- The Washington Times - Friday, August 16, 2002

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan The recent gang rape of a woman as punishment by members of another tribe has brought international attention on the gross abuses and humiliation faced by Pakistani women since former military dictator Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq tried to reintroduce Islamic law in 1979.
Among the more horrific abuses in focus, besides rape, are such customs as "vani," in which teenage girls may be bargained away to settle feuds, and "honor killings," in which a woman may be killed by members of her family if she is perceived to have dishonored them by eloping or having an illicit affair.
Domestic violence, also widespread, includes instances of women being brutalized and often disfigured by violent husbands and in-laws. Together, these practices make Pakistani women among the most abused in the world.
While such practices are only now being brought into focus by domestic and foreign media, human rights lawyers say they have been battling them in the courts for more than 20 years, since Gen. Zia attempted to "Islamize" Pakistani law by military ordinance in 1979.
Today, another military dictator, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who does not share Gen. Zia's views, is attempting to roll back some of the damage done by Gen. Zia.
Steps taken by Gen. Musharraf include a campaign to make women more aware of their rights, and administrative reforms that have made it possible for human rights violations to be quickly taken up in courts of law.
Before these reforms were introduced, "you would not even have heard of these cases" coming to light, a federal Justice Ministry official said in an interview in Islamabad.
The official, who did not want to be identified, said Gen. Musharraf has given the judicial authorities new powers to initiate legal action against rights abusers in cases where the victims are considered too weak or frightened to initiate action.
However, some of the facts coming to light make clear that Gen. Musharraf and his officials have a mountain of work ahead of them.
The damage done by Gen. Zia's hasty military ordinances included the legitimization of some ancient tribal laws and practices that treated a woman as the property of a man.
Gen. Zia's military decrees took away from the courts and the police the right to interfere in a "family affair" if a man kills a wife or daughter who has "dishonored" him, or barters away a daughter as compensation for murdering another man.
"A few years ago, the Senate refused to condemn the murder of women on the justification of preserving honor," said lawyer and human rights activist Asma Jahangir. "The freedom of women is still considered a 'strange' idea among [people] who consider them their property."
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reports that 150 women were sexually assaulted between January and June this year, while 82 women were murdered and 40 others were victims of "honor killings" across the country.
Some Pakistani newspapers and magazines, doing their own research, have come up with even higher figures. The Lahore-based Independent weekly said that in May, "honor killings topped the table of motives behind women murders, registering 37 cases" just in Punjab province, where the gang rape occurred.
The Karachi-based monthly Newsline, edited by female journalist Rehana Hakim, says that in 2001, 352 women who complained of rape were brought to Karachi's Civil Hospital for medical examination. About one-tenth of those cases were registered by the police.
The story of Mukhtaran Bai, who was gang raped in the village of Meerwala on June 22, might never have come to light had not a journalist heard about it a week later when a local landowner was trying to persuade her and her father to take legal action.
Days after the story was splashed across the globe, Pakistan's outraged Chief Justice Riaz Ahmed took action under one of Gen. Musharraf's reforms.
He acted to have legal proceedings initiated against those suspected to be involved, including the local police officer who had failed to register the woman's complaint.
Justice Ahmed's orders set in motion action by other ranking officials, including Punjab Gov. Khalid Maqbool, a retired army lieutenant general. At least four persons have been charged in the case.

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