Thursday, August 03, 2006

Islam and Rape

Women who are raped can face legal difficulties anywhere in the world. And nowhere is that more true than in the Muslim world, where a few countries -- including Saudi Arabia, Iran and Sudan -- still incarcerate or execute raped women. Now Pakistan has a chance to set an example and change this despicable practice.

We're referring to "Hudood," a set of Quranic laws whose name is derived from "hud," meaning "punishment." While national versions differ, most Hudood laws legalize the prosecution of a woman for fornication if she cannot prove a crime was committed. In Pakistan, four Muslim men must have witnessed the event, and testify for the victim. If the woman can't produce those witnesses, she can be prosecuted for alleging a false crime. Penalties include stoning to death, lashing or prison.

Pakistan's Hudood laws were enacted under former President Zia ul-Haq in 1979, in his attempt to appease growing Islamist sentiment. In contrast to Indonesia and Malaysia, which have Hudood laws but essentially ignore them, Pakistan's laws have been enforced. Stoning and lashing are rare, but more than 2,000 Pakistani women now languish in jail, at last count, for Hudood violations.

Reforming Hudood is one of President Pervez Musharraf's most formidable challenges. Pakistan's hardline Islamic political parties, including the six-party religious opposition coalition that controls 60 of 342 seats in the National Assembly, are vehemently opposed to repeal or revisions to Hudood. Jamaat-e-Islami, the largest Islamist party in the coalition, has been particularly vocal.

A Muslim himself who sits atop a fragile political coalition, General Musharraf has already taken some action. Last month, he issued a decree that made 1,300 women awaiting trial on Hudood violations eligible for bail. To date, only about 300 have been released. This month the National Assembly is expected to review further amendments. The issue is so divisive that the law ministry won't publicly disclose details of the amendments, for fear the opposition will kill the proposal before it gets to parliament.

The government has a good case to press. According to official statistics, about 80% of the women currently in prison were convicted under Hudood laws. It's thought that thousands of rapes go unreported each year for fear of arrest or retribution. In March, 1,000 women demonstrated outside of parliament in Islamabad, demanding Hudood's repeal, while some 5,000 also rallied in Multan, a city in eastern Punjab. Among the latter rally's leaders was Mukthar Mai, who was gang-raped in 2002 by order of a village council as retribution for her 13-year-old brother's illicit affair with a woman of a higher caste. The event embarrassed Pakistan internationally and ignited a movement to repeal the law.

Mr. Musharraf must balance the wishes of Pakistan's hardline Islamic parties and the country's more moderate elements. Pakistan's nonreligious political parties command about 80% of the popular vote and represent a younger generation, who presumably are less concerned about punishments prescribed a thousand years ago than with democratic, fair policies. In revamping its Hudood laws, Pakistan has a chance to set an example for its Muslim peers.


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