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Pakistani Women Demand Change; Protection From Abuse

Men in rural Pakistan beat women in their homes at what Human Rights Watch describes as astounding rates; rape victims face harassment and possibly arrest.

In Pakistan, most people agree women face significant challenges from traditional social values. Some here say it is getting worse for women. But others disagree.

In Islamabad, a group of young women at a local university watch the latest music videos on cable TV. They are well educated, they can drive themselves to school or work, they dress as they please, and socialize with whom they want.

In the cities at least, women appear to be thriving in terms of their personal autonomy. Pakistan's booming economy is offering educated women new opportunities to achieve social equality.

From banking to telecommunications, female participation in the modern labor force is growing faster than ever before. Literacy rates for urban women are now three times higher than their rural counterparts.

As a result, women's rights activist Jamila Aslam says more and more young women and girls are gaining confidence and challenging traditional gender roles.

"Everything is based on economics. And women are now fed up. They want to stand up and be counted. And more education, the more enlightened they are getting, the more they understand their rights and now they're snatching their rights," said Ms. Aslam.

But in the countryside, it remains a very different story. Rural women still live according to a cultural code little changed in hundreds of years.

Girls are forced into arranged marriages. Young women are kept out of school, and men exert absolute control over their families.

Every year, hundreds of women are murdered by their own families - victims of so-called honor killings for shaming their relatives.

This parallel, and officially illegal, justice system is being cited as the most formidable challenge facing women in rural Pakistan.

"In rural Pakistan, which is the vast majority of Pakistan, they are not valued, they are commodities to be bought and sold, killed for honor, gang raped, put in prison," said Tahira Abdullah, a prominent women's rights activist in Islamabad.

But activists say that even in rural Pakistan women are beginning to seek change.

Three years ago a village woman, Mukhtar Mai, was gang raped on the orders of a local council to punish her younger brother for having an affair with a girl from another tribe.

Contrary to local traditions, she testified against her attackers. And when local courts freed the men, she pursued her case all the way to the Supreme Court.

The case generated a global backlash against Pakistan's record on women's rights. In response, Pakistan has declared honor killing an offense punishable by death and protect women who marry against their parents' wishes.

This, in turn, has encouraged rights activists to intensify their campaign against the country's most controversial Islamic law, known as the Hudood Ordinance.

Under the ordinance, women who fail to prove rape claims are charged with committing adultery, a criminal offense.

Trial lawyer and women's advocate Jamila Aslam says the laws protect rapists and punish the victims.

"You find most women will not report the rape because they don't expect to get justice. They go to the police station. Chances are if she's pretty, she'll be raped by the policeman. Second, they'll say, oh, you're a culprit because a sexual act has been performed. It's a man's world out here," added Ms. Aslam.

She says the law has sent more than 20,000 mostly innocent women to prison.

But religious groups in Pakistan strongly oppose any changes to the law, saying it protects core Islamic values.

Jamila Ahmed, a member of Pakistan's leading opposition party, the MMA, a coalition of hard-line religious conservatives says the Hudood Ordinance is religious law, based on the Islamic holy book the Koran, and does not discriminate against women but rather holds up traditional Islamic values. She says Muslims throughout Pakistan will resist any attempt to change them.

But Ms. Aslam says that, far from condoning the mistreatment of women, Islam has always guaranteed women's rights, rights undermined by the country's Hudood Ordinance.

"All we are saying is, Islam gives us these rights, give them to us. If you don't, we're going to take them, that is the slogan of women these days," she concluded.

She says women already control one third of the national assembly. There are women fighter pilots in the air force and more female judges than ever before.

Change, Ms. Aslam says, is inevitable. After all, she notes, unlike many countries in the west, Pakistan has already had a female head of State, Benazir Bhutto, something not even the United States has managed to accomplish.