Pakistan votes to roll back Islamic law on rape

Islamabad, Pakistan - Pakistan’s lower house of parliament voted on Wednesday to put the crime of rape under the civil penal code, curtailing the scope of Islamic laws that rights groups have long criticised as unfair to women.

The Women’s Protection Bill was seen as a barometer of President Pervez Musharraf’s commitment to his vision of ‘enlightened moderation’ and a major battle in a struggle between progressive forces and religious conservatives over the Muslim nation’s course.

‘It is a historic bill because it will give rights to women and help end excesses against them,’ Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz told the assembly after the vote.

The Islamic laws, known as the Hudood Ordinances, were introduced by a military ruler, President Zia-ul-Haq, in 1979. They made a rape victim liable to prosecution for adultery if she could not produce four male witnesses to the assault.

The main amendment approved on Wednesday takes rape out of the sphere of the religious law and puts it under the penal code.

That does away with the requirement for four male witnesses and will allow convictions to be made on the basis of forensic and circumstantial evidence.

The amendment bill must be approved by the upper house of parliament before it becomes law.

Human rights campaigners have long pressed for total repeal of the Islamic laws, but have nevertheless welcomed moves to amend them.

The amendments were fiercely opposed by an alliance of Islamist parties, which make up the main opposition bloc in parliament.

‘Some relief’

Islamist lawmakers walked out of parliament, boycotting the vote, after leader Maulana FazAl ur-Rehman told the assembly the change to the law would encourage free sex.

‘This is an attempt to create a free sex zone in Pakistan,’ he said. ‘Existing laws are correct and should be maintained ... The changes are not in line with Islamic teaching.’

In an apparent concession to conservatives, an amendment was introduced shortly before the vote setting down punishment of up to five years in prison for extra-marital sex, though sex outside marriage had always been an offence under laws on adultery.

Opposition members of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s more liberal Pakistan People’s Party supported the bill.

‘It’s something that’s partial. It’s half-way. We would have liked to see a total repeal of these anti-women and discriminatory laws,’ Sherry Rehman, a senior member of Bhutto’s party told Reuters.

‘We felt that since there was some relief provided to women in this particular bill, we would not stand in its way.’

The amendments also introduced the concept of statutory rape, outlawing sex with girls under 16. The Islamic code had banned sex with girls before puberty.

The government abandoned an attempt to pass the bill in September in the face of a threat from Rehman’s Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal alliance to pull out of the national and provincial assemblies if it was passed.

The Islamist leader did not repeat that threat on Wednesday, and analysts said it was unlikely the religious parties would risk losing influence.

The debate came two days after Islamists ruling North West Frontier Province passed a controversial bill to introduce what critics said would be a Taleban-style religious police force.

The Islamist-led provincial government succeeded in getting a watered-down version of its bill adopted on Monday after the Supreme Court last year blocked it, saying several clauses were unconstitutional.