Musharraf’s reform of Pakistan’s rape law-a cynical manoeuvre

By Vilani Peiris
24 January 2007

Last month Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf signed into law the Protection of Women Bill approved by the parliament in November 15. The legislation was to amend the three decades old oppressive Islamic religious law known as the Hudood Ordinance.

Although the government and media praised the bill as “historic” and described it as a positive move towards secularism, it does not significantly change the Hudood law. In fact, Musharraf is engaged in a cynical manoeuvre to drum up support from the secular opposition to prop up his crisis-ridden regime.

The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto supported the bill in parliament. The Muttahida Majlis i Amal (MMA), which is an alliance of Islamic fundamentalist parties, and the Pakistani Muslim League (PML-N) led by another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, voted against it. The MMA has launched a public campaign against the new legislation.

The reactionary Hudood law was introduced in 1979 by General Zia-ul-Haq Haq who seized power in 1977 overthrowing the populist PPP government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto—Benazir’s father. Zia imposed martial law, banned political activity and introduced an Islamic code of law. He executed Bhutto in 1979 on trumped up charges of authorising a political murder.

Reactionary blasphemy laws were introduced through ordinances in 1982 and 1984 which amended the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) and the Criminal Procedure Code, making even implied disrespect for Islam an offence punishable by imprisonment or a fine or both. These measures were aimed at stirring up communalism and winning the support of right-wing Muslim clerics and their organisations such as Jamaat-e-Islami.

Zia-ul-Haq was encouraged by the US, which was preparing to support Islamist guerrillas against the Soviet-backed regime in neighbouring Afghanistan. The Pakistan military, particularly military intelligence, was heavily involved in assisting this CIA-backed holy war.

The Hudood Ordinance is based on Islamic Sharia law, which is strongly biased against women. A rape victim has to provide four male eyewitnesses to testify on her behalf, failing that, the woman making the allegations can be found guilty of adultery. As a result, the Islamic court can impose a hundred lashes or have the woman stoned to death.

Pakistani jails are filled with the victims of such persecution. At the beginning of this year, about 80 percent of the 6,500 women in jail were being held under these discriminatory laws. In many cases, an accusation of adultery was sufficient to put a woman behind bars, with trials often continuing for years. Based on its statistics, the country’s Human Rights Commission estimates that in Pakistan a woman is raped every two hours and a gang rape occurs every eight hours.

The new Women Protection Bill reduces punishment for adultery from the death penalty to five years imprisonment and a fine of 10,000 rupees. Making a false accusation is now a crime punishable by up to 10 years jail—a measure aimed at discouraging false allegations of adultery against women. But it has not ended key discriminatory elements of the previous legislation.

A judge can still decide whether rape cases will be heard in a civil or an Islamic court. Rape victims will have to report their complaints to district courts, not at local police stations, compelling many to travel long distances. As a result, many will be discouraged.

Imrana Khwaja, a lawyer and former women’s rights activist, commented: “It’s going to change things, but not a great deal.” She explained: “[T]here are loopholes to be exploited. For example, someone complaining of adultery can still decide to have the case heard in an Islamic court. As in rape cases, the complainant has to produce four witnesses to back up the accusation.”

While the bill was being debated in parliament, hundreds of women demonstrated demanding the total repeal of the Hudood Ordinance and denouncing the government’s limited measure.

Political tensions

Musharraf has supported the new law as a means of providing a “progressive” gloss to his regime’s image. Significantly, the New York Times took the opportunity to praise the president, a key US ally in South Asia, hailing his commitment “to steering the country towards moderation and enlightenment.”

There is nothing enlightened about Musharraf who took power in military coup in 1999. Musharraf has always been careful to maintain the support of the Islamic fundamentalist MMA. The Protection of Women bill was withdrawn twice in the face of MMA opposition before being presented to parliament in August. The option of having rape cases heard in an Islamic court was no doubt intended to appease conservative clerics.

Musharraf’s promotion of the new law takes place amid a growing political crisis. The president is under continuing pressure from the Bush administration to crack down on anti-US insurgents crossing over into Afghanistan from bases inside Pakistan’s tribal areas. Dependent on Washington’s continuing political and financial support, Musharraf dispatched 70,000 troops into the border areas but was forced to pull them out after the loss of 800 soldiers. He also faces continuing unrest in Balochistan from separatist guerrillas.

At the same time, Musharraf’s support for the US toppling of the Taliban regime in Kabul and Bush’s “war on terrorism” has resulted in widespread opposition at home. The president is contemptuously regarded by many as Washington’s stooge. Discontent has been further fuelled by a series of major scandals related to the stock market, the privatisation of public enterprises and sugar shortages. Living standards continue to fall with the inflation rate hitting 9 percent in October.

The IMF’s recently issued annual report on Pakistan was bleak. The current account deficit has increased to $US5 billion or 3.9 percent of GDP, up from $1.5 billion or 1.4 percent of GDP the previous year. The report warned that the rising trade deficit “may jeopardise macro-economic stability”.

Musharraf has promised to hold parliamentary elections this year or early next year. He wants to retain his position as president, but at the same time hold onto the post of army chief in clear violation of the constitution. While he has attempted to dress up his regime as “democratic” to fend off international criticism, Musharraf’s main prop remains his control over the country’s powerful military apparatus.

In this context, Musharraf’s appeal to women is a cynical ploy to boost the electoral prospects of his Pakistan Muslim League (PML-Q) and to cultivate new allies. In a nationally televised speech on December 5 to a women’s conference in Islamabad, he promised more reforms for women and urged them to stand by him. He called on women to vote against the opponents of the new law at the parliamentary election.

The speech pointed to a new political line up. Benazir Bhutto’s PPP, which promotes itself as a secular, progressive party, voted for the Protection of Women bill in the national assembly in a bid to refurbish its tattered image. During her period in office in the 1990s, Bhutto implemented the IMF’s demands for economic restructuring which resulted in deepening social inequality.

According to media reports, Musharraf held secret discussions with the exiled Bhutto prior to the vote on the bill. As in late 2004, the rumours were that a deal was being negotiated whereby Musharraf would remain as president, if Bhutto were allowed to return to Pakistan and lead her party in the parliamentary elections. PML-Q president Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain strongly hinted at such an agreement in late November.

Musharraf’s aim appears to be to drive a wedge between Bhutto and Sharif. The two leaders, previously bitter rivals, signed a memorandum of understanding last May pledging to defeat PML-Q at the promised 2007 elections. While indicating that Bhutto may be allowed to return, PML-Q president Hussain ruled out Sharif returning or standing in elections for at least 10 years.

Sharif’s PML-N opposed the Protection of Women bill and is now seeking a “grand alliance” with the MMA and other small parties. The MMA, however, appears to be reluctant to completely break from what has been a beneficial relationship with Musharraf. With the support of Musharraf, the MMA won 55 parliamentary seats in the 2002 national elections. The party controls the provincial government in the North West Frontier Province and is part of the ruling coalition in Balochistan province.

The MMA denounced the Protection of Women bill as un-Islamic, claimed that it would encourage immoral behaviour and threatened that its legislators would resign in protest. MMA leader Maulana Fazal-ur-Rahman has since rationalised the failure of the MMA’s politicians to give up their seats, saying by doing so the MMA has prevented the imposition of martial law. He also held out an olive branch to Musharraf declaring that the MMA would contest the elections, as in 2002, “in the presence of President Musharraf”.

All of these wretched manoeuvres by supporters and opponents of the law alike demonstrate once again their contempt for ordinary working people. The systematic oppression of women is a sharp expression of the autocratic and backward methods of rule employed by the Pakistani ruling elites since 1947 to maintain their political dominance amid widespread poverty and social discontent.