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Pakistan: Debate Heats Up Over Controversial Ordinance On Islamic Law

A call by President Pervez Musharraf for a review of Islamic law in Pakistan has set off a contentious debate in the country. Human-rights advocates say the application of Pakistan's so-called Hudood Ordinance discriminates against women and non-Muslims, and also leads to violations of their basic rights. But conservative Islamists in parliament accuse Musharraf of succumbing to an "American agenda" that they say is being imposed on Pakistan.

Prague, 19 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Islamic conservatives in Pakistan's parliament are criticizing recent calls by President Pervez Musharraf for a public debate on a series of Islamic laws in the country. Those laws, which are based on an interpretation of the Koran, have come into force as a result of the so-called Hudood Ordinance, introduced in 1979 by Pakistan's former military dictator, Zia ul-Haq.

Women's groups in Pakistan, as well as local and international human-rights groups, have been complaining for years about inequalities under the Islamic laws that came into effect under the umbrella of the Hudood Ordinance.

One often-cited example is that a woman rape victim in Pakistan who tries to bring her attacker or attackers to justice must obtain court testimony from four "pious" male Muslim witnesses to prove her case. If a woman rape victim fails to produce those witnesses during the trial, she is liable to prosecution under Islamic law for adultery. The punishments for women convicted of adultery in Pakistan include a public whipping of up to 100 lashes or even death by stoning.
Hussain said the Hudood Ordinance has led to a "manifold increase" of rape cases in Pakistan because of a lack of deterrence stemming from "the misapplication of the law."

Another controversial law in Pakistan concerns blasphemy against Islam. It calls for the death penalty against anyone found guilty of desecrating the name and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. As with other Islamic laws in Pakistan, the blasphemy law applies to non-Muslims as well as Muslims.

Maulana Fazlur ul-Rehman, the secretary-general of the six-party MMA Islamic alliance in parliament, said yesterday that Musharraf is under pressure from the West.

"General Pervez Musharraf, in a statement [earlier this week], has hinted at bringing about changes in the Hudood Ordinance, and the laws relating to blasphemy. All this is happening as a result of pressure from the West and from America," he said.

Rehman is vowing that the MMA will block any effort to repeal or alter the 25-year-old Hudood Ordinance.

"We will not allow the American agenda to be imposed on 140 million Muslims. Islamic laws will be protected with full force. And in this context, everything will be done to resist the ideology of secularism," he said.

So far, Musharraf has not publicly endorsed the elimination of the Hudood Ordinance. But he has said that a general debate on the issue is not an insult to Islam and would be healthy for Pakistan: "Why should we shy away from even discussing it? Why is it such a taboo that we cannot even talk about it or discuss it? This should not be a taboo. Certainly, I would like to urge everyone in Pakistan -- the legislative bodies -- to take up this case. And the men should be chivalrous enough and bold enough to discuss this issue."

Earlier this year, Pakistan's National Commission on the Status of Women called the Hudood Ordinance "discriminatory" and formally recommended that it be repealed. That recommendation followed testimony by Faqir Hussain, the secretary of Pakistan's Law Commission and a former chairman of the Women's Commission.

Hussain is among the authorities in Islamabad who has gone on record as saying that Hudood law is not in accordance with the injunctions of Islam. In explaining his view, Hussain said the Hudood Ordinance has led to a "manifold increase" of rape cases in Pakistan because of a lack of deterrence stemming from what he called "the misapplication of the law."

Another outspoken critic of Hudood law is Sherry Rehman, a female member of parliament from the opposition People's Party of Pakistan. She has submitted a bill in parliament that calls for the repeal of Hudood laws and an end to gender discrimination. So far, Musharraf has not supported that bill.

According to a report by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) that was issued in 2000, "any systematic progressive change" on gender issues in Pakistan has been disrupted by the dramatically different positions of successive governments. That same UNDP report also labeled the Hudood laws in Pakistan as "discriminatory to women."

Western observers in Islamabad attribute the continued existence of the Hudood Ordinance to a lack of political will on the part of each successive government in Pakistan to repeal the law.