Pakistan president General Pervez Musharraf recently visited the U.S. on a high-level diplomatic tour that included participation at the U.N. General Assembly and pow wows with key world leaders. During his visit, Mr. Musharraf even took time to meet with Pakistani-American women in New York City as part of his ongoing public relations campaign to highlight his “pro-women” efforts.
Speaking at the Regional Conference on Violence Against Women in Islamabad, General Musharraf excused his government’s lack of action to stop insidious practices against women in Pakistan by declaring that violence against women is a “universal menace.” Calling for the eradication of feudalism and tribalism, which he asserted are the roots of violence against women in Pakistan, Musharraf vowed his government would continue to establish laws aimed at curbing violence against women.
However, once in the U.S., Mr. Musharraf took time to accuse victims of rape in Pakistan of seeking out to “get themselves raped” in order to get visas to foreign countries and to become “millionaires.” While Mr. Musharraf claims to be working to improve the status of women in his country, these statements demonstrate contempt for women.
This would seem to explain why General Musharraf has been so slow to amend the discriminatory laws currently in force in Pakistan, known as the Hudood Ordinances. Mukhtar Mai and Dr. Shazia Khalid are painfully familiar with these laws. Mai was gang raped under orders from a village council after her 12-year-old brother was accused of having an affair with a woman from a powerful clan. Dr. Shazia was raped in her home in the middle of the night and forced to leave the country under threats of death when she refused to stop seeking the prosecution of her rapist. Her outstanding courage in speaking out has captured international attention, but also infuriated Pakistani officials, including Musharraf, although they have yet to make any arrests in the case.
General Musharraf is right in stating that Pakistan should not be singled out as a country that condones violence and discrimination against women. There is not one country in the world where women are not raped and do not fear rape, and sex discriminatory laws are in effect in many countries. Laws in Algeria and Sudan mandate wife obedience; in Chile, the household must be headed by the husband. A woman loses her inheritance in Nepal when she marries; and in Yemen, the law explicitly provides that wives be available to their husbands for sex. A woman living in India, Malaysia or Tonga has no legal protection from rape by her husband. The penal code in Nigeria permits husbands to use physical violence to “chastise” their wives using physical violence. In Haiti and Syria, men can kill their wives with legal impunity in the name of “honor,” and polygamy is allowed in many countries including Mali and Tanzania. In Israel, unlike a man, a Jewish woman has no right to divorce as governed by rabbinical law and sanctioned by state law. In Saudi Arabia, no woman can drive and more recently, is denied the right to vote. And the list goes on.
In Pakistan, Mai and Khalid, and thousands of other women who are raped, face insurmountable legal barriers to securing a conviction. Under Hudood law, the rape law itself requires either the confession of the perpetrator or the eyewitness testimony of at least four Muslim adult males. If unable to prove rape, a woman who goes to the police is vulnerable to prosecution under the ordinances for fornication if she is unmarried or adultery if she is married. When Mai and Khalid reported their crimes, they were dismissed by the police, faced death threats, and were told they had put a stain on the “honor” of the family.
Yet, the Pakistani government has no apparent plan to revoke the Hudood Ordinances, despite the recommendation of its own National Commission on the Status of Women to do so. These laws are incompatible with Pakistan’s obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and Pakistan’s own constitution.
Law is the most formal expression of government policy and a country’s most public testament to the value it places on all its citizens. A government that allows discriminatory laws to remain in force endorses and promotes inequality. At the risk of their own lives, Mukhtaran Mai and Dr. Shazia Khalid are asking their governments for justice, not just for themselves, but for all women. If Mr. Musharraf and other world leaders are serious about human rights, they can start taking simple yet bold steps to end the legal sanction of violence and discrimination against women. It is time for President Musharraf to stop blaming the victims and to start prosecuting rapists in Pakistan. Repealing the Hudood Ordinances is a critical step toward ensuring justice to women in Pakistan and costs the government nothing – it is only a question of political will.
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Taina Bien-Aime, a former international lawyer, is Executive Director of Equality Now.
Equality Now, October, 2005