Pakistan's Cabinet has approved a bill that seeks to change provisions of the 1979 Hudood Ordinance that have been decried as being heavily weighed against women.
Opposition to the Criminal Law Amendment (Protection of Women) Bill 2006 has expectedly come from conservatives and Islamists led by the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) -- a powerful coalition that has significant presence at the national level and controls the provincial governments of Balochistan and North West Frontier Province (NWFP).
The issue has however failed to become a rallying point for the opposition that had sought to move a no-confidence motion against the government of Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz to defeat the legislation.
Following the cabinet's nod, the bill is ready to be introduced in the National Assembly, The News said. The bill is expected to go before parliament next week.
Promulgated in 1979 by former dictator Zia-ul Haq to push his Islamisation programme, the law has been universally decried for treating women unfairly in cases of rape and adultery.
However, the conservatives say these laws should be retained since they are based on Quranic stipulations to govern a Muslim society.
Prime Minister Aziz last week said the government would change laws to ensure justice and security for women and bring the legislation more in line with Islamic teachings.
However, the legislation has been okayed only "in principle". A five-member committee headed by Law Minister Wasi Zafar would further review the bill, Information Minister Mohammad Ali Durrani said after the cabinet meeting.
The minister said that the new law deals with amendments to the Hudood Ordinance, as the existing laws are controversial. "It will remove hurdles for providing justice to women," Durrani said.
According to the present provision, the police are prevented from registering a complaint (first information report - FIR) against men and women accused of Zina (sexual activity).
Now the complainant will be required to approach a sessions judge along with four witnesses, who will proceed only after recording their statements, as per the draft law approved by the federal cabinet.
The statement of 'Objectives and Reasons' given in draft bill makes it clear that these sweeping changes were being made to 'prevent exploitation, curb police power and create just and egalitarian society'.
Interestingly, discriminatory and controversial laws framed against Pakistani women during General Zia-ul Haq's regime in 1979 are now being amended by another military ruler in 2006.
The initiative for the change has come from President Gen. Pervez Musharraf who issued an executive order last month in this regard.
It affects an estimated 1,300 women detained indefinitely in jails across Pakistan, some of them for petty crime, since the law does not allow for bail.