In 1982, a man and his son in the town of Sahiwal raped Safia Bibi, their blind 19-year-old domestic servant. Her outraged father filed charges against the two men in a local court.
In a stunning verdict, the court acquitted the men, giving them the benefit of the doubt--but sentenced the young woman to three years' imprisonment and 15 lashes for having sex outside marriage.
The judgment set off a wave of protests and appeals on her behalf, and she was finally released after serving six months.
That is only one instance of how harshly Islamic law works against the women of Pakistan. A woman can be sentenced to as long as 10 years' imprisonment and 30 lashes for adultery--meaning having sex outside marriage. Even 12-year-old girls have gone to prison for adultery under Pakistan's form of the Islamic legal code.
Eloping Proves Perilous
In many cases, their "crime" has been that they eloped with their lovers against the wishes of their parents. In other cases, such as Safia Bibi's, they have been victims of rape.
In a similar case, another 19-year-old woman, Tasleem Bibi, filed a charge of rape in a local court. The court convicted the accused man--and also convicted her of adultery. The man appealed his case in a religious court and was acquitted. She is still serving a five-year prison term.
Pakistan's women got no relief when the government lifted martial law on Jan. 1 and restored the constitution. The Islamic laws that discriminate against women were already incorporated in the constitution.
"Martial law or no martial law, the women of Pakistan will continue to be assaulted, the accused men will get the benefit of the doubt and the poor women victims will be punished for committing 'adultery,' " said Asma Jehangir, an activist in the Women's Action Forum, an organization of women united to oppose the discriminatory laws.
Not Much Entertainment
Those laws, known as the Hudood (Limitation) Ordinances, were passed in 1979 under President Zia ul-Haq, who in the sweep of the fundamentalist Islamic revolution in Iran felt a divine mission to enforce an Islamic order in Pakistan. Nightclubs and bars were banned, religious courts and taxes instituted.
Western-style banking gave way to Islamic banking, which abides by the Koran's strictures against charging interest and instead follows a system of profit- and loss-sharing.
Zia also publicly advocated chador and Chardewari (veil and home), the idea that women should stay at home and out of sight.
The Hudood Ordinances set the limits of punishment prescribed by the Koran and Sunnah (Life of the Prophet) for drinking, adultery and theft. Though the laws apply to men and women alike, more women than men are convicted and imprisoned under them, said Mehnaz Rafi, one of the founders of the women's group.
The maximum punishment for rape set forth in the laws is stoning to death, but the evidence required to invoke that penalty is the eyewitness testimony of four adult males of impeccable reputation. Only one such sentence has been carried out under the laws: A man and a woman in an Afghan refugee camp were convicted by an assembly of elders of the camp and stoned to death by their fellow refugees.
The first public flogging of a woman for having sex outside marriage took place in 1983. The judge was particularly infuriated that the woman, a 35-year-old mother of five named Lal Mai, refused to divulge the name of the man who had fathered her youngest child.
Dressed in white, in a tent-like Islamic veil, she was tied to a pole, her hands and feet outstretched, and given 15 lashes with a heavy strip of leather by a muscular man trained in administering punishment. A doctor stood by to examine her and declare her fit to continue receiving the lashes.
The flogging of Lal Mai led to protests by women's organizations all over the country. As a result, women are no longer flogged in public. Instead, the floggings take place in prisons--before other women inmates. Since the lifting of martial law, however, no court has sentenced a woman to flogging.
Divorce Can Be Tricky
Under Islamic law, a husband can divorce his wife simply by saying three times, "I divorce thee." But it is the duty of the woman to secure final court confirmation of the divorce. If she remarries without doing so, on the assumption that her husband's declaration constitutes a divorce, then he can accuse her of adultery under the Hudood laws.
Despite the end of martial law, conditions for women in Pakistan are worsening rather than improving. Conservative elements supported by the clergy want to end coeducation. Dr. Israr Ahmad, a member of Zia's advisory council, has called for firing all working women except nurses, doctors and teachers and confining them to their homes.
Mian Tufail Mohammed, another ally of Zia and chief of the fundamentalist Jamaat-i-Islami, has demanded a ban on all sports in which women play against women before a male crowd. In 1982, Pakistan's women's hockey team received orders at the last minute not to participate in the Asian Games.
The Women's Action Forum is waging a lonely battle against the power of clergy and state. The organization, born in 1979, immediately after passage of the Hudood Ordinances, has branches all over the country.
Not Islamic, Just Biased
The group's main contention is that the Hudood laws are not Islamic at all and that they discriminate against women already exploited by men. In a country experiencing a population explosion, women suffer from high unemployment, illiteracy and abysmally low income.
At a recent meeting in Islamabad, the group pointed out that despite the Islamic laws, crimes against women have increased.
As for violent forms of punishment acting as deterrents, the group said that the laws have only brutalized society. A resolution passed at the Islamabad meeting said that laws making women the property of men and reducing them to half of men's worth cannot be Islamic.
"Do we have a more Islamic society as a result of laws like the Hudood Ordinances?" asked Asma Jehangir. Now that martial law has been lifted, the women's group intends to challenge the ordinances. But, given the power of the entrenched forces confronting them, the odds are long against any early victories for the women of Pakistan.