Thursday, November 16, 2006

The legislation passed Wednesday by Pakistan’s lower house of parliament modifying the country’s abominable rape laws is progress both for women’s rights and for the rule of secular law, and it should be heeded across the Muslim world. The legislation, which was strongly supported by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, will amend the Hudood ordinance, a set of laws passed in 1979 in response to pressure from hardline Islamic political groups that odiously punished rape victims while making it difficult to convict the perpetrators. The amendment was passed over strong opposition from hardline Islamic groups, and for not bowing to such pressure, Gen. Musharraf deserves great credit.

Dropped from the Hudood ordinance is the requirement that rape be tried in Islamic courts, allowing these trials instead to move to criminal courts, based on English common law, where they belong. Also removed is the requirement that a victim’s story be corroborated by four male witnesses — an insurmountable hurdle — in order to prove herself a victim of rape and innocent of adultery — a crime that the legislation would ensure is no longer punishable by death. A truly Western conception of women’s rights won’t be realized in Pakistan until the Hudood ordinance is repealed entirely, but this legislation, which should be subsequently passed by both the Senate and Gen. Musharraf, is an important first step. The second step will be to make sure that it is properly enforced.

This change was the product of several courageous acts. One such act was Mukhtar Mai’s brave decision to take a public stand against her June 2002 gang rape — an assault ordered by her village council in retaliation for her brother’s purported relationship with a woman from a higher caste. Her case rallied opposition to Hudood inside Pakistan, as well as internationally.

Another was Gen. Musharraf’s bold support for a reform measure that he knew would be met by significant opposition in parliament and that may prove divisive in Pakistan as a whole, where support for such hardline Islamic policies is common. Gen. Musharraf has survived at least two serious assassination attempts and faces intense domestic opposition, in large part for his close relations with the United States. Islamic politicians are already binding their opposition to the bill with anti-American sentiment: The deputy leader of the United Action Front, an alliance of Islamic Parties, told AFP that the bill was “brought under the directions of the United States and implemented by their representative in Pakistan, General Musharraf.” It’s important that Gen. Musharraf continue to defy such criticism; Pakistan’s progress is a lesson of tremendous importance for other countries in the Muslim world, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, that have similar laws to the Hudood ordinance.

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