Wednesday, Pakistan’s lower house of Parliament voted to criminalize rape under its civil penal code, allowing for prosecution under secular rather than religious law. Until now, Islamic laws mandated that rape victims have four male witnesses to the crime or they would face prosecution for adultery.
p. This move curtails the scope of Islamic laws that have long been denounced by human rights organizations as degrading and unfair to women. The new legislation, called the Women’s Protection Bill, allows the government to prosecute rapists under secular rather than religious law.
p. This legislation is seen as a barometer of President Pervez Musharraf’s commitment to a vision of “enlightened moderation,” according to a Nov. 14 Reuters report. However, it is also a harbinger of another major conflict in a protracted struggle between progressives and religious conservatives to set the course of Pakistan’s future.
p. “It is a historic bill because it will give rights to women and help end excesses against them,” Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz told the lower house after the vote. However, it remains to be seen whether the upper house will ratify the bill; it must do so in order for the legislation to become law.
p. According to Pakistan’s independent Human Rights Commission, a woman is raped every two hours and gang-raped every eight hours. However, the BBC argues that the figures released by the commission are probably an underestimation, because many rapes are not reported.
p. Women fear retribution and punishment for coming forward against men under the current laws. The laws regarding four witnesses, as well as the victims’ fear, have made it virtually impossible to prosecute rape.
p. The old statutes are called the Hudood Ordinances; they were put in place by President Zia-ul-Haq in 1979. The new legislation would remove the requirement for four male witnesses and allow convictions to be made on the basis of circumstantial and forensic evidence, according to Reuters.
p. For years, human rights campaigners have appealed for the complete abolishment of the laws. They welcome the current attempts at reform whole-heartedly.
p. However, there is a significant roadblock. Religious conservatives wield tremendous clout as they control the main opposition bloc in parliament. Also, this type of legislation has been rejected before.
p. In September, Musharraf’s government abandoned its attempt to pass the bill after the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal Alliance, an Islamist political group, threatened to pull out of the national and provincial assemblies if it was passed.
Pakistan’s religious parties pronounced the legislation a “harbinger of lewdness and indecency in the country.” Furthermore, they denounced it as going against the scriptures of the Koran and Sharia law. These groups have threatened nationwide protests regarding the new bill.
p. Islamist legislators walked out of parliament and boycotted the vote after MMA Islamic Alliance leader Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman pronounced the bill would create a free sex zone in Pakistan.
p. “Existing laws are correct and should be maintained,” Rehman said. “The changes are not in line with Islamic teaching.”
p. The MMA Alliance’s outcry is working to some extent. Musharraf’s government appears more willing to compromise in order to bring about a consensus, according to BBC News.
p. “Some of the MMA’s proposals have been included in the bill,” Wasi Zafar, the Law Minister, said.
p. In order to induce the conservatives in the lower assembly to vote for the bill, an amendment was introduced setting down punishment of up to five years in prison for extra-marital sex, according to Reuters.