Pakistans Islamic Sharia law requires female victim of rape to have four male witnesses, or she faces prosecution for adultery.

The law that lets women be raped changes… a little 

Christina Lamb, Islamabad 


One woman is raped every two hours and one gang-raped every eight hours, according to Pakistans independent Human Rights Commission. But under the ordinance introduced in 1979 by the dictator General Zia ul-Haq as part of an Islamisation campaign, rape cases have to be dealt with in sharia courts. Victims need four male witnesses to the crime — or face prosecution for adultery. 

One by one and silently, Shahnaz Bokhari lays out what she calls her “broken lives?. Large coloured sheets of paper are pasted with press cuttings and photographs, each headed with a girl’s name or occasionally two. Soon both her desk and the table are covered with the sheets, and then the floor. 

“Uzma, Nadia, Sobia, Nazish . . .? she chants. Next to many of the names is the word “raped?. Underneath each of these is written “victim of the Hudood ordinance?, a draconian law that makes it almost impossible to prosecute a rapist and often lands the victim in jail. 

As chief co-ordinator of Pakistan’s Progressive Women’s Association, Bokhari takes up their cases and often ends up sheltering the women in her house, despite receiving threats. “Look,? she says, pointing at a green sheet of cuttings from August 2005 headed “Fatima?. “She was just three years old and he raped her, then killed her . . . Of course the man has gone free.? 

Shockingly, the pile of papers on Bokhari’s floor represents cases just from the past year or so and only in the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi. “Here alone we had 580 cases of women behind bars last year because of the Hudood ordinance,? she says. 

More than 2,000 women are in jail for intercourse — either victims of rape or those who have eloped to marry for love and have then been reported, usually by one of their parents. 

But after 27 years of protests by activists such as Bokhari, Pakistan’s Senate finally voted last week to pass an amendment to the ordinance drawn up by President Pervez Musharraf, despite resignation threats from MPs from religious parties. 

Described by Musharraf as “a victory of justice, truth and the progressive forces?, the Women’s Protection Bill will allow civil courts to try rape cases and admit DNA evidence. It also drops the penalty of stoning to death for sex outside marriage, although activists acknowledge that such sentences are not carried out. 

“I’ve given almost half my life to this,? says Bokhari, who is in her fifties, “so many days demonstrating in baking heat and freezing rain, being beaten and arrested. I hope and I pray that this law is the beginning of a new enlightened tomorrow for the women of Pakistan.? 

The women’s plight was highlighted by the case of Mukhtaran Mai, a 30-year-old woman from a village in southern Punjab who was gang-raped at gunpoint in 2002. This brutal attack was a punishment decreed by a tribal council after her 12-year-old brother was accused, wrongly, of raping a girl from a rival tribe. 

Instead of committing suicide, which is often seen as the only way out for women whose honour has been besmirched, Mukhtaran went to court. 

After her case was taken up by the international media, the four perpetrators and two accomplices were sentenced to death. The convictions were later overturned but the men remain in prison awaiting a retrial. 

Mukhtaran was named “woman of the year? last year by an American magazine. There was an outcry when Musharraf apparently refused to give her permission to travel and told The Washington Post: “This has become a money-making concern.? 

He added: “A lot of people say if you want to go abroad and get a visa for Canada or citizenship and be a millionaire, get yourself raped.? 

Musharraf denied making the comments but the interview had been taped. Mukhtaran was given a passport and used the money from her award to set up a school. She now produces a weekly blog on the problems of women in her village. As she cannot read or write, she tells her stories to a local journalist and they are printed on the website of the BBC Urdu service. 




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