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readers' submissions

iscriminatory Laws and Pakistani Women

by Hina Shahid

August 3, 2006

Since independence, the developments of laws against women in Pakistan can be viewed through the background of quite far-reaching changes in Pakistan’s society, which has affected women’s place in both rural and urban scenario. The rigid patriarchal society, specially in rural areas, in which women are treated as possessions, ‘given’ or ‘purchased’ through arranged marriages, they are pressurized to live in the service of a male-dominated social system. Women in Pakistan are still married within Biradris (communities) and these biradiris provide a framework within which women’s lives are ordered and instructed according to the whims of the powerful male elders. In case of corporate biradris, the power of the biradri panchayat derives largely from control over decisions about a woman’s life and specially over the man she should is to marry. This is a powerful factor of control over women, specially amongst the poorer sections of the society, in small cities and amongst kammis, where a daughter is sold for money to a promised husband. The Zia Regime itself had much to do in creating conditions that precipitated the movement and caused it to break out with much force. Problems that confront women in Pakistan today have been accumulating over several decades. Among the new ‘Islamic" laws that were enacted by Zia regime was a change in law of evidence, enacted in October 1984, self-proclaimed to bring the existing law of evidence in line with prescriptions of Islam. In the case of Hudood Ordinances of 1979 (prescribing ‘Islamic’ punishments), which laid down their own special rules of evidence for Hadd offences; the new law of evidence provided that two male witnesses or in the absence of two male witnesses one male and one female witness would be required to prove crime. This law as well as other proposed enactment coequal one man to two women. This was so, for example, in the proposed laws of Qisas and Diyat which provided for financial compensation to be given to the injured party by an accused in lieu of punishment in cases of murder or bodily injury, it being held that in such cases the ‘Islamic’ remedy lay not in punishment of the offender but in compensation to be paid to the victim or his family. This law was proposed by the Council of Islamic Ideology and passed by the Majlis-e-Shoora (Zia’s legislative institutions). The compensation in the case of women was to be fixed at half that for men. Such laws that put the worth of women at half that of a man, almost turned women into pariahs! These laws were a powerfully symbolic factor that set the women’s movement into action.

It was the year 1979 when Pakistan’s rape laws were drastically changed by the dictator Gen. Zia-ul-Haq. Pakistan’s previous rape laws, repealed by the Zina Ordinance, 56 had defined rape as a compulsory sexual intercourse. Another significant change brought about by the adoption of the Zina laws was that for the first time in Pakistan’s history, fornication (non-marital sex) became illegal and, along with adultery, non compoundable, non-bailabled and punishable at maximum by death. Since the crime of statutory rape was eliminated at the same time that fornication was criminalized, even minor girls can be charged with engaging in illicit sex if they have reached puberty. The Ordinance provides new weapons for men against women by virtue of making Zina i.e. adultery, rape and fornication, crimes against the state, cognizable offences for which the police can take action. In such circumstances women victims of rape dare not even complain about the sexual violence done to them for fear of penalties that they themselves invite under this unfair law, while the culprits go scot free because of its extra-ordinary provisions. There is a long list of horrific crimes committed against women in Pakistan. How can one forget young Samia Sarwar, a mother of two young sons, who was shot dead in her attorney’s office in Lahore. She was from Peshawar and was subjected to high levels of domestic violence, beating, kicking and physical abuse. Her only crime was that she was seeking divorce from her abusive husband. In another case Zafran Bibi of Kohat district in North West Frontier Province (NWFP), was sentenced to death in the for adultery, she did not commit. A tribal council in Meerwala in Punjab province ordered a gang rape of Mukhtaran to avenge of an alleged affair by her brother. After being raped she was forced to walk naked in front of spectators. The existence of Hudood Ordinances has emboldened the judges and the jury alike to mete out sentences to women in a society already biased against them.

Besides these wantonly discriminatory laws that reduced a woman’s humanity by half, there were policies undertaken by the Zia regime that threatened the life and prospects of working women more directly. Although the militant activities and demonstrations of the women’s movement were, in the first instance, directed against the new laws, there were some directly felt underlying concerns, especially about the future of women’s education. In general, laws and policies pursued by the Zia regime were directed towards discouraging women from taking an active part in activities outside the home and to limit the scope for their self-__expression. An atmosphere was generated in the country in which attacks against women became commonplace, sanctioned in the name of religion. Mullahs, the custodians of ignorance, lead such campaigns against women, and by criminals, who all seem to derive a kind of wicked psychic pleasure from molesting women under the excuse of enforcing morality. The directives were given to teachers, female government employees, and girls’ students to wear chaddar or burqa. Violence against women has been on the increase behind the cloak of ‘Islamisation’. The examples of such hypocrisy are numerous, publicised, incidents where women’s noses have been cut off or they have been undressed and paraded nude in public. For such public outrage, the Zia regime announced punishments for such actions. But his so-called ‘Islamic’ regime did little to punish culprits. Such incidents and attacks on women still continue.

The decade of the 1980s will always be remembered when a number of women’s organizations, which included Women’s Action Forum (WAF), the Sindhiyani Tehrik and the Women’s Front in the country came together in the struggle against policies of General Zia’s military regime, which were directed against women in the name of Islamisation. In the same decade, degradation of Pakistani women was on peak. The Zia regime, in the name of Islam, injected upon a series of measures that were designed to undermine what little existed by way of women’s legal rights, in terms of education and career. That electrified women of the country into militant action in defence of their rights. Recently powerful women’s movement made a dramatic impact on Pakistan’s political scene. The decade of 2006 has made a history, when Pakistani women once again came on the streets demanding for the repeal of Hudood Ordinances. The 33% of women representation in the parliament have forced the dictators and lawmakers to provide justice to those women languishing in jails since number of years under the militant probe law. Women from Sindh, Punjab, Balochistan, with the help of non-governmental organizations, activists and civil society representatives have come up with full strength to challenge the discriminatory laws against women of the country. The women from far-flung areas are also in full actions for their sisters who are in jails for decades. After a continuous pressure government has released a few women from the jails of Lahore and Karachi. But, this is not the ultimate solution. The abolishment of the Hudood law is essential to protect the future of the women, as the country is much prone to militant leadership.

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