Pakistan: Time for repeal

المصدر: 
The Dawn
A recent discussion organized by the Aurat Foundation on the Hudood Ordinances certainly gave one a feeling of deja-vu, by Zohra Yusuf.
Since the promulgation of the Hudood Ordinances, thousands of women have been charged, convicted and imprisoned. In almost all cases they have been acquitted on appeal. However, there has been no compensation for the harassment, humiliation and, above all, the precious period of their lives they lost undergoing trial or sentence.
Originally published in The Dawn, 8 August 2002 -- Jamadi-ul-Awwal 28, 1423 A.H.

A recent discussion organized by the Aurat Foundation on the Hudood Ordinances certainly gave one a feeling of deja-vu. Looking around the table, I could see women who have now gained the status of war veterans in their battle against the unjust Hudood Ordinances inflicted on the nation by the repressive regime of General Ziaul Haq. And yet, the fight is far from over. Though the ordinances were promulgated in February 1979 as part of the military dictator's Islamization package, the movement for repeal began with the first sentence of death by stoning awarded to Allah Baksh in 1981 and 100 stripes to Fahmida in the same case under the Zina ordinance. The first sentences, overturned on appeal amidst protest by women's groups and negative media coverage of the military regime, were followed by several in quick succession. The newly formed Women's Action Forum (WAF) and other civil rights' groups were consequently caught up in ensuring that the sentences were not carried out.

Their strategies included both public demonstrations (rare under martial law) as well as signature campaigns and did succeed in gaining reprieve for several women convicted under the Zina ordinance. A Committee for the Repeal of the Hudood Ordinances was also formed in 1986 to focus specifically on these discriminatory laws that targeted women.

The coming into power of the first woman prime minister, Benazir Bhutto in 1988, whose party manifesto at the time clearly promised the repeal of the Hudood Ordinances, raised women's hopes. In the early months of her term, it was also considered disloyal to oppose her or to place too many demands - such was the sense of victory that women shared in her election. 'Give her time' was the position most women's groups took.

However, 'realpolitik' quickly superseded any idealism Ms Bhutto may have had after coming to power. Soon she was seeking allies among the likes of Maulana Fazlur Rahman and the issue of repealing the Hudood Ordinances became improbable. Successive governments - elected or otherwise - have exploited religion to suit their own agendas. In their keenness to appease the religious parties and extremist groups, they have abetted in trampling the rights of the most vulnerable sections of society - women and minorities. The power and influence of the religious parties have been grossly exaggerated. With receding popularity at polling time and curtailed street power (since the post 11 September crackdown), the religious groups can be taken on by a government committed to reforms that safeguard the rights of women and minorities. However, as we have seen it took pressure from the United States for the military government to rein in religious militants. It is unfortunate that western governments exercise more of an influence on our governments than the demands voiced by their own citizens. The rights and status of half the population continue to be precarious because of fears of backlash from religious groups.

Since the promulgation of the Hudood Ordinances, thousands of women have been charged, convicted and imprisoned. In almost all cases they have been acquitted on appeal. However, there has been no compensation for the harassment, humiliation and, above all, the precious period of their lives they lost undergoing trial or sentence. The women's groups, too, have not made the issue of reparations a part of their campaign against the Ordinance.

Among the thousands sentenced, a few cases stand out for the sheer insensitivity and prejudice of the judges. The first to suffer the sentence was, of course, Fahmida, a minor at the time. Jehan Mina, 15 years old and pregnant as a result of being raped by two male relatives, was sentenced to 100 lashes - reduced to 10 lashes by the Federal Shariat Court which, according to its judgment, took a 'charitable' view. Sahiwal's Safia Bibi, blind and unable to identify her rapists, was sentenced because she had become pregnant; the rapists were given the benefit of doubt and acquitted. In his judgment the judge stated that due to Safia Bibi's blindness, he was taking a 'lenient' position and awarding her 'only 30 lashes.' The most recent case to hit the headlines is of Zafran Bibi who was sentenced to death by stoning.

Various officially-appointed commissions on the status of women have suggested amendments to the Zina ordinance as it directly affects women. The Commission set up in 1997 under Justice Nasir Aslam Zahid, was the most categorical in identifying the dangerous impact of this law. However, instead of implementation of recommendations of previous Commissions, the present government has set up yet another commission on the status of women and, more recently, a committee to review the Hudood Ordinances specifically. According to last reports, the Committee is already bogged down in differences of opinion and interpretation of Islamic laws. Will these laws ever be repealed? Our experience shows that it is easy to promulgate bad laws (dictators do so with a flourish of the pen - or sword). Repeal could be as simple if the political will is there (or if it is an issue of strengthening a dictator). After all, the present regime has already repealed amendments introduced into the Constitution by elected parliaments. However, women groups should not pin their hopes on a repeal brought about by an 'enlightened' government, military or civilian. Civil society groups have to develop a culture of resistance. Pakistanis have a tendency to look for saviours to resolve critical issues. We need to learn from other people of the Southeast Asian region who through sustained people's movements bring about change - or failing that, change their governments.