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Pakistan circa 2006

Sharp criticism of the Hudood Ordinance, which criminalises sex outside marriage, compels Pak cabinet to approve draft amendments.

india Updated: Aug 04, 2006 01:04 IST

The sharp criticism of the controversial Hudood Ordinance — which criminalises sex outside marriage — by civil society and human rights groups, has compelled the Pakistani cabinet to approve a set of draft amendments. The 1979 ordinance espouses a literal interpretation of the Shariat law pertaining to zina (adultery) and gives the State the right to interfere in what is, essentially, a personal matter. It takes a highly skewed view of rape (zina bil jabr) as a form of adultery. A rape victim has to present four male witnesses to testify on her behalf. Inability to do so makes her liable to the charge of adultery. Since the punishment for adultery is lesser than for rape, the accused may admit to adultery, thereby implicating the victim as well. The result has been that nearly 88 per cent of the 7,000 women lodged in Pakistan’s jails are accused of crimes under the Hudood Ordinance. Most are eventually acquitted, but not before they have spent five years on average in prison.

The proposed amendment seeks to take away the police’s prerogative to register an FIR in a case of zina, and makes failure to prove zina liable for prosecution. It provides for divorce in case a woman has been wrongfully accused. It puts rape under the Pakistan Penal Code, which admits conventional forms of evidence and also treats the marriage of a girl under 16 as rape. However, this falls short of the demand of civil society groups who want the ordinance to be scrapped. Whether even these amendments will be passed by Parliament is highly suspect. Recommendations by earlier commissions set up to review the Hudood Ordinance were never followed. The continuance of such anti-women laws are seen as a touchstone of ideological purity by fundamentalist groups in the Pakistan National Assembly.

General Musharraf claims to be leading Pakistan on the path of “enlightened moderation”. A good measure of this would be to undo the harm done by the the ordinance to date. He must show that he espouses a moderate version of Islam. One way to do so is to rid the country’s laws of such medieval statutes.