Pakistan moves closer to Islamic law reform

Islamabad, Pakistan - Pakistan edged closer on Wednesday to reforming Islamic laws that discriminate against women, one of which makes rape victims liable to prosecution for adultery unless they produce four male witnesses.

A cabinet meeting approved in principle a draft of amendments to the Hudood Ordinances, as the laws are called, that will be presented to the National Assembly.

The draft plans to remove the law on rape from the Hudood Ordinances and introduce a new law that will come under Pakistan’s secular penal code.

“The federal cabinet in principle gave approval for presenting Hudood laws’ amendments in the National Assembly,” Information Minister Mohammad Ali Durrani told a newsconference.

There are two sometimes overlapping legal systems in Pakistan, one is based on Islamic sharia law and the other is derived from law of former colonial power Britain.

A ministerial committee has been formed to check over the draft one more time, before the bill, called the Criminal Law Amendment for Protection of Women, is presented to the assembly.

The requirement for a rape victim to produce four pious male witnesses to support her accusation will be removed.

Sex with a girl under the age of 16, with or without her consent, will be deemed as rape under the proposed amendments.

There will also be provisions made in the penal code to cover cases such as kidnapping and forced elopement which had not been adequately covered by the Islamic laws, and people convicted of trafficking women for prostitution could face jail terms of up to 25 years.

The proposed amendments proscribe the death penalty for gang-rape and make publishing the name of rape victim an offence.

“The amendments proposed by the government shatter a myth held for 27 years that Hudood laws are divine laws,” said Naeem Mirza, director of the Aurat (Women) Foundation, an NGO at the forefront for the struggle to change the laws.

Once the bill is sent to the assembly, it will have to pass through several more stages before there is a vote on it.

President Pervez Musharraf has assured rights activists that he will back moves to amend or repeal the Islamic laws.

But with an election due by the end of next year, critics fear the government could lose some of its resolve should it need any favours from the Islamist opposition.

Attempts to amend the Hudood Ordinances have been made before, but past Pakistani leaders have ducked the issue out of fear of a confrontation with the country’s influential, conservative Islamist parties.

The Hudood Ordinances, enforced in 1979 by the then military dictator Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq, laid down punishments for crimes such as rape, theft and adultery.

Under the Hudood code, a man and woman found guilty of having sex outside of marriage could be sentenced to death by stoning or 100 lashes, while thieves would have their right hands amputated, but these punishments have seldom been invoked, let alone carried out.