ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (WOMENSENEWS)–Flies circle around hungrily as Zafran Bibi struggles to cook a simple lunch of roti (flat round bread) and lentils on a small open fire using the only utensils she has; a stained pan and a cracked wooden spoon.
As Bibi moves around the sun-baked courtyardof the day care center where she and her husband work as caretakers, her youngest daughter Zabnam (which means "morning dew" in Urdu) clings to her dress.
"We have nothing, but I am amazed we have even this," Bibi says cradling the two-and-half-year-old Zabnam.
Ensconced in a dusty slum on the outskirts of the Pakistani capital Islamabad, where the only buildings are rickety mud and straw huts that are home to Afghan refugees, her home might not be idyllic. But for the illiterate 30 year old, it is a lifesaving refuge from her family, her tribe and a society inclined to shun her.
In 2002, Bibi catapulted onto the world stage when a court in her native Northwest Frontier Province sentenced her to stoning by death under Pakistan’s controversial Hudood Ordinances, which effectively equate rape with adultery. Despite Bibi’s repeated charges that her brother-in-law had raped her on multiple occasions, the presiding judge convicted her of zina (adultery).
As is common in such cases, nothing happened to the man involved.
Promulgated through presidential decree by former military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq in 1979 as part of his Islamization program to deal with a spectrum of sins ranging from theft, to false accusations, to adultery, the Hudood Ordinances are a volatile mix of Islamic decrees and Pakistan’s secular laws and are part of almost every court’s legal arsenal.
At Heart of Struggle for Justice
They are also at the heart of women’s struggle for justice in this troubled South Asian nation.
"These laws have been a disgrace since they were introduced," says Majida Rizvi, a former Supreme Court judge and head of the National Commission on the Status of Women. The commission is a Islamabad-based council of religious scholars, government officials and legal experts set up by Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf in 2000 to examine laws pertaining to women’s rights.
The National Commission on the Status of Women voted overwhelmingly to repeal the Hudood in a mid-2003 report.
Since then, Musharraf has appeared reluctant to repeal the Hudood for fear of further antagonizing his important but tenuous political ties to religious clerics and their supporters. Musharraf angered clerics by siding fully with the U.S. war on terror, banning militant groups and seeking to reform Pakistan’s 13,000 religious seminaries.
Those aligned with the clerics argue that the Hudood are God’s law and term any tampering of them un-Islamic. "If there are any problems, it is with poor work by judges, lawyers or the police, not with the word of God," says Khurshid Ahmed, member of the six-party religious alliance United Action Forum.
Up to 80 percent of the 2,000 women now in Pakistani jails are facing charges related to the Hudood Ordinances, according to Rizvi. Many of the cases involve women being charged with adultery after they have allegedly been raped. Another case involves a woman seeking a divorce who has then been accused of adultery. While few are ever tried and convicted, the stigma and the ordeal can color the rest of their lives.
"These laws promote injustice and are un-Islamic, denying women the rights given to them in the Koran, and discriminating against the weakest sections of society; women and minorities," Rizvi says. "It is a flawed legislation that can’t be fixed. Its drafting is flawed. Its motive is flawed."
Four Males Needed to Verify Rape
Under the Hudood, punishment of a man for rape must be preceded by his own confession or the testimony of four males of upstanding character who witnessed the act of penetration. Women and non-Muslim witnesses are considered worthless.
"Hudood cases involving rape can not be registered under the law without production of four witnesses" says Faqir Hussain, secretary of the Karachi-based Law and Justice Commission of Pakistan, which monitors Pakistani law.
However, according to Hussein, the police often register cases in which no witnesses were produced setting the victim up for possible prosecution. "At their best the Hudood are discriminatory and confusing, at their worst they are systematic tools for abuse."
Anti-Hudood activists say that Pakistan’s secular laws served rape victims far better.
Before the imposition of Hudood, a case could be registered with police on suspicion alone, prompting an investigation that might or might not have resulted in formal charges. Such was the case with rape before the Hudood altered the crime from a private offense to an offense against the State.
The Hudood’s discouraging effects on rape allegations were made conspicuous in the 1983 case of 15-year-old Jehan Mina, who became pregnant and alleged that she had being raped by her uncle and his son. After filing a complaint with police, she was charged and sentenced for illegal fornication on the grounds of her pregnancy. Because of her young age, the judge reduced her original sentence of 100 lashes to 10.
Punishments under the Hudood are severe; amputation for theft, whipping for drinking alcohol, hanging for rape and stoning for adultery. If the court rules there was no rape, the accuser is often sent to jail either convicted of adultery or qasf (false accusation).
The infant Zabnam was taken away to a state-run orphanage when Bibi was placed onto death row in a squalid Northwest Frontier Province prison. Months later–in mid 2002–she was acquitted by a higher court after an international outcry by the domestic and foreign press and nongovernmental organizations like the Women’s Action Forum and the Aurat Foundation.
"My innocence was my protection, my savior, but this case destroyed our lives," she says as her husband, Zabnam, and two sons look on and the family sits down to eat their meager meal.
The family sold their home and possessions to pay for legal costs, but they still couldn’t cover the bill. They still owe 200,000 rupees (about $3,500). After her release from jail, life in the village was uncomfortable under the watchful eyes of Zafran’s in-laws. Nobody wanted to give the couple work as day laborers, nobody wanted to help them with a place to live and tongues wagged with incessant cruelty.
With the help of a sympathetic Islamabad-based lawyer, Zafran and her husband Naimat Khan secured work here earning them 4,000 rupees (about $70) a month and a place to live.
"What happened to me should not happen to any other living being," she says tearfully. "I am not an educated person, but if innocent people like me are being punished then obviously there is something wrong with the laws."
Juliette Terzieff is a freelance journalist currently based in Pakistan who has worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsweek, CNN International, and the London Sunday Times.
For more information:
Asian Human Rights Commission–
"Pakistan: The Women’s Commission and the Hudood Ordinances":
Human Rights Watch–
"Discrimination under the Hudood Ordinances":
Inter Press Service News Agency–
"Despite Sound and Fury, ‘Hudood’ Laws Still Stay":