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Pakistan: Reforming the Hudood

Reforming the Hudood On the face of it, there is little that gives away the connections between what happened on September 11, 2001 and events that unfolded some months later, on March 22, 2002, in a small, hitherto unknown village in Pakistan


Reforming the Hudood

n the face of it, there is little that gives away the connections between what happened on September 11, 2001 and events that unfolded some months later, on March 22, 2002, in a small, hitherto unknown village in Pakistan’s Punjab province. It was in Meerwala that Mukhtar Mai was raped by men of a different caste on the alleged orders of the village council. The subsequent turns the case took – the trial of the accused, their acquittal by the Lahore high court in March 2005 and the rearrest three months later of the acquitted men after the intervention of Pakistan’s Supreme Court – have been followed with fascinated attention worldover. Arguably, as the repercussions of these events continue to unfold, placing Pakistan under the international gaze, they have in turn prompted some introspection, and led to renewed questions about the very “idea” of Pakistan.

As analysts have argued, its very inception in 1947 foisted the identity of an “Islamic” state on Pakistan, even as sections within wrested with other myriad identities. At varied points in its history, the state in Pakistan has sought to “(re)define” itself; the motives for this have been, more often than not, political-strategic in nature. It would appear that Musharraf’s own power base since assuming power lay in the support of the influential military and the religious parties, but events such as those above have exercised their own influence. At the present juncture, five years since the decision to fight the “war on terror” against the Taliban and the recent moves to reform the Hudood ordinances, there is now the need to strike a balance between, as Musharraf has often stressed, “enlightened moderation” and Pakistan’s essential “Islamic” identity.

Pakistan’s national assembly voted recently, despite vociferous opposition, to pass the Protection of Women Bill, amending thereby the strict Hudood ordinances on rape and adultery. The Hudood is a controversial set of Islamic laws introduced in 1979 by the then martial law administrator, Zia-ul-Haq. Under the Hudood, all sex outside marriage is criminalised; even in cases of rape, dealt with by sharia courts, victims had to have four male witnesses to the crime – if not, they faced prosecution for adultery. This has made it almost impossible to prosecute rape cases. Victims, several of them underage, also languished in jail since the sharia does not allow bail. In the last two years, there have been widespread campaigns for the repeal of the ordinances, especially after the Pakistan’s National Commission on the Status of Women advocated such a move in May 2004, calling the Hudood “poorly drafted and politically motivated”. But it was only in July that the Council of Islamic Ideology was asked to draft amendments. The new amendments, most importantly, now allow civil courts to try rape cases, relying on evidence and the victim’s statements, rather than the presence of witnesses. Considering the wave of resentment against the amendments led by the six party alliance Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, the changes appear to be far-reaching but critics are cautious. Sex outside marriage, i e, adultery, which has always been illegal, will still be tried by both civil and sharia courts, depending on which system the complainant chooses. That the amendments were passed only on account of an agreement reached with the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) also prompts speculation about a new “understanding” that may have been reached between Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto.

Their immediate political ramifications apart, these amendments are in line with other reform measures, political and economic, in the recent past. Among these are the moves to ensure 33 per cent political representation to women in bodies at the grassroots level and 17 per cent in the national assembly. There is another bill pending in parliament that seeks to make forced marriage a crime and to safeguard women’s right to property and inheritance. It may well be that Musharraf’s aims of “enlightened moderation” are only to ensure his continued survival and reinvention, against the rising political clamour for elections and “genuine” democracy. But the subject of women, more often than not, has been at the forefront of the question of “identity”. For instance, among the Taliban’s earliest actions in assuming power in Afghanistan in the mid1990s was to set in place strict Islamic laws to regulate women’s lives. Musharraf’s recent championing of women’s issues, which have also been under much international scrutiny, may well have to do with the need to adjust to a political situation that is also fluid. But beyond Musharraf, the widespread campaign that followed the bill’s progress, the antagonism it generated, in parliament and elsewhere, and its final passing, indicates a groundswell of change, an awareness especially among women’s groups – which will in the years to come also add to the “idea” of Pakistan.


Economic and Political Weekly November 25, 2006

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