Study in temporising
By Tahir Mirza
PRESIDENT General Pervez Musharraf is reported to have directed the Council of Islamic Ideology, of which otherwise one hears very little, to draft an amendment to the Hudood Ordinances. This should be done by “consensus”, says the relevant report, and the amendment should be “compatible with Islamic law and valuesÂ”. According to the report, the general said: “The Hudood Ordinance (sic) was authored by one man and it can be changed. However, it should not be abused.”
Whether or not the president has taken an interest in this oppressive piece of legislation on account of the recent media debate that has been generated only he can say. But there has been an outcry against the ordinances almost ever since they were promulgated in 1979 by Ziaul Haq, the Â“one man” mentioned by Gen Musharraf. There have been several committees or commissions that have gone through the ordinances and almost all have recommended their repeal on the grounds both of their anti-women bias and because, in the view of many scholars, they do not conform to Islamic principles of justice. The most notable of the recommendations for their repeal were contained in the reports of the Justice Nasir Aslam Zahid commission and the National Commission on the Status of Women, which was headed by Justice Majida Rizvi.
Two elected civilian prime ministers had two terms each to ponder over the legislation and to amend or rescind it. In view of the fact that Mr Nawaz Sharif at one time wanted to establish a system based on the Shariat, he may not have been too keen on tackling the ordinances. Ms Benazir Bhutto had no such inhibitions, and yet she too shied away from taking on the religious lobby. General Musharraf made some encouraging “liberal” noises when he took over, but he quickly learnt the trick of pushing all socially or religiously sensitive issues into the background.
His latest pronouncement is another study in the art of temporising at which our political leaders excel. He wants the ordinances to be amended, not repealed, and amended through consensus and in a way that is compatible with Islamic law and values. The commissions and committees that have urged repeal of the ordinances apparently did not arrive at a consensus considered satisfactory by the general and, in his view, did not make suggestions compatible with Islamic laws and values.
According to the Hudood Ordinances, women reporting rape can end up by having to confess to zina, adultery, because they have to produce four male eyewitnesses to testify to rape. This is not a dead law that is not invoked: the AsiaNews website quotes the NGO Madadgar as saying that 196 Hudood cases were registered in the first four months of this year alone – 106 in Punjab, 77 in Sindh, 11 in Balochistan and two in the NWFP. Such is our powerful feudal culture that couples marrying without the blessings of their families can be and are charged under the Hudood laws: if a man wants to victimise a woman, all he has to do is to go to the police station and have an FIR registered against her under the Hudood Ordinances.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan says that of the nearly 6,000 women and children in prison, about 80 per cent of the women have been charged with adultery under the ordinances. Most of them come from disadvantaged sections of society, are poor and illiterate. One newspaper article had pertinently asked whether such women were more promiscuous than the rich and the famous. Thus, again we have a piece of legislation that discriminates against the poor and in favour of the rich.
While referring the issue to the Council of Islamic Ideology, General Musharraf also asked that an ordinance be issued for the immediate release of women prisoners accused of crimes other than murder, robbery and terrorism (and presumably also drug smuggling). The release process was to be finalised by Monday, but the federal law minister now seems to be saying that this will form part of a “package” of reforms. So we can expect a little more delay, a little more of temporising.
General Musharraf has sounded confident and full of bravado on other issues, often invoking the personal pronoun to assert that he will do this or he wonÂ’t let that happen. On this issue, he has proved to be as pusillanimous as any other of our political leaders, although he has far more authority at his command. One hopes this is not due to the fact that he holds previous military rulers, – Ayub, Yayha and Ziaul Haq – in some reverence. He should have denounced at least his immediate predecessor as a military dictator when he took over.
But loyalty to the service and no doubt the esprit de corps prevailed over good sense. One should be forgiven for believing so, but the general seems so beholden indeed to the Ziaists in the military that he keeps Ziaul Haq’s son in his cabinet as minister. The son may be gifted with qualities of head and heart of which we are unaware, but wasn’t a principle involved somewhere about bestowing a high office on the progeny of a dictator who inflicted incalculable damage on Pakistan?
One dilemma in all such matters is of course caused by the fact that we call ourselves the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, as clearly stated in the Constitution by which we all swear. This “Islamic” provision has not prevented anti-Islamic and anti-social practices to prevail. We have lied and cheated and given and taken bribes and usurped the rights of innocent people, exploited the poor and the downtrodden, sated our appetites while the poor have gone hungry, blown the rule of law to smithereens and behaved in the most uncivilised fashion, and, as a state, patronised regimes that have destroyed historical monuments and have indulged in all kinds of clandestine, extra-legal activities.
Yet the provision provides a reference point to question the government on any matter that someone considers to be contrary to what he believes to be Islamic values or Islamic laws. Few individuals have invoked this provision to challenge the actions of the government, but the religious right merrily uses it any time that it wants to make political capital out of a particular situation. ItÂ’s the easiest thing to describe something as un-Islamic and then watch ministers and rulers run for cover.
The second problem is lack of religious scholarship and of men learned in Islamic jurisprudence. As a result, most public discussion on matters concerning religion is uninformed. The discourse has been cornered by the mosque imams, many of whom are barely literate, by clerics motivated by sectarian prejudices, and by politically bankrupt politicians who turn to religion to justify their actions. What many of us consider to be Islamic may on closer scrutiny turn out to be totally contrary to our religious values.
Unnecessary confusion and schisms have been created in society. Many of us believe that since we donÂ’t know enough about religion, we should keep it out of political argument, which should be conducted on secular lines and on the temporal political issues confronting us at every step. Others think that we should imbibe enough of religious learning and scholarship to take on the mosque imams and leaders of the religious-political parties on their own wicket.
The secularists have been fighting a losing battle because our state is constitutionally a religious state. Thus, it has become easy for the more reactionary minded to mix up “secularism” with being anti-religion or irreligious. No one stops to ask how this can be possible in a country where the majority is religious and consists of what are described as practising Muslims.
Secularism as a belief system that extols tolerance and acceptance of all religions is never considered pertinent to the Pakistani situation. This has bred much of the hypocrisy that we see around us and which results in laws like the Hudood Ordinances, described by eminent Muslims jurists as un-Islamic. The contradiction that is at the root of many of the bewildering problems we face should at some point of time at least be recognised even if at the present moment it seems impossible to resolve it.
If the Hudood Ordinances are not altogether scrapped, which is the demand of civil society, then any revision of the legislation must take into consideration the views of women representing all sections of society, and the link between the misuse of the legislation and the feudal system should be thoroughly investigated. Any insular exercise conducted in the airconditioned comfort of Islamabad, away from the district towns and hamlets where the ordinances provide only another means of terrorising and exploiting women, will prove meaningless.