The Case Against Unjust Laws and Social Customs in Pakistan
"No nation can rise to the height of glory unless your women are side by side with you. We are the victims of evil customs. It is a crime against humanity that our women are shut up within the four walls of houses as prisoners. There is no sanction anywhere for the deplorable condition in which our women have to live."
—Pakistan's founding father, Mohammad Ali Jinnah,
in a speech, 1944.
Women's legal and social status in Pakistan has had a turbulent history. From honor killings to acid throwing to gang rapes, women in Pakistan have had to pay with their lives and bodies for alleged crimes violating their family or tribe's so-called honor. To make matters worse, successive governments in Pakistan have consistently turned a blind eye to harrowing atrocities committed upon women.
The Mukhtar Mai case is a glaring example of the judicial, cultural and social obstacles that women encounter in obtaining justice in Pakistan. In 2002 Mukhtar Mai was gang-raped in the village of Meerwala on the orders of a panchayat or tribal court. The panchayat accused Mukhtar Mai's 12-year old brother of having an affair with a girl from the village's powerful Mastoi clan. Mukhtar Mai was ordered to be raped by four men in revenge for her brother's alleged crime. It was later found that Mai's brother had in fact been kidnapped and sexually assaulted by the same men who meted out the punishment. To further humiliate and make an example of her, Mai was paraded naked in front of onlookers. Not only was Mukhtar Mai brutally gang-raped, she is now being forced to relive her harrowing ordeal on a daily basis and is fighting an uphill legal battle. Mukhtar Mai is appealing the case in the Supreme Court following the Lahore High Court's release of five of the acquitted men charged.
Is this a unique case in Pakistan? Unfortunately, the answer is a clear and unequivocal "No." Honor killings and crimes of honor are prevalent in many rural parts of the country, such as in Sindh and Punjab, where the illiteracy and poverty rates run high.Each year hundreds of women are killed, mutilated, raped and tortured on the ground that the woman's behavior had in some way tarnished her family or tribe's reputation. Women are also traded and killed to settle disputes between warring tribes.
What separates this case from the hundreds of others is that Mukhtar Mai, an uneducated and illiterate woman, has chosen not to suffer in silence. Defying social and customary norms and risking her life, she has spoken out against injustice. Instead of keeping quiet or committing suicide (what many rape victims in Pakistan resort to), Mukhtar Mai has boldly told the people of Pakistan that a rape victim should not have to live in shame and fear. By taking the men who raped her to court, Mukhtar Mai has shaken the conscience of Pakistani society forcing it to confront its evil customs and practices. While there have been hundreds of cases in the past similar to Mukhtar Mai's, few women have had the courage to speak out and seek justice against the abuse as she has done.
Mukhtar Mai's speaking out has made the government of President Musharraf very uncomfortable. In June 2005, Mukhtar Mai was invited by a human rights group in the United States to speak about her experience. However President Musharraf imposed a ban on her travel stating that she would damage Pakistan's image abroad. The ban on her travel is akin to the repressive silence imposed in Pakistan and in South Asia on the subject of rape and sexual violence. Due to social stigmas and cultural taboos, rape victims and victims of domestic and sexual violence are discouraged from openly discussing their experiences with anyone. In South Asia, sexual violence, like domestic violence, is considered a private matter not to be discussed but to be silenced and forgotten.
As events in this case continue to unfold, it is apparent that Mukhtar Mai is not about to quietly disappear, as the government of Pakistan would have hoped. Her actions have caught the international community's attention and have justifiably brought Pakistan's human rights record under strict scrutiny. Mukhtar Mai has not only become a champion for the rights of women, but she represents the path to the country's redemption from unjust laws and inequality of justice administered by tribal courts in the rural areas of Pakistan.
Some of the most disastrous consequences for women's rights began to unfold during the aftermath of the military dictatorship of General Zia ul-Haq. In 1977, General Zia led a military coup and overthrew the elected government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. The years which followed witnessed a series of laws known as the Hudood Ordinances that gave legal sanction to women's subordinate status. With the Hudood Ordinances, General Zia led a large-scale effort to Islamicize the country, promising to return Pakistan to the "moral purity of early Islam." The appropriation of conservative Islamic laws and policies meant increased social control of women. The Hudood Ordinances introduced a number of discriminatory laws, and most significantly equated laws pertaining to rape and adultery. The law provided that in order for a woman to prove she was raped, she would have to produce four males of impeccable character who witnessed the act of penetration. The testimony of women and non-Muslims would be considered worthless.If she could not produce the requirement of four male witnesses, she would be guilty of having committed zina, or adultery, an act punishable by stoning.
It is estimated that up to eighty percent of women in Pakistani jails are facing charges under the Hudood Ordinances. Many cases involve women charged with zina after they alleged they were raped but were unable to meet the requirement of four adult male witnesses. Although few cases are ever tried and convicted, living with the stigma of being charged under the Hudood Ordinances has had devastating effects for women. Moreover, the potential of abuse under the confusing and discriminatory law is enormous. Many times the police register rape cases where there were no witnesses, setting up the victim for harassment and prosecution.
General Zia's Islamicization efforts also included the laws of qisas and diyat, respectively retribution and blood money. Under the Islamic law of diyat, the families of the deceased can either forgive the murderer or ask for "blood money" in return. These clauses pertaining to forgiveness and compromise allowed the guardian of the deceased to reach a compromise with the killer before legal proceedings began so the police would ask no more questions.
Despite outcry and protests by human rights groups in Pakistan, these laws remain on the books and continue to have disastrous consequences for women and minorities. Laws such as the Hudood Ordinance, qisas and diyat have not only curtailed women's personal liberties, but have also reversed legal advances women made in the past. These laws and policies have created a culture of bias and complete disregard for women's safety, right to justice and personal freedom.
From 2001 to 2002, I traveled throughout Pakistan, interviewing women from wide-ranging economic, religious and educational backgrounds about their experiences living under Islamic laws and customs. I traveled to the rural parts of Pakistan, including interior Sindh, where the practice of karo kari or honor killings is alarmingly high. In 2003, over 1,000 women were killed in Pakistan in the name of honor, more than half of them were in the province of Sindh alone.
During my time in Sindh, I spoke to members of community-based organizations and local leaders working to abolish honor killings, as well as to numerous individuals who had been directly affected by this practice. I personally witnessed the chilling side of honor killings by visiting a kari, or "blackened woman's," graveyard. Located approximately one hour from the city of Larkana, the kari graves are off limits to members of public and can only be reached by local contacts. I was able to gain access through the assistance of a friend and local journalist who were able to navigate through the rough terrain and were familiar with the dangers involved in traveling to such a location. The kari graveyard was a harrowing site - hundreds of unmarked graves in the desolate countryside. Mounds covered with sand and dust were ridden with thorns and overgrown weeds. I was stunned to learn that women killed in the name of honor were not allowed to be buried in a traditional Muslim graveyard or given Islamic burial rites because of the shame attached to their name. Family members were not allowed to mourn the death of their loved ones and were forbidden by local customs to even mark or visit the gravesite.
While I gained tremendous insight into the diverse and complex lives of women in Pakistan, I left the country in 2002 with more questions than answers. What worried me the most was how religion was being misused to entrench the inequality of women and the government's unwillingness to change tribal and feudal attitudes that continued to treat women as disposable property.
Perhaps equally as disturbing was the growing wave of right-wing Islamic groups running campaigns of terror and fear throughout the country. From honor killings to sectarian murders, I witnessed the ugly face of religious extremism - senseless murder after senseless murder, all carried out in the name of Islam. I had seen too many right-wing Islamic groups hold rallies propagating hate in Karachi and witnessed too many murders of Shia Muslims carried out by Saudi-funded terrorist groups. With such dangerous realities it was apparent to me that women's safety, freedom and participation in public life were taking a turn for the worse.
The case of Mukhtar Mai represents the continuous struggle for women's rights in Pakistan on many levels, but also highlights the larger problem of growing Islamic extremism and the government's inability or unwillingness to repeal discriminatory laws. Mukhtar Mai may have challenged Pakistan's laws, patriarchal norms, cultural practices and social taboos, but the Hudood Ordinances remain at the heart of women's struggle for social justice in Pakistan. Until these laws are repealed and rapists are brought to justice, the safety of women like Mukhtar Mai cannot be guaranteed.
Today with Mukhtar Mai's case being appealed in the Pakistani Supreme Court, there is a lot at stake for President Musharraf's government. The outcome of the case will be a test of President Musharraf's ethos of so-called "enlightened moderation." Since coming into power in 1999 in a military coup, President Musharraf's speeches have been marked by Ataturk-like rhetoric, saying that religion has no place in politics. Yet with the growing number of Islamic extremist groups, the increasing power of the right-wing Jamaat-i-Islami and the menace of sectarian violence, the present government will have to do more than just pay lip-service to secularism.
This is a critical moment in Pakistan's history: Mukhtar Mai is the Rosa Parks of Pakistan and she has made it clear that women can no longer be treated as second class citizens. One can only hope that Mukhtar Mai will be the catalyst for change Pakistan needs to conduct a meaningful examination of its laws, policies and tribal customs.