Women in the Line of Fire


Apparently, a surefire way for a do-nothing Muslim ruler to become known as an ‘enlightened moderate’ acclaimed by ‘Muslim refusenik’ Irshad Manji and George W Bush alike is to announce, with great fanfare, that you intend to bring an end to a hideous injustice in your country’s legal system. Then you just wait for the predictable storm of protest from the religious Right. And finally, you capitulate.

Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf has done this time and time again. In 2000, he announced his intention to reform the blasphemy laws that are regularly used as a weapon against Pakistan’s religious minorities, only to cave in when challenged by Pakistan’s Islamist Parties. Then in 2004, he proclaimed that he was ‘outlawing’ honour killing, only to decide at the last minute to retain the provision that the killers could escape punishment if the victim’s family agreed to accept blood money. Since honour killings are committed within families, this provision renders the ban meaningless.

And now, the pattern is repeating itself. Musharraf, whose reputation in the area of women’s rights took a battering last year after he claimed that rape had become a ‘money making concern‘ for some of its victims, had undertaken to reform the infamous ‘Hudood Ordinances‘, under which thousands of Pakistani women, including rape victims, have been imprisoned for adultery.

While adultery would remain a crime, amendments would be introduced so that rape cases would be tried under Criminal rather than Islamic law, and the victims would no longer be required to provide four male eyewitnesses to prove their case. Under the present law, not only do rape victims seldom see their attackers punished, but they risk being jailed as adulterers if they report the crime.

Women’s groups are too used to Musharraf’s backflips to put much faith in his promises. And sure enough, last week the Pakistani Government announced that in order to appease the religious parties, the ‘Protection of Women’ Bill had been watered down so that rape cases could be tried under either Islamic or Criminal law, according to whether witnesses were available and at the discretion of the judge. After outrage from other opposition parties, the Bill has now been shelved scuttling Musharraf’s hopes that he could claim credit for a historic victory for women’s rights to coincide with last Monday’s launch in the United States of his autobiography, In the Line of Fire.

Since their introduction in 1979 by the US’s previous favourite Pakistani military ruler, General Zia ul-Haq, the Hudood Ordinances have been ferociously defended by the major religious parties. Without the Ordinances, they claim, Pakistan would not only sink into immorality, but would lose its very national identity.

The women’s wing of Pakistan’s most well-established religious party, the Jamaat I Islami (JI), plays an important symbolic role in this campaign. As soon as the proposed reforms were announced, party spokesmen announced that ‘veiled women’ would protest against any change to the status quo. JI women (hair and faces covered) hold regular public demonstrations on a wide range of issues: Danish cartoons, Indian human rights abuses in Kashmir, media vulgarity; but the Hudood Ordinances have long been their most prominent cause. The JI women are always treated with respect by local authorities and police in sharp contrast to the scenes last year when demonstrators asserting their right to hold mixed gender marathon races were manhandled and arrested and one of Pakistan’s most respected human rights activists, Asma Jehangir, had her clothing torn from her body.

The JI women have no time for the likes of Jehangir. They claim that they are the true defenders of Pakistani women and that secular advocates of women’s rights are puppets of the West. They say that without the protection of the Hudood Ordinances, Pakistani women would suffer the plight of Western women forced to dress and behave according to the lewd desires of men. Just as many in the West refuse to believe that a woman might choose to wear the hijab, JI women find it hard to believe that a woman would choose to wear jeans that display her bum cleavage.

In viewing Western or Westernised women primarily as victims, the JI women differ from their male counterparts who view ‘immodest’ women in terms of the threat they pose to social order. While Islamist men tend to believe that it is immoral women who lead men (and other women) from the path of virtue, many Islamist women believe that ‘fallen’ women have been coerced or manipulated into sin. By outlawing immorality, they believe that it is possible to free women from being sexually exploited or having their families broken up by their husbands’ extra-marital affairs.

The JI women are well aware that the Hudood Ordinances have caused immeasurable pain to many women who are entirely innocent of adultery. Through their welfare work in providing legal aid and emergency shelter to women in crisis, they have witnessed the damage at first hand. Such programs provide useful propaganda for JI, but there is also no doubting the women’s passionate belief in their work. They speak of their satisfaction in helping women who have been falsely accused and they angrily denounce the common practice of a husband divorcing his wife and allowing her to remarry, only to go to the authorities with the claim that the first marriage was never dissolved and that his former wife is therefore guilty of adultery with her new husband.

And yet, they continue to support the Ordinances under which such women are jailed. They insist that the main problems lie in the implementation of the law rather than the law itself. For instance, if marriages and divorces were properly recorded (most are not), it would be much more difficult for disgruntled former husbands to lay false charges. If the legal system were not so grindingly inefficient, women would not languish in jail for years only to be found not guilty (as most often happens) when they finally come to trial.

There is some truth to these claims, but even if such problems were remedied, many women would still be jailed under the Hudood Ordinances and some would undoubtedly be rape victims. The JI women believe that this is still preferable to exposing Pakistani women to the degradation of ‘Western style’ gender relations, where women are free to regulate their own sexual conduct but also to bear the pain of their mistakes.

Though Islamist men have used their political clout to maintain the Hudood Ordinances, they do not bear sole responsibility for the continued suffering of Pakistani women. The JI women play a subordinate role within their party, but their symbolic importance in gender issues is enormous and their support for the Ordinances is loudly expressed.

Musharraf may be secular in his personal outlook, but he shows no hesitation in picking up and discarding women’s issues according to his political need of the moment. And his labeling of rape victims as opportunists in search of publicity, financial compensation and visa entry to sympathetic Western countries, is symptomatic of a deep misogyny that has nothing to do with religion.

And what should we say of Musharraf’s allies in the White House and in Canberra, who pressure him over his failure to drive Taliban bases from Pakistani territory, but seem willing to accept that he must implement gender reform in his own sweet time?

The Pakistani Government insists that the Protection of Women Bill will eventually come before Parliament but, for the moment, it is Pakistani women, and not Musharraf, who are really in the line of fire.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.