The changes to the Zina Ordinance are a welcome step for Pakistani women who have been victims of the draconian law.

Massoud Ansari

Guncha Bibi, 22, closed her eyes in relief as her lawyer told her that she would be a free soul within a week or so and that she would soon be reunited with her young husband. "I thought I would be trapped within the four walls of this cell for the rest of my life. It's a dream come true that I'll not only be released but that I'll be allowed to live with my husband after what we went through in the past three years," she said trying to control her emotions.

Guncha's ordeal started about three years ago, after she "eloped" and married Hanif, in Karachi. This enraged her conservative parents who, according to her lawyer, got her implicated in a "fake case" of marrying a person before "dissolving her first marriage".

She was charged under the Zina (fornication) Ordinance by the police. She and her husband were imprisoned since 2003; while she was housed in a women's prison, her husband was kept in a high-walled men's jail. They were not allowed to see each other. Guncha was relieved when President Pervez Musharraf altered the controversial Hudood or Islamic Shariat law in December. She is not the only victim of the draconian Zina Ordinance. At least 90 of Guncha's jail-mates faced more or less similar charges of "illicit" sexual relationship. They have all been released in the past few weeks from the colonial-era women's jail in Karachi.

Officials said that over 1,000 people have already been released after General Musharraf issued the Presidential Ordinance in July last. He got it passed through the National Assembly in early January. Under the new law, all women jailed under any offence can immediately seek bail except for those involved in murder, drug smuggling or terrorism charges.

In the Zina Ordinance enacted in 1979 by another military dictator Zia-ul Haq, adultery was defined as `sexual intercourse' with or without the consent of a woman by a man who is not her `legal' spouse, and it was made punishable by death or public stripping. Under that law, a woman had to produce four male witnesses who may have physically seen the `penetration' to secure conviction for her rapists. But if she failed to do so, she would be charged of fornication and could face penalty ranging from life imprisonment to being stoned to death.

Rights activists claim that the Zina Ordinance had silenced rape victims. Safia Bibi, a 13-year-old blind housemaid, was raped by her employer and his son in Rajanpur in Punjab province in 1983. She was tried under the Zina Ordinance and since she could not see, the rapists were set free. Safia was sentenced to 30 lashes even though she was pregnant. In yet another case, Zafran Bibi was raped by her brother-in-law in Kohat in the North-West Frontier Province, while her husband was in prison. She was tried under the Zina Ordinance and sentenced to death by stoning. In both cases, the sentences were not carried out because of pressure from rights activists.

The National Commission on the Status of Women, a statutory body, has noted that 80 per cent of women languishing in jails are victims of the ambiguous ordinance that relates to adultery, rape, kidnapping and abduction. "It was not a question of how many women were stoned to death or stripped. The proverbial sword of Damocles in the form of the Zina Ordinance was constantly hanging over their heads," said Nasir Aslam Zahid, a retired judge and Chairperson of the Committee for the Welfare of Female Prisoners.

The case of Guncha is a good example of the misuse of the law. Her solicitor, Kashif Hanif, said that her father got her implicated in an adultery case and did not produce any legal documents such as the `Nikahnama' (document of registration) of her alleged first marriage. Though Guncha is happy that she would be reunited with her husband soon, she is also concerned that her relatives may kill both of them once they are out of jail. "I do not know where we will live but at least if they harm us we will be together," she said.

The repeal of the Zina Ordinance has enraged the country's conservative clergy. Several members of the religious parties in the National Assembly have already resigned, protesting against the change, while others have called for a countrywide agitation against it. "These changes in the Zina law are a move to westernise society. With the lifting of punishment on adultery, it would abet sexual crimes and a culture of obscenity in the country," said Maulana Mobibul Nabi, a senior religious cleric in Lahore.

President Musharraf and the moderates in Pakistan's civil society have a battle on their hands in ensuring the barbaric law against women is not revived in any form.

Women's Feature Service

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated February 23, 2007)
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