President Pervez Musharraf has opened a new and especially bitter confrontation with radical Islam by trying to rewrite Pakistan’s controversial rape laws.
These place an almost impossible burden of proof on women by compelling them to produce four “pious” male witnesses to prove rape or risk being convicted of adultery and face 100 lashes or death by stoning.
This law, known as the Hudood Ordinance, has been regarded as untouchable since its passage 27 years ago.
It is regarded as untouchable because it is rooted in the Qur’an. After Muhammad’s favorite wife, Aisha, is accused of adultery (it’s a long story; get it in my forthcoming book The Truth About Muhammad), he exonerates her with a revelation from Allah requiring four witnesses to establish a sexual offense: “Why did they not produce four witnesses? Since they produce not witnesses, they verily are liars in the sight of Allah” (Qur’an 24:11). The adoption of this law was part of the long, slow abandonment of secular law by Pakistan.
It also sets no minimum age for sex with girls, saying only that they should have reached puberty.
This too is based on Muhammad’s example. According to a hadith attributed to Aisha herself as the source, “the Prophet married her when she was six years old and he consummated his marriage when she was nine years old, and then she remained with him for nine years” (Bukhari, 7.62.64).
A powerful militant Muslim lobby regards this code as sacred and based on Koranic texts and sharia law. No previous Pakistani leader, not even the country’s first female leader, Benazir Bhutto, dared reform it.
But Gen Musharraf’s allies in parliament sparked the fury of the militant opposition by introducing a Women Protection Bill. This would remove the requirement for four male witnesses to prove rape and set 16 as the age of consent for sex with girls.
When this measure came before parliament, Islamic radicals responded by tearing up copies of the bill and storming out. “This bill is against the Holy Koran,” said Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the leader of the militant opposition. “We reject it and will try to block it in any possible manner.” Other MPs chanted “death to Musharraf” and “Allah is great.”
There’s a preview of what the British parliament will be like in a few years.
Liaqat Baluch, the deputy leader of an alliance of six Islamic parties, pledged to mount a public campaign to show that “under the garb of this bill and women’s rights, the government is deviating from the Koran“. The prime minister, Shaukat Aziz, countered that the militants had committed “an act of desecration” by tearing up the bill.
Gen Musharraf, who claims to favour “enlightened moderation”, has waited until his seventh year in power before venturing into this uniquely sensitive political territory. But western diplomats, who have repeatedly demanded the repeal or reform of the Hudood Ordinance, believe he will succeed. The general’s allies have a comfortable majority in parliament. The bill will go before a parliamentary committee, where Islamic radicals could introduce wrecking amendments. Last month Gen Musharraf, a key US ally in the war on terrorism, changed Pakistani law to allow women detained on charges of adultery and other minor crimes to be released on bail. Hundreds of women were later freed.
Until now the general, who has survived three assassination attempts by radical Islamic groups, has preferred to avoid confrontation over an issue that has not, despite an unprecedented publicity drive by the government, caught the popular imagination.
“How can a dictator propped up by the West introduce democratic reforms?” asked Hazat Aman, an official of a social welfare group run by the hardline Islamic Jamaat-i-Islami party. “It is an attack on Islam,” he said.
And that’s why he may prevail in the short run, in a parliamentary vote or some such, but he is unlikely to do so in the long run unless there is a larger-scale challenge to Islamic orthodoxy than has hitherto existed.