Islamist groups in Pakistan are up in arms against the abolition of the draconian Islamic penal law called Hudood, after a government commission recommended its repeal last month, saying it has sparked an increase in crimes against women.
Enacted as a law by the military regime of General Zia-ul-Haq in 1979, the Hudood Ordinance is steeped in archaic and discriminatory clauses, one of the most controversial being that a woman must produce four Muslim male witnesses to prove rape, failing which she faces the charge of adultery.
The law prescribes stoning to death as punishment for those convicted of adultery. The testimony of a female is considered half that of a man. Incredibly, Zina or extra-marital sex is considered a crime against the state of Pakistan.
Hudood has been severely censured by human rights organizations and the secular media. Liberal political parties and rights groups have called for its repeal as according to them, violence against women - particularly incidents of rape - have shot-up since the ordinance was imposed.
According to an independent study, about 70 to 75 percent of women in jails in Pakistan are imprisoned or convicted under Hudood. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) mentions in its annual report that of the 2,200 women in Pakistani prisons in 2001-02, most are awaiting trial or were convicted under Hudood.
"The number of women prisoners has gone up alarmingly after Hudood was unabashedly used against them," says the executive director of the Aurat Foundation, Anees Haroon. "The government should release the women immediately regardless of the fact that it has become exceedingly difficult to rehabilitate them since they suffer from psychological trauma."
According to HRCP, one woman was raped every two hours and one subjected to gang rape every eight hours in Pakistan in 2002. "The actual incidence of rape could be far higher. Social taboos and the stigma attached to rape meant that most rape cases went unreported, with families at times going to extraordinary lengths to cover-up cases," it reports.
Women rights groups say many rape cases go unreported partly because of the impossibility of proving the crime under the Hudood laws.
"We have deduced that Hudood should be repealed completely as it provides legal protection to violence against women," says former Supreme Court judge Majida Rizvi.
Rizvi, who chairs the National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW), adds that the commission is preparing a report based on its recommendations to urge the government to conduct a public and parliamentary discussion before passing new laws relating to women.
Hudood is among several harsh laws that General Zia incorporated in the country's penal system during his 11 years in power, as part of his drive to Islamize Pakistan.
The law, which punishes acts such as alcohol consumption and theft with bestial sentences like cutting off of hands, was passed in order to bring Pakistani law more in line with Islamic law.
"Zia used Islamic ideology to legitimize state power in the hands of the military. It was during his military rule that the relationship between religion and the militarized state became the major obstacle to democracy in Pakistan," observes a study by human rights activist and Supreme Court lawyer Hina Jilani.
In "Human Rights and Democratic Development in Pakistan" (organized by the International Center for Human Rights and Democratic Development, Canada), Jilani adds, "Women and the religious minorities became the main victims of Zia's Islamization. Discrimination was given legal sanction through laws reducing women and non-Muslims to second-class citizens."
Zia's regime and the subsequent governments never bothered about rights issues as they were either in alliance with powerful orthodox Islamic groups or feared violent opposition by the Mullahs.
But women's advocates aren't losing hope. Says the adviser to the Prime Minister on women development, Nelofer Bakhtiar, "The government will make a move accordingly after receiving the report. We have asked the review commission to precipitate their recommendations as the present government is determined to protect women's rights."
Calls for the law's repeal are getting shriller as the enormity of its bias comes to light. Says senior lawyer and former state attorney, Qurban Ali H. Chohan, "This law prescribes cruel punishments, such as lashing or stoning the individual in question, and explicitly discriminates against women."
Specifically, the adultery law has legally obfuscated the difference between rape and extra-marital sex.
Hudood has impacted women's rights in divorce cases. For instance, if a wife wants to divorce an abusive husband he can falsely accuse her of having an affair. A husband may thus get her imprisoned.
A father may accuse his daughter of adultery if she decides to marry someone against his wishes.
But liberal opposition to Hudood has led to a backlash from Pakistan's religious groups.
Holding that the law originates from the Holy Quran and Hadith (sayings of Prophet Mohammed), the fanatics have declared they would not allow the government to touch Islamic law.
"We strictly oppose the idea of imposing the suggestions and opinions of a few Westernized women on the nation, contrary to the will of a majority of women," says the vice-president of the women's wing of the Jamat-e-Islami (JI), Sakina Shahid.
The JI is a religio-political party allied with other like-minded orthodox political parties in an alliance named Mutahidda Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), which is striving to Talibanize the country.
Though the MMA is a part of the Opposition in parliament, it has a considerable presence in the elected houses of the National Assembly and the Senate in the Center and rules two of the four provinces - the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) and Balochistan.
The NWFP assembly has unanimously supported Hudood by adopting a resolution in its favor and against the NCSW's recommendations.
"We will never allow anyone to repeal or amend the Hudood laws," warns the MMA's deputy secretary general and deputy parliamentary leader, Liaquat Baloch. "Hudood should not be considered an act of an individual (General Zia) rather it is a divine law."
The MMA leader says the Islamic Ideology Council (IIC), a Constitutional body comprising religious scholars for reviewing the Constitution and laws and weeding out non-Islamic laws for their replacement with Islamic statutes, is the only forum capable of taking a decision on Hudood.
"But the MMA will not tolerate annulment of or amendment in the Hudood laws and opposes any attempt to amend or repeal any Islamic laws," he maintains.
While the religious right digs in, rights organizations aren't prepared to back out.
"Considering its oft-repeated pledge to make Pakistan a modern and progressive society, we call upon the government to demonstrate the courage of its convictions by repealing these ordinances," said a joint statement issued at an anti-Hudood rally organized by various rights groups in the southern port city of Karachi on September 11.
With die-hard supporters of Hudood arrayed against its dogged opponents, the generals and the government who collectively rule Pakistan have a delicate balancing act on their hands.