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Pakistan’s Uneven Push for Women

Prepared by: Carin Zissis
March 1, 2007


The women’s rights movement in Pakistan suffered a blow (Australian) when a religious extremist recently shot and killed cabinet minister Zilla Huma Usman as she prepared to address a public meeting without a veil covering her face. A prominent rights activist, Usman had previously drawn the ire of conservative Muslims when she helped organize a mixed-gender marathon. Her assassination came within days of Pakistan’s Women’s Rights Day, as well as the proposal of the new Prevention of Anti-Women Practices Bill, which outlaws forced marriages (Daily Times) and strengthens women's right to inheritance.

Usman’s death and the new bill highlight the paradoxes of gender inequality in Pakistan. Female politicians have gained prominent government positions. Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was the first woman to lead an Islamic state. A third of Pakistan’s local legislative seats are reserved for women and in December, Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz increased the quota for women across all government offices from 5 percent to 10 percent. A new report (PDF) by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan notes that roughly 43,000 women councilors were elected to local governments by the end of 2005.

But violence against women remains an endemic problem in Pakistan. The same human rights report places the 2006 figure for honor killings—the murder of a female family member thought to have brought dishonor on her family—at 565, almost double the 2005 figure. The organization suggests the real number could be much higher as these types of extrajudicial killings, as well as domestic violence, often go unreported in Pakistan. Furthermore, the report documents hundreds of domestic abuse cases, including acid attacks, brutal mutilations, and “stove burnings” in which women are set on fire in incidents made to look like kitchen accidents. A Human Rights Watch country report on Pakistan says survivors of abuse experience unresponsiveness throughout the criminal justice system, “from police who fail to register or investigate cases of gender-based violence to judges with little training or commitment to women’s equal rights.” In some cases, families use marriage as a means to pay off debts and settle disputes, a practice the new Prevention of Anti-Women Practices Bill seeks to ban.

Women’s rights have been a controversial legal issue in Pakistan for nearly three decades. In 1979, during the rule of U.S.-backed military dictator Zia ul-Haq, the Hudood Ordinance was passed, implementing Islamic sharia law. The ordinance required a rape victim to produce four male witnesses to the crime. If a court deemed the evidence lacking, the accuser could be charged with consenting to extra-marital sex, a crime punishable with death by stoning for married individuals. After years of international and domestic pressure from human rights groups to repeal the law, Musharraf proposed a reform leading to the Protection of Women Act, signed into law in December 2006 and allowing for rape cases to be tried in civil courts. Musharraf has pledged to use legal reform to chip away at discrimination against women, despite and perhaps because of his alleged remark that rape in Pakistan was a means to “get a visa for Canada or citizenship and be a millionaire” during a 2005 Washington Post interview. He later denied the comment.

The Protection of Women Act has left both supporters of the 1979 ordinance and women’s rights activists unsatisfied. Some 20,000 demonstrators protested against changing the sharia law and a religious coalition in Pakistan’s parliament continues to boycott (Dawn) the new act. Mufti Mohammad Taqi Usmani, a retired federal judge on the sharia appellate bench of Pakistan’s supreme court, defended the rape and adultery laws of the Hudood Ordinanance, saying the law had never resulted in the stoning of a plaintiff who accused someone of rape. He writes that the government reformed the law after being “ overawed by catchy slogans” from women’s rights group.

Activists acknowledge the Protection of Women Act as a step in the right direction but continue to demand a complete end to the Hudood Ordinance. Fatima Bhutto, granddaughter of former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, says the act fails to protect rape victims or stop the prosecution of women who engage in consensual sex. She calls it little more than the previous sharia law with “a cosmetic makeover” (The News)—or “Hudood Ordinance: the remix.”

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