PRAGUE, July 18, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Authorities in Pakistan have said they expect about 1,300 women to be eligible for pretrial release under President Musharraf's directive.
Pakistan's information minister, Muhammad Durrani, called it a sign of real progress, and he explained to RFE/RL the way it should work.
A 'Progressive Step'
"There was an ordinance from President Musharraf's side to facilitate all those women who are [awaiting] trial but...are in jail, [so that] they can be released [until their trial] with a very simple legal procedure," Durrani said. "So this [recent measure] is a very progressive step."
It is a far cry, though, from dismantling the harsh system imposed by General Zia-ul-Haq in 1979 to mollify religious hard-liners.
The Hudood ordinance -- which is based on a specific hard-line interpretation of Islam -- calls for women found guilty of adultery to be stoned to death. Drinking alcohol can be punished with 80 lashes, while thieves can have their right hand amputated.
In addition, the women who are detained or imprisoned in Pakistani jails for Hudood offenses are from the lower class.
The recent directive by Musharraf allows women who have been detained for minor crimes or Hudood offenses -- such as adultery -- to be able to post bail and avoid going to jail before their trial. That option was previously unavailable to them.
President Musharraf has long regarded himself as a moderate alternative to religious conservatism in his overwhelmingly Muslim country of 165 million people.
He advocates a path that he calls "enlightened moderation," which "shuns militancy and extremism" -- as is stated on the official presidential website -- and encourages socioeconomic benevolence. Many regard his Hudood directive as pursuant to that strategy, reaching out to a vulnerable strata of Pakistani society.
Since taking power in 1999 following a military coup, Musharraf has increased the number of women in official posts. But their representation is vastly below that of men, and repressive limits on women's rights remain on the books.
Rao Hamid is with the nongovernmental Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). He bemoans the state of human rights in Pakistan, and chafes at the prominence of religious doctrine in modern Pakistan.
"The problem with current Pakistani society is that religion has been given an overwhelming emphasis -- a lot of sins are committed in the name of religion," Hamid said. "Islamic scholars have pointed out clearly that [the Hudood ordinance] is contrary to Islamic aspirations and Islamic laws, and has nothing to do with any kind of law. But since we wish to play the religious sentiments, that is why people in authority are hesitant to do anything about [a] wrong which has been done in the past."
Change Coming Slowly For Women
Religion plays a vital role in Pakistani politics and civic life. But religious values are, in many cases, buttressed by long-held moral attitudes and a strongly patriarchal society.
I.A. Rehman is the director of HRCP. He says that "The problems against women are quite traditional and rooted in history, so violence against women continues, the sale of women continues, [and] the surrender of women in [prosecuting] murder cases continues -- because the institutional arrangement required for the protection of the rights of women has not yet been completed. The number of women in parliament has increased, their capacity to make noise has increased, but they have not been able to change even one full stop in the laws drafted by the government."
The HRCP has challenged Musharraf's "enlightened moderation" theory. The group questions why his publicly stated pursuit of the doctrine has not been coupled with a repeal of repressive legislation.
Information Minister Durrani counters with a claim that this is a case of Pakistan falling victim to its own progressive system.
"The human rights violations in Pakistan are less than any other society in the world," Durrani claimed. "But Pakistani society -- because of President Musharraf -- is sensitized to it. So at the slightest indication of any violation against women, the whole society [starts] reacting to that, and [such a rights violation] gets more projection (eds: prominent reporting) than anywhere in the world."
The HRCP activists note that Musharraf has had seven years in office to foster more liberal religious practices in Pakistani society. Moreover, they say, the women affected by Musharraf's directive still face societal stigmas and, in many cases, abandonment by their families. They insist the government is doing too little to address a fundamental problem for these Hudood offenders -- their rehabilitation back into society.
President Musharraf faces a difficult task -- promoting an increasingly prominent role for women in government while keeping at bay the conservative tendencies within the clergy and the hard-line religious community.
It is too early to know whether the growing place for women's affairs in politics is part of a cynical ploy or a genuine attempt to usher in Musharraf's "enlightened moderation." But the president is under pressure from foreign governments -- including from the United States -- to put his leadership to the test of free and fair elections. No date has been set for such a ballot. It is conceivable that the Hudood directive might be an early move in his bid for the popular vote.
But for the hundreds of women now eligible for bail as they await trial, the change by Musharraf could not come soon enough as they will be able to leave detention and see their families.
U.S. Report On Global Human Rights
Police in Moscow arrest human rights demonstrators on February 1 (courtesy photo)
THE RECORD ON RIGHTS: On March 8, the U.S. State Department issued its global report on human rights. According to the report, 15 years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, human rights are improving in many post-communist countries. But problems persist in others, it says, despite the worldwide explosion of information and Western efforts to spread democracy. (more)
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