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.

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