not happy ones:

The Hudood Ordinances were adopted in 1979, when a clutch of Islamic clerics argued that such austere laws stem from interpretations of divine precepts in the Koran that adjudicate vice and virtue-related offenses, including rape and adultery. Pakistan's then religious-minded dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq, bolstered support for the laws.

Activists and Islamic scholars have argued ever since that the Koran contains no such dictates. Their movement to repeal Hudood has driven forward in fits and spurts over the years, peaking this summer after a ground-breaking television series brought the issue before the wider public.

The series helped push the debate into parliament this summer, but once there, politics blunted its force, analysts say. Each time the bill came up for debate, a coalition of religious parties called the Muttahida Majlis-e-Ama (MMA) or United Action Front, cried foul and threatened to resign en masse from parliament. Before the new law, extramarital sex was brought before Islamic law but rarely prosecuted. By placing extra- marital sex under the penal code on Wednesday, the government kowtowed to their demands once again, analysts say.

That's because the Musharraf regime, finding itself politically isolated, looks increasingly to the MMA for support, observers say. And the MMA, which faces the same predicament, is only too happy to accept.

It's a curious reversal. There was a time when the MMA and Mr. Musharraf's ruling party, the Pakistan Muslim League, defined themselves as opponents. Indeed, the MMA came to power in 2002 on pledges that it would resist Musharraf's Western-driven calls for liberal moderation. Musharraf's support base has waned the longer he has run the country as a military leader, breaking promises to step down in place of democratic government.

Activists certainly welcome the removal of the four witness rule, but they shudder at what it symbolizes: Sworn enemies are more interested in political survival than human rights.