Pakistani Religious Law Challenged
Rights groups condemn ordinances that call for harsh
penalties for adultery, drinking, and premarital sex
Christian Science Monitor, March 2, 2005
By Scott Baldauf, Staff writer
KARACHI, PAKISTAN—On the evening
that Basira Jiskani ran away from her abusive husband almost a year ago, she
felt relief for the first time since she left home. But things only got worse.
Now, Basira faces charges of adultery—her husband
alleges that she ran away to marry another man—and a possible death sentence
by stoning. In addition, vigilantes may await her back home in southern Sindh
“I want to go back to my village, but I know I
cannot,” says the 19-year-old, whose parents consented to her marriage to a
man twice her age. “They want to kill me back in my village, the landowner,
my husband, and even my own family members. They have already declared me an
adulteress, so they can kill me anytime.”
Basira Jiskani is just one of thousands of women facing
trial in Pakistan under the infamous Hudood Ordinances, religious codes which
were passed under the military dictatorship of Gen. Zia ul-Haq. Unlike the
system of “honor killing,” which is illegal but common in Pakistan, the
Hudood Ordinances are the law itself. The ordinances stem from Islamic law,
which stipulates severe punishments for hudood offenses ranging from adultery
and premarital sex to alcohol consumption. Not all Muslim countries have
adopted hudood penalties in their criminal justice codes, and Islamic scholars
debate whether such laws are a correct interpretation of the Koran.
Many Pakistani politicians, including President Pervez
Musharraf, say the laws should be reviewed—some say repealed—since they
have a disproportionate effect on women and the poor. But in the past 26
years, the laws seem to have become as unalterable as the Koran itself, and
activists say the only way to bring equal justice to Pakistani society will be
through a sustained campaign of pressure and resistance.
“Pakistan is a patriarchal society, where the power of
feudal lords and tribal leaders has ugly manifestations in controlling women,
such as cutting off their noses or simply shooting them to protect the honor
of the family or the tribe,” says Farzana Bari, director of the Women’s
Study Center at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad. “But with the Hudood
Ordinances, the state becomes a partner in this.”
“Political parties, such as the People’s Party and
even the Pakistan Muslim League, all say they would repeal the Hudood
Ordinances when they are sitting in opposition,” she adds. “But when they
get to power, it is not a priority.”
The Hudood Ordinances (hudood means “limitations or
boundaries” in Urdu) have now become the dominant law affecting women. Of
the 7,000 women in jail around the country awaiting trial, 88 percent are
accused of crimes under Hudood, according to the Lawyers for Human Rights and
Legal Aid. Ninety percent of these women have no lawyer, and 50 percent do not
know they are entitled to contact one. Most women accused of Hudood violations
are acquitted, but lose an average of five years to confinement, and lose
their reputations as well.
Zia Awan, president of the Lawyers for Human Rights and
Legal Aid, a private legal aid group in Karachi, says that most Hudood cases
in the courts revolve around a woman’s ability to choose her own spouse. In
a society where families usually choose spouses for their children, defiance
comes at a high cost. Many families, particularly in traditional rural areas,
file charges against their own children for premarital sex, rape, or adultery,
all in the name of protecting family honor.
Hudood has also unwittingly become a major factor in rape
cases. Many rape victims refuse to file charges, because under Islamic law,
four male Muslim witnesses are required to prove charges of rape. Women who
cannot produce this many witnesses often end up in jail themselves for
adultery, a crime against the state punishable by stoning to death.
“One of the first cases I took up 15 years ago, there
was a woman who was kidnapped by a man who promised to marry her,” says Mr.
Awan. “Instead he kept her in a room and raped her. She escaped and went to
the police, and there, she was registered both as a victim and as an accused
under Hudood.” The woman was later found innocent and the kidnapper was
found guilty, but by then she had spent 13 months in jail.
Awan praises President Musharraf for other reforms—such
as introducing a separate legal system for juveniles, and new stricter rules
to control trafficking in children. But he calls Musharraf’s public promise
four years ago to review the Hudood “half hearted.”
Conservative Islamic activists and scholars say the
Hudood Ordinances cannot be repealed. To do so would be a rejection of the
Islamic system, they say, and an offense to Islam itself.
“Nobody can say that Koranic punishments are
unacceptable,” says Sen. Ghafoor Ahmad, vice president of the conservative
Jamaat-I Islami party and supporter of the Hudood Ordinances. “If you
believe in the Koran, then these punishments are there. For theft, the
punishment is to cut off the hand. For adultery, the punishment is death.”
But Senator Ahmad says that Islam “is not barbaric,”
but merciful. The Prophet Mohammad brought out these punishments only in the
later stages of his prophecy, a time of greater prosperity and less crime
among the Muslim community. Ahmad believes that Pakistan should work harder at
attaining prosperity for its citizens before imposing harsh sentences.
“If there is hunger or disorder in society, then the
first priority should be to solve these problems, not to insist on these
punishments,” adds Professor Ghafoor.
As for Basira Jiskani, all this talk seems academic—and
terrifying. What is more real to her is the oppressive way that women are
Sold into marriage on March 5, 2004, to Mohammad Yousuf
Jiskani, the nephew of a powerful landowner, Basira became a kind of slave to
her new husband, and to his wife.
On March 21, Basira told her family she was going to the
market. The wife sent an older daughter along to keep an eye on Basira, but
when the two were out of sight of the village, Basira dashed off. She made it
to her aunt’s house, then to a human rights office in Hyderabad. On March
31, she filed for divorce.
Back in the village, Basira’s family filed charges
against Basira as an adulteress, saying that she had been kidnapped and
forcibly married to a man from a rival family. Local police have produced a
marriage document registering the marriage of Basira with this second man.
Basira denies getting remarried and her lawyer notes the document does not
bear her signature or thumb print.
In the meantime, Basira spends her days at a women’s
shelter in Karachi. Together with other women escaping abusive husbands, she
learns embroidery and other skills.
“We talk about our troubles together, we cry together,
we laugh as well,” says Basira. She looks down and becomes silent. “I just
want to have my life back.”
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