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Pakistani Commission Attempts to Roll Back Laws that Threaten Women's Rights - 2004-01-22

Pakistan's National Commission on the Status of Women says the time has come to start rolling back religiously inspired laws that threaten the rights of women.

Members of the commission name Pakistan's Hudood Ordinance, a series of laws based on Islamic teaching, as a major threat to the lives and rights of the country's women.

Passed in 1979, the Hudood Ordinance was meant to provide Pakistan's legal system with a stronger religious base.

But critics say the statutes' strict interpretation of Islamic law is a threat to women.

They cite provisions normally requiring at least two male Muslim witnesses in order to prove a case of rape. In addition, the law opens victims of rape up to charges of adultery.

The three-year-old government Commission on the Status of Women released its report saying the Hudood Ordinance should be repealed.

Commission chairwoman and former judge, Majida Rizvi, says that when portions of the new report were made public last September, Pakistan finally began debating the wisdom of some of the Hudood laws for the first time.

"If you, [go] back maybe 10 years, this was a prohibited area to talk about. Now since my report has come last year, it is being discussed openly. People are aware that there are problems in this law," she said.

Some moderate religious scholars also say the time has come to rethink the Hudood Ordinance.

Professor Khalid Masood of Islamabad's International Islamic University notes that such changes would be in line with a general trend in Pakistan away from extreme interpretations of Muslim law.

"So many other bold steps are being taken, especially on terrorism, religious extremism. So this is also a type of extremism, terrorism," he said.

Some leaders of the Mutahida Majlis-e Amal, the alliance of religious parties that governs two of Pakistan's four provinces and hold the major opposition seats in parliament, say they are also willing to discuss the subject.

They add, however, that while they are open to some changes in favor of women's rights, they strongly oppose repealing the Hudood Ordinance outright.