Human rights activists in Pakistan are welcoming a ruling by the country's highest court that a Muslim woman can marry of her own free will, and does not require the permission of her parents or a guardian.

Liberal and secular political communities, as well as human rights organizations, are hoping that the Supreme Court ruling will end the controversy over whether adult Muslim women in Pakistan can marry whomever they like, without the consent of their parents or guardians.

The decision overrules a 1997 verdict from the Lahore High Court, and upholds the original 1991 decision made by an Islamic Sharia court.

The Lahore decision demanded that women seek consent to marry. It had outraged human rights groups in the country, which argued that the ruling could be misused as a pretext to arrest women, and even their spouses, in unrelated family disputes.

Human rights activists such as Tahira Abdullah say the Supreme Court ruling will go a long way toward giving women their rights in Pakistan.

"I think young girls and young women in Pakistan will have greater freedom to exercise their choice now," she said. "And those girls who were not allowed to marry of their choice, and who used to be married off forcibly to old men - for example we have cases of 10-15-year-old girls being married ofF to old men of 65-70 years of age - that will come to an end, because now girls can turn around and take their cases to court."

Islamic religious scholars also support the ruling. They say that Islam allows an adult woman to marry of her free will, and she does not need the permission of a guardian, known locally as a "wali."

"The guardian of the spouses in the Islamic history, as well as in Islamic Sharia, their presence, their participation, their consent is desirable, and has been a blessing, but, of course, it is not a condition," said Professor Khursheed Ahmed, head of Islamabad's Institute of Policy Studies, run by Pakistan's right-wing religious party, Jamaat-e-Islami. "The crucial conditions are, it should be public and not hidden, it should be in the presence of witnesses and it involves agreement of the spouses."

In Pakistan's conservative society, many parents are averse to the idea of daughters making their own choices about marriage. Hundreds of women a year are killed in Pakistan in the name of family honor, often for choosing their own husbands.