Wednesday, November 15, 2006

And now for some good news: repealing sharia rape law in Pakistan

Pakistan has taken a step forward after taking several steps backward. Yesterday Pakistan's legislature voted to end the sway of sharia in dealing with the crime of rape.

Ah, sharia. That famous Muslim legal system, steeped in a religion that's so very respectful of women and human rights. But it's not, you say? Ah, but we need to respect a different culture, as the British imperialist warmongers so famously did not regarding the quaint and ancient Hindu practice of suttee:

When General George Napier was governor of Sind province in India in the 1840s, he vigorously enforced the ban on suttee, the practice of throwing a Hindu widow on to the funeral pyre of her husband. A delegation of Brahmins came to him to explain that he must not prohibit the practice at the funeral of a particular maharaja, as it was an important cultural custom.

“If it is your custom to burn a widow alive, please go on,” Napier responded.

“We have a custom in our country that whoever burns a person alive shall be hanged. While you prepare the funeral pyre, my carpenters will be making the gallows to hang all of you. Let us all act according to our customs” The Brahmins thought better of it, and the widow lived.

Old-fashioned imperialism is dead--at least, of the Western variety--despite leftist claims that we are the worst imperialists ever. So Napier's solution is not available to us.

But even Leftists and feminists ought to be privately rejoicing in their publicly multi-cultural hearts at the news from Pakistan. No longer does a raped woman require the corroborative testimony of four Muslim men to confirm her account of a sexual assault. And, praise be, judges are now able to consider forensic and circumstantial evidence of rape, as well. Not only that, but flogging and stoning to death will no longer be on the books for consensual sex outside marriage.

But all is not well in Pakistan for those who want to mess around; far from it. All extramarital sex is still punishable by five years in prison and fines. And we only got a tongue-lashing from our parents, and fear of pregnancy (although I seem to recall that, when I was in college, the crime of fornication was still on the books in several states).

Members of Parliament from Islamist parties boycotted the vote, but it still passed. And President Musharraf, who has pushed for this change for years but always backed off in the past when Islamist groups threatened protests, seems to have gotten his way this time.

Why success now? Perhaps the key was international embarrassment:

Pakistan's rape laws came under international scrutiny when last year when a high court overturned the convictions of five men accused of gang-raping villager Mukhtar Mai, as a form of punishment for an adulterous act by her brother and another woman. She had to flee the country because of the backlash against her.

I'm not sure whether pressures like that would work in a country less Westernized than Pakistan. It's also interesting to note that sharia has not held sway there for very long; these laws were part of a legal "reform" movement that was introduced in 1979. It was a very good year--for turning back the clock to a medieval version of civil rights: 1979 was also, of course, the year of the Iranian revolution.

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