Wednesday, August 2, 2006

In the more repressive parts of the Muslim world, a rape is often just the beginning of a victimized woman’s tragedy. That’s because a type of Islamic law known as “Hudood” means a victim of rape faces charges of adultery — which carries a penalty of imprisonment or even death — if she fails the almost impossible test of producing four male eyewitnesses to the crime. But now President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan is challenging his country’s version of that law. He deserves praise far and wide for the effort.

The proposal, due to be submitted shortly to the National Assembly, would remove the crime of rape from Hudood law — introduced in 1979 by then-President Zia ul-Haq — and place it under Pakistan’s coexistent and overlapping secular penal code which derives from British common law. It would end the requirement of male eyewitnesses; increase the burden of proof against persons accusing a woman of adultery; proscribe the death penalty in cases of gang rape; make it a crime to publish the name of a rape victim; criminalize sex with a girl under the age of 16; and introduce a prison sentence of up to 25 years for the crime of trafficking in women for purposes of prostitution.

In a country like Pakistan — where one prominent lawmaker upon hearing the news cried that Hudood cannot be changed because it is God’s will — this is Earth-shattering. It is a direct challenge to the country’s hardline Islamist political parties, all of which support the repressive laws and can be expected to use their 60 seats in the 342-person National Assembly to obstruct the changes. It will no doubt be opposed by many in a country where Islamist opinion is widespread.

This is also a challenge to other countries in the Muslim world like Iran and Saudi Arabia, which have similarly strict Hudood laws. They are certain to face their own equivalent of the international outcry over Pakistani rape victim Mukhtar Mai, whose terrible case is credited with stiffening world opinion against Hudood. In 2002, a tribal council sentenced the Punjab village girl to be gang-raped as reprisal for her younger brother’s alleged affair with a woman of a higher caste. The case has been a rallying point for activists inside Pakistan and out ever since.

Gen. Musharraf’s unexpected proposal in the face of what is likely to be significant opposition — to say nothing of the ever-present threats to his life his other policies provoke — is to be commended as an act of personal courage as well as a victory for women’s rights in the Muslim world.

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