Months after sweeping to power amid a surge of anti-American sentiment, a coalition of Islamic parties on Tuesday proposed laws that will make this conservative frontier region the first in Pakistan to be governed based on the mandates of the Quran, Islam's holy book.
Islamic leaders promised the bill would bring the North West Frontier Province's educational and financial systems in line with Shariah, or Islamic law. Some said they hoped the package would be the beginning of an Islamic wave that would spread throughout Pakistan.
Even supporters, however, acknowledge that the bill's scope is limited. The federal government can challenge any measures considered contrary to national laws.
The legislation, presented before a packed parliament in the provincial capital, must be approved by the legislature and signed by the governor to become law. But the Islamic coalition called the Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal dominates the legislature, and passage is considered a formality.
During the session, a small contingent of female legislators from the Islamic alliance sat in one corner of the male-dominated chamber clad in body-shrouding black hajabs. Opposition female legislators sat not far away, wearing the brightly colored, loose-fitting shalwar kameez preferred by most Pakistani women.
The renewed power of the hard-liners has caused concern in Washington, which counts Pakistan as a key ally in the war on terror. Many intelligence experts believe Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida figures may be hiding in the mountainous region between the North West Frontier Province and Afghanistan.
The five-page Shariah legislation, which the religious coalition has promised since it swept to power in October elections, was light on details. It calls for creation of a committee to study the education system and another to devise alternatives to interest-earning bank accounts, which are considered a violation of Islam's ban on usury.
It also declared that state-run media would be used "for the projection of Islam."
Law Minister Malik Zafar Azam said the provincial government would present a second piece of legislation setting up a force to monitor corruption and fight "social evil." The law would call for creation of a parallel legal system whose decisions could not be challenged by any court.
Federal Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said the government was reviewing the legislation and considered parts of it problematic.
"Some measures taken by the provincial government in the NWFP (North West Frontier Province) are in conflict with Pakistani federal laws," Ahmed told The Associated Press. He said the Cabinet would discuss the Shariah legislation on Wednesday.
Human rights leaders also expressed concern.
"Everybody, whether he is a Muslim or non-Muslim, should have the right to freely follow his religion," Kamla Hayyat, of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said from the eastern city of Lahore. "But the way Islamic parties have started imposing certain laws in the NWFP we feel will deprive many people of their basic rights."
Members of the province's religious coalition pledged Tuesday's action was just the beginning.
"This is a historic day, not only for this province but for the whole country because we are setting an example," said Maulana Abdul Jalil Jan, provincial information secretary for Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam, the leading party in the Islamic coalition. "We pray that with God's grace, Shariah will spread to all of Pakistan. The future is ours."
Since gaining power last year, the hardline government has begun to crack down on activity considered un-Islamic.
Several movie houses have been shut and the remainder forced to cover posters depicting women in Western clothes.
This month, authorities banned male coaches from training female athletes, and barred male spectators from watching sports events where female athletes compete. In addition, they have called for compulsory reading of the Quran in schools and passed a resolution that only women doctors should carry out medical tests on female patients.