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Pakistan Religious Groups Denounce Panel that Recommended Abolishing Islamic Laws - 2003-09-08

In Pakistan, religious groups are lambasting a government-appointed commission after it recommended abolishing Islamic laws. The commission found that Islamic laws under the so-called Hadood Ordinance discriminate against women.

The Islamic law, known as the Hadood Ordinance, was introduced in 1979 by then-military dictator General Zia ul-Haq in an effort to Islamize the country. One of the most controversial provisions of the ordinance covers the crime of rape. A violated woman must have two male or four female witnesses to prove rape, or she faces charges of adultery.

Women activists, civil rights groups and secular political parties in Pakistan have long opposed the law as discriminatory. In addition, they argue that since the introduction of the Hadood Ordinance, rape and violence against women have increased considerably.

In a recent report, the Independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan says that one woman is raped every two hours and one subjected to gang-rape every eight hours in Pakistan.

Tahira Abdullah, a prominent women's rights activist, said these laws do not protect women and have nothing to do with Islam. "The Islamic Sharia, especially the injunctions of the Koran, do not mention rape at all. Therefore any woman who charges a man with rape is herself convicted of adultery," she said. "If she happens to get pregnant as a consequence of rape, it is taken as an admission of guilt that sexual intercourse has occurred and that she is guilty of adultery and she is charged. If she can't name the rapist and the rapist is not convicted she is further charged with false allegation for which there is also a very, very strong Islamic punishment."

But the powerful political influence of Islamic parties has discouraged successive governments from even debating the issue in a public forum - until recently.

President Pervez Musharraf set up a National Commission on the Status of Women two years ago to review the legal system for discrimination. That commission this month sparked controversy when it recommended Hadood be abolished.

Majida Rizvi is the head of the commission compromised of scholars and retired judges. She says Hadood needs to be replaced with all new laws after public consultations and parliamentary debate. "There are so many lacunas [gaps] and anomalies in this law that in their [the commission's] opinion there cannot be amendments, but there should be a complete repeal," she says. "And if you ask me being a woman, being a lawyer, being a retired judge, I think what these laws have caused is havoc [because] majority of the cases in the jail as far as the women are concerned, they are all booked under the Hadood laws."

The Independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan says there are more than 2,000 women in Pakistani prisons either awaiting trial or convicted under the Hadood Ordinance. But the call for abolition of the Islamic law has outraged Islamic parties - both men and women members.

On September 5, about 100 mostly female activists of the leading right-wing religious party, Jamaat-e-Islami, gathered outside parliament to show their support for the Hadood Ordinance.

The demonstrators chanted "long live Islam" and "long live the Islamic law." Kausar Firdos, a member of the Pakistani parliament, led the protest. She says no one can change the laws of the holy Koran. "We believe being a Muslim that this divine book from Allah is a solution for many of our problems. And if we implement those laws and Koranic injunctions properly they will be bringing prosperity to our society," she said.

Another demonstrator, Shama Altaf, said Islamic laws do not discriminate against women, but it is the way they are understood and enforced which are not fair. "We will never let this law to be repealed and we would in fact want every law should be under the Koran and Sunnah," she said. "We think that it's actually the implementation and the investigation agencies and the judiciary which does not interpret it properly, and that's why the women are actually abused through them."

Attiya Enayatullah, a member of the ruling political coalition, says the Islamic law needs amendments, but a total repeal goes too far. "Pakistan has got Islamic law, so the question of the repealing Hadood Ordinance does not arise," she said. "There is need to review the Hadood Ordinance and to amend it particularly in the case of "zina," which is adultery cases where there is no distinction between rape and adultery."

Ms. Enayatullah had served under military dictator Zia ul-Haq who decreed the Islamic law in 1979. She blames the judicial system for not properly interpreting the Islamic law.

"Our major problem is that the judiciary, the administration, society is not women friendly and they do not understand that Islam has given those rights and that respect to women 1,400 years ago, which we are very far from attaining and I hope this parliament is able to settle down and get down to serious work such as this," said Ms. Enaytullah.

The issue will end up in Parliament, where the main opposition party is an alliance of six Islamic groups and where women hold one-third of the 342 seats.