Hudood laws must go

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

LAST Tuesday was women’s day in the National Assembly. Four bills directly relating to them were introduced in the house. The most important of these was the one moved by the PPP (Parliamentarians) simply titled the Hudood Laws (Repeal) Bill 2005. The Hudood Ordinances, the most anti-women and anti-social of laws to be placed on the statute book in Pakistan, were never brought before the Assembly.

They were promulgated as ordinances by a military dictator and have from their inception remained anathema to most women and human rights activists in the country. Once the implications of the Zina Ordinance came to the forefront, women rallied round the Women’s Action Forum, which was created in September 1981, to fight this evil law.

But once adopted, the Hudood Ordinances have proved to be almost invincible. In the tenure of the present Assembly alone, last Tuesday’s bill was the third attempt to have the Hudood laws struck off. Legislation to repeal the Hudood laws was presented twice before in the house as a clause of the Protection and Empowerment of Women Bill by MNA Sherry Rehman (the first time in 2003 and again in 2004) only to be rejected outright by the speaker on “technical” grounds.

Seeing the summary treatment meted out to the previous bill, Ms Rehman feels that the government might have felt uncomfortable with its provisions since it covered a number of other sensitive matters directly relating to women — universalization of female literacy, prohibition of domestic violence and honour killings and equal pay for equal work. Hence, not to be outdone, Sherry Rehman sponsored the new bill that focuses on only one item, namely, the repeal of the four ordinances (Offence against Property, Offence of Zina, Offence of Qazf, and Execution of the Punishment of Whipping) and the Prohibition Order collectively known as the Hudood Laws. Should one be surprised that the ruling party supported her move and the bill was sent immediately to the select committee?

Not really, if it is recalled that the powers that be have resorted to this ruse to kill a bill they do not like. The introduction of a bill does not ensure its passage. Didn’t that happen to the Cadaver Organ Donation Bill that has been before a select committee of the Senate since 1994, notwithstanding the new bill drafted to update it and the numerous promises made by ministers that it will be taken up soon? Through this procedure a bill is effectively put in cold storage so that it no longer remains in the limelight. Nor can the mover introduce it again and again to embarrass the rulers. Hence, not surprisingly, the sponsor of the Hudood repeal bill is not too hopeful about it actually being enacted in the near future.

Much depends on the political will of the government and its commitment to women’s rights, for without the support of the PML-Q the PPPP cannot mobilize enough support to pass the bill. Some of the arguments used against the Hudood Ordinances have been repeated ad nauseam. Sherry Rehman lists 10 of them as: they violate the Constitution; they were enacted without a parliamentary debate; they have no link with Islam and are man-made laws; several commissions on the status of women have recommended their repeal; they have transformed the nature of tazir punishments; they make minorities doubly discriminated against; they are the most misused laws; they encourage honour killings; they discriminate against the girl child; they reduce the testimony of women to half; and they keep superior courts busy in overturning the sentences of the lower courts.

While the most devastating damage done by the Hudood Ordinances has been to the status of women in Pakistan, they had a far-reaching significance for democracy too. Their political repercussions have been felt intensely. As an integral part of the military’s political strategy of bonding further its nexus with the mullahs, the hudood laws served the interest of the army as well as the religious elements. It may be recalled that February 10, 1979, the day the ordinances were announced by General Ziaul Haq, was Eid-i-Milad-un-Nabi. Religious dignitaries from Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries were in attendance at the ceremony in Islamabad which was also graced by the PNA leaders, Mufti Mehmood and Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan, who were guests of the government.

The occasion was projected as symbolizing the enforcement of “Nizam-i-Islam”. Explaining “the philosophy of the Hudood Ordinances”, the president had declared that they were intended not “to just chop off hands and stone people to death”. The idea was “to create fear by imposing deterrent punishments”. The political need of the day was to terrorize the people. Four days earlier on Feb 6, 1979, the Supreme Court had upheld Z.A. Bhutto’s conviction by the Lahore High Court. He was hanged less than two months later. The unspoken fear of a public backlash was always present.

Since fear and terror have been the instruments of control used by military dictators and authoritarian religious leaders, it has been ensured that the Hudood Ordinances get firmly entrenched in Pakistan’s political and legal systems. Given the country’s undemocratic structures, the need to create fear has been a basic necessity for those in positions of power.

WAF (Women’s Action Forum) was formed in September 1981 when Fahmida and Allah Bakhsh were sentenced to death by stoning under the Zina Ordinance and women were galvanized into action in their support. Although it is not perceived that way, the fact is that WAF played a profound political role by challenging the authority of this nexus between the army and the mosque. The laws designed to create terror mainly centred round women. That was a considered strategy. In a patriarchal society as Pakistan is, it was easy to make women the victims to silence the male voices. Many of those who might otherwise have challenged the politics of Ziaul Haq would not question the subjugation of women as that has been the norm.

By rising in defiance against the Hudood Ordinances, women broke the shackles of fear and thus paved the way for others to follow suit in adopting the politics of dissent. The Movement for the Restoration of Democracy came later. Politically, Ziaul Haq’s power was shaken and after his mysterious plane crash the army had to restore civilian rule in the country. It was a different matter that the armed forces continued to manipulate power from behind the scenes. But the power of the Islamists was not broken and grew in strength.

Again it was the women-centred Zina Ordinance that became the focus of the struggle against the religious establishment. Every voice that was raised demanding the repeal of the Hudood Ordinances — be it the Commission on the Status of Women headed by Justice Nasir Aslam Zahid or the National Commission on the Status of Women under Justice Majida Rizvi’s stewardship — struck a blow at obscurantism in Pakistan. That is what Sherry Rehman has also done.

This has posed a dilemma for the rulers. On the one hand they pose as the proponents of enlightened moderation — a posture that should logically drive them towards supporting the repeal of the Hudood Ordinances. On the other hand, they do not wish to alienate the religious parties whose support has traditionally provided the army the political legitimacy it has lacked.

Even today when the armed forces are waging the socalled war on terrorism the president does not wish to make a clean break with the Islamists. Besides, the ruling party has a fair share of obscurantists who were nurtured by Ziaul Haq. Supporting the repeal bill would create too many problems for the rulers. Isn’t it easier to sweep it under the carpet? But then the law will continue to be the focal point of the women’s struggle in Pakistan.