Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Pakistan's rape laws: A blot on "enlightened moderation"

Pakistan's government recently delayed presenting a bill to Parliament to reform Islamic laws covering rape and adultery after vociferous objections from the Islamic parties. The government gave in to the hardline Islamist alliance Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), the largest opposition bloc in the chamber, after the latter threatened to quit Parliament if the laws, commonly known as the Hudood Ordinances, were changed.

The atrocious laws caught international attention after the tragic story of Mukhtaran Mai came to light. Mai was 30 when she was ordered to be gang raped by a tribal jirga in Meerwala Jatoi in southern Punjab. She was made to pay for the clannish disputes between her tribe, the Tatla, and the Mastois.

The details of the incident chill one to the bone. On 22 June 2002, Mai, despite her cries for help, was taken by four men into a room and was raped consecutively by each of them. She screamed for help but not a single villager came forth. After being subjected to ninety minutes of rape, she was thrown outside with little clothing left on her body and was made to walk home.

After the incident received wide-ranging media coverage, the Hudood Ordinances came to be much debated. A set of laws intended to make the criminal justice system conform with Islamic law, they were enshrined in Pakistani law in 1979 by General Zia ul-Haq in an attempt to assuage the country's powerful religious elite following his military coup.

These laws cover offences including Zina crimes (unlawful sexual intercourse including adultery and rape) and Qazf (wrongful accusation of Zina crimes). The maximum punishment for Zina crimes is death by stoning. Many Pakistani women are imprisoned for years, convicted or awaiting trial for Zina crimes.

According to Amnesty International, if they report a rape to the police they are often charged with Zina crimes because they have in effect admitted to sexual intercourse outside of marriage and been unable to prove absence of consent. In such cases, the victims are more likely to be convicted than the perpetrators. The victim's own testimony is not admissible as evidence. Rape must be proved either by the perpetrator's confession or by the testimony of four men.

Bewildering perversity

The very letter of the law is bewildering in its perversity. How can the victim be expected to produce four witnesses to her rape? How does one "prove" absence of consent? The law puts the onus of proving the rape on the victim and her family. It discourages families from reporting rape to the police since if the rape is not proved, the family is charged with misreporting and detained under Qazf laws. In all of this, it is the rapist who gets away scot-free.

This is why, despite the Pakistan Human Rights Commission's shocking figures (as per one report, every two hours a woman is raped in Pakistan and every eight hours a woman is subjected to gang rape), the actual frequency of rape is thought to be still higher because many rapes remain unreported due to glaring chinks in Pakistan's laws.

General Pervez Musharraf's claims of furthering "enlightened moderation" have begun to sound a lot like hot air. At first sight, his government seemed to be moving forward on the issue. Law Minister Mohammad Wasi Zafar asked for rape to be tried in secular courts and not Islamic ones. That would be a step forward in rescuing not just rape laws but others, most notably those directed against women and other kinds of minorities (religious, sexual et al), from the influence of sharia. But all this may come to naught if the government does not resist pressure from the Islamic alliance to retain regressive laws in the statute book.

The government may derive relief from the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a major ally of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League, that has said it doesn't want to "cave in to conservative people who want to take the country back to mediaeval times".

But that is small comfort for Musharraf who is fighting hard to portray the image of a benevolent reformer to the outside world. Unless he does more to bring Pakistan's laws in tune with notions of a civilized society, Pakistan's claims of being a reformist Islamic nation, following the footsteps of Kemal Ataturk's Turkey, will continue to ring hollow.

Monday, September 04, 2006

On the multicultural fallacy

Michael Barone, one of America's leading political commentators, lays the grounds for the central argument of his book The New Americans when, in its revised preface, he attacks the current crop of America's liberal elite for its moral relativism:

[In the America of today,] there are the highly educated moral-relativist elite, who regard our civilization as a virus and hostile immigrants and multiculturalism as the cure.

Barone's argument is in favor of Americanization, the assimilated experience of the melting pot that makes each and every person residing in the United States quintessentially American. He attacks the liberal elite for equating Americanization with subverting the native instincts of foreign-born people.

To Barone, this latter position is fundamentally flawed, since, as he convincingly argues, allowing immigrant communities to retain their native habits ultimately harms the American ideal of equal opportunity for all. He points to the race riots in France and the killing of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh as pointers to why multiculturalism has backfired in Europe. He attacks this system for failing to inculcate in immigrants a love for their host countries. Multiculturalism, he says, by encouraging immigrants to stay in separate communities, "fosters hostile attitudes" toward host countries. They reside in distinctive ghettos that are mired in poverty and filth. Since there isn't a tendency toward assimilation, they lack basic skills and have no job opportunities. There is a silent rage that festers in these communities only waiting to explode.

What lends robustness to Barone's argument is his deep knowledge of the immigrant communities he writes about. The book is a first-rate primer on the histories and varied experiences of immigrants of different hues. For instance, did you know that the first sport at which Jews excelled was boxing? Or that Chinese and Korean credit associations, known as the hui and keh, respectively, and which are founded on strong social ties, have been the backbone of several successful businesses run by them in America?

The book is packed with many such interesting nuggets and melds them into the larger tale of the immigrant community. Barone looks at immigrants by discussing two groups at a time. He draws parallels between the experiences of Latinos and Italians, blacks and Irish, and Asians and Jews. By comparing and contrasting these subcategories on a number of parameters such as literacy levels, crime rates, family structure, motives to migrate, etc., Barone asserts that there are striking resemblances between them. The study yields notable observations, among them, that neither Italian nor Latino immigrants placed much value on education, and that both the Irish and blacks created and dominated their own churches.

Barone culls his material from diverse sources. Making references to the likes of Octavio Paz and Francis Fukuyama, the book is that rare combination: a scholarly journal whose text is approachable for its smooth narrative flow.

The writer falters, however, in placing all Asian immigrants under one umbrella. His definition of Asian encompasses only China, Japan, South Korea and the countries of Indo-China, barring Myanmar. Which is why he makes faulty assumptions like, "For most Asians, the guiding tradition has been Confucianism." None of the countries comprising the Indian subcontinent have followed a tradition of Confucianism. Yet, large numbers of people from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka have migrated to America.

The arguments raised by Barone remind me of what the political right has been demanding in India. The main opposition party, the BJP, has attacked the ruling Congress-led UPA for following a policy of minority appeasement, which the former calls pseudo-secularism. The BJP contends that pseudo-secularism ensures that minorities stay just that - minorities. Barone similarly attacks the left-liberal agenda, which asks for bilingual education, or religious preachers being given a free hand to preach what they like, for harming the long-term well-being of the immigrants.

He discards any misgivings one may harbor regarding the future of immigration in America. Just as the Irish and Jews were considered separate races in the early years of the 20th century (yes!) but are an essential part of American life today, so will Asians and Latinos be accepted into the American mainstream over time. In fact, Barone looks forward to such an eventuality. What he advocates as Americanization is not a blanket disavowal of all things non-American, but a blending of different cultures into a heterogeneous whole, much like how pizza is as much an American snack today as Italian.

Instead of only mentioning it in passing, had Barone tackled the scourge of terrorism in relation to the experience of a certain segment of immigrants, their motives, their influences, The New Americans would have been a complete compendium on one of the most pertinent questions America faces today. In any case, grab the book for an engaging account of the collective histories of a single nation state.