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20 Nov 2006

'Protecting' women for political gain in Pakistan

A new Women's Protection Bill in Pakistan makes it harder for authorities to imprison women for having been raped, but the religious-liberal wrangling is less about women than about upcoming elections.

By Naveed Ahmad

The political battle between liberals and religious conservatives in Pakistan has turned bitter over changes to the Islamic laws that have been praised by the West for boosting women's rights and chipping away at the Islamisation of the society.

Last week, the Pakistani government successfully rushed through the Women's Protection Bill in the National Assembly, with rare but predictable support from the liberal Pakistan People's Party (PPP) led by Benazir Bhutto.

The liberals have long criticized the Islamic laws - known as the Hudood Ordinaces and introduced by then-military ruler Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq in 1979. The laws made a rape victim liable for prosecution for adultery in the absence of four male witnesses to corroborate her account of the incident.

Liberals say the law has been misused by the police and Islamists.

The Women's Protection Bill, set to be passed by the Senate on 24 November, removes rape from the religious law and places it instead under the Pakistani Penal Code. The bill also allows for women to be released on bail in such cases, and says that police do not have authority to arrest rape victims without the court's directive or in the event of a conviction.

However, to appease religious conservatives, consensual sex among non-married people has been made punishable under the penal code. The new bill makes consensual sex punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of Rs 10,000 (approximately US$160).

Terming the legislation anti-Islamic, Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA), an influential political alliance of the Islamist parties, announced that it would resign from the parliament and local legislatures in protest on 7 December. The religious political leaders say the legislation is aimed at pleasing Western powers, particularly the US.

The MMA, which solely runs the tribal Frontier province, pre-empted the predictable approval of the Women's Protection Bill in the National Assembly by hastily passing an even more controversial accountability bill that critics say is a Taliban-style moral code.

The "Hisba plan" - as the MMA's new accountability bill is known - is similar to the Department of Vice and Virtue set up by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. The MMA-led legislation only lacks ceremonial approval by the local governor be enacted.

Under the Hisba plan, the Frontier government would appoint ombudsmen (mohtasibs) at provincial, district and village levels to ensure that people respect calls to prayer, pray on time and do not engage in commerce during Friday prayers. The mohtasibs would also ensure that unrelated men and women did not appear together in public, and would discourage singing and dancing.

With a religious police under their command, the mohtasibs would also monitor the media to ensure its "useful for the promotion of Islamic values."

The regime of Pakistan's military leader and president General Pervez Musharraf, rights groups, liberal politicians and media outlets view the religious clerics' attempts to install an ultra-conservative rule in the province as a violation of fundamental rights enshrined in the 1973 constitution.

While analysts foresee a tough turf battle between the liberals and the Islamists, constitutional experts believe that the enactment of the Hisba bill would result in the creation of a parallel system of justice that would undermine judicial independence and deny citizens access to courts.

But politics, as usual, rather than true religious or liberal sentiments, has guided the latest wrangling on both sides of the divide.

While the passage of Women's Protection Bill consolidates Musharraf’s much-needed political support in Washington, London and Brussels, it is also helps to unite the likeminded Pakistan Peoples’ Party ahead of elections scheduled for next year.

At the same time, by passing the Taliban-style law, the MMA has secured its voting base, which largely consists of conservative Pashtun Muslims angered by Musharraf's support for the US war on terror.

By threatening to resign on 7 December, the religious alliance hopes to spark a political crisis that will force Musharraf to call early elections. The moderate Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) is set to follow suit.

Musharraf's political advisers so far have been in no mood for early elections, as the stage is not yet set to favor the status quo. In the wake of opposition resignations, Benazir Bhutto’s PPP is likely to win a stronger bargaining position in indirect, and so far, inconclusive talks with the government.

The situation offers little respite for Musharraf, who wishes neither to give up his position as chief of the armed forces nor to accept the public's verdict through free and fair general elections.

Again, religious issues are being used politically to fulfill short-term objectives.

Naveed Ahmad is ISN Security Watch's senior correspondent in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Besides reporting for Pakistani TV channel, Geo News and Germany's DW-TV, he also strings for newspaper in the US and Middle East.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not the International Relations and Security Network (ISN).

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