[By Mayank Austen Soofi]
In Pakistan, if a woman gets raped the first step in her aborted journey for justice would be almost impossible to make. She would have to search for male witnesses who had watched her being sexually penetrated against her wishes. If the said gentlemen remain untraced, it would be automatically construed that the woman had consented to have sex on her own free will. To make the irony more bizarre, such an unlucky rape victim, and there are many, run a further risk of being sentenced to death for the crime of extramarital sex.
Not surprisingly these stipulations force most of the victims to stay away from reporting this gross violence, committed on their bodies, to the police authorities.
This law is about to change. On November 14, 2006, National Assembly - Pakistan's lower house of Parliament – tabled the Women's Protection Bill (WPB) that included crucial amendments to the country's rape laws. It was successfully passed by a majority of the 342 members. After the bill is approved by the Senate and formalities are completed, appropriate laws would be correspondingly changed.
The Possibilities of the Amendments
These inhumane laws, known as the Hudood ordinance, were introduced in 1979 by the country's late military dictator General Zia ul-Haq. He had brought them as a part of his carefully cultivated strategy to win favors with the influential Islamic fundamentalist clerics.
The proposed amendments provide the judges with special discretion to hold the trial of rape cases in a criminal court, instead of being conducted in the otherwise mandatory Islamic judiciary. This discretion, presuming that the judges would be inclined to exercise it, intends to do away with the infamous clause of four witnesses, a necessary requirement in the strict Islamic courts.
The amendments have proposed the dropping of the death penalty and flogging for people convicted of having consensual sex outside marriage. It would also deny the police the right to arrest anyone on accusations of extramarital sex. The suspected people could still be tried in the courts but would not be detained.
Sex with girls under sixteen has also been recommended to be outlawed. The Islamic code had merely banned sex with girls before puberty.
Except fanatical Islamists, most of the Pakistani society, including its media, NGOs, military, and progressive political parties have welcomed the move.
However, it will be wise to recommend restraint in the relief. Religious fundamentalists exercise powerful influence in a large section of the society and no government in Pakistan is insensible enough to upset the social equilibrium. In fact, contrary to demands of several activists, the WPB has not scrapped all the features of the Hudood laws. For instance, consensual sex outside marriage remains a crime punishable by five years in prison or a $165 fine.
Nevertheless, a beginning has undoubtedly been made with the passing of these amendments. If Pakistan has to become a better place to live in, this path towards ‘enlightened moderation’ must not be abandoned.
Who’s the Hero?
The credit for the partial repeal of these anti-woman laws deservedly goes to thousands of committed human rights activists and concerned citizens of Pakistan who, for years, bravely confronted their country's unreasonable religious establishment for this just cause. But the biggest share of the applause must be reserved for Mr. Pervez Musharraf.
While Pakistan might display all the pretensions of a functioning democracy with its farcically elected parliamentary representatives, prime minister, and judiciary, the country continues to be a despot's delight. Nothing moves in Pakistan without the assent of its dictator Mr. Musharraf.
Now, this man has accomplished something that he had earlier promised. The repeal of the ordinance was courageous on his part and well-meaning in purpose. The potential danger of his unprecedented progressiveness could be ascertained by the observation that no president, prime minister or military general in the past had dared to mess around with the Hudood laws. Surely, Mr. Musharraf must not be grudged any of the accolades he is bound to receive.
Pakistan Paindabad – Long live Pakistan.
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