The Protection of Women Bill in Pakistan: A Real Change for Women's Rights?

General Musharraf signed the Protection of Women Bill, which amended the Hudood Ordinance introduced by General Zia-ul-Haq:

President Gen Pervez Musharraf signed into law the Protection of Women Bill, 2006, which amended the widely criticised Hudood laws in the teeth of fierce criticism from religious parties that held protest demonstrations throughout the country on Friday.
The bill places rape laws under the penal code and does away with harsh conditions that previously required victims to produce four male witnesses and exposed them to prosecution for adultery if they were unable to prove the crime.
The National Assembly voted in favour of the bill on Nov 15 and the Senate approved it on Nov 23.
The changes take effect immediately, Federal Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Sher Afghan said during a nationally televised broadcast.

“It has been done to safeguard the rights of women,” Afghan said.

However, human rights and civil society groups point out that this amendment is short of a fundamental improvement for women’s rights:

Rights groups hailed the new law, but said it only went half way.
“This is a step in the right direction,” said Hina Jillani, a vice chairwoman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. “But if you incorporate the demands only partially, the problems will not go away.”
Her group has been campaigning for the full repeal of the old laws since the 1970s, when they were introduced by late President Zia ul-Haq to make Pakistani legislation more Islamic.
Under the new law, which was approved last week by Parliament, judges can choose whether a rape case should be tried in a criminal court — where the four-witness rule would not apply — or under the old Islamic law, known as the Hudood Ordinance.
It also drops the death penalty for sex outside of marriage. The offense would now be punishable with five years in prison or a fine of $165.

The judges get to choose if a rape case will be tried in a criminal court or under the Hudood Ordinance? Apparently, the judges will make their decisions “on the basis of forensic and circumstantial evidence” (what “forensic and circumstantial evidence” entails and how that figures into whether a rape case will be tried under the Ordinance, I don’t know.) Several Pakistani human rights oraganizations and civil societies called this out. On November 15, civil society organizations and women rights groups protested to voice their rejection of the amendment:

Women rights activists and representatives of civil society organisations (CSOs) on Wednesday held a protest demonstration outside the Parliament House to denounce the government’s new position on the Women’s Protection Bill and demanded total repeal of Hudood laws.
Representatives of various organisations, including the Women’s Action Forum, Pattan Development Organisation, Aurat Foundation, Actionaid Pakistan, Sungi Development Foundation, Sustainable Development Policy Institute, Rozan, the Network for Consumer Protection, Strengthening Participatory Organisation and Potohar Organisation for Development Advocacy, were of the view that the Hudood Ordinances should be repealed in line with the recommendations of the statutory National Commission on the Status of Women.
According to a press release, the protesters said the government had succumbed to the pressure of ‘Mullahs’ by accepting their amendments, which would further water down the already flawed text earlier put forward by the National Assembly Select Committee.
Holding placards inscribed with demands for the repeal of Hudood Ordinances and condemning the MMA for undermining human rights in the name of religion, the protesters said the Women Protection Bill would not bring any relief to women. In fact, they said, the “Mullah-recommended” amendments would further worsen the rights situation in the country, leaving women at the mercy of police and judiciary.
The rally demanded that the government should not engage in politicking in the name of women rights and should not make compromises that might hurt women who were already socially, economically and politically vulnerable and weak.

These organizations are onto something: Musharaff is not seeking to totally challenge the Ordinance:

Today’s announcement was made after state-funded Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) members called on Musharraf last night and expressed their support for the bill, which they said did not violate injunctions of the Quran and Sunnah, an official statement said.
Musharraf told CII members the government cannot imagine enacting legislation contrary to the Quran and Sunnah. “The Women’s Protection Bill will provide relief to women and the government will continue enacting laws which provide them more protection,” he said adding that the bill would ease discrimination against women.
Meanwhile a moderate Islamist member of CII, Javed Ahmed Ghamadi who resigned from CII saying that the bill was too mild said, “I still have strong reservations, but I remained silent since I have already registered my protest by submitting my resignation to the CII chairman.
The government did not accept his resignation.
Ghamadi said the only good things about the bill was that it established the supremacy of Parliament, and stopped the police from arresting women on charges of adultery. “Otherwise, the bill is no different from the Hudood ordinances brought in by Zia which were denounced by women and human rights groups as the most draconian,” he said.
Ghamadi said the bill had introduced two types of adultery one that required the testimony of two witnesses and the other of four witnesses. This was “absurd” and conflicted with Islamic injunctions.

And speaking of supporters of the Hudood Ordinance, they have been pretty busy these days, loudly protesting the amendment:

Islamist opposition lawmakers have threatened to resign from parliament over the issue, but protests held after the National Assembly passed the Women’s Protection Bill earlier this month have failed to generate much public support.
Hundreds of supporters of the Islamist parties chanted anti-Musharraf slogans at a demonstration in Rawalpindi, the city next door to Islamabad, and demanded that the government scrap the bill, and there were smaller rallies in other cities after Friday prayers.
An Islamist opposition leader said it would turn conservative Pakistan into a “free sex zone”.

Judging by the number of supporters present at the rallies, indeed there was not mass support for rejecting the amendment: in a country of 165,803,560 people, “hundreds of supporters” is actually miniscule.

In any case, I hate to rain on the parade but I’m with the critics of the amendment. Two things are of concern in this. One is how can there be any question on the total rights of a woman who has been raped? Maybe I’m missing something here, but I don’t see how the bill “safeguards the rights of women.” This bill does not support women’s rights; it supports it insofar as a judge subjectively deciding if the penal code should be applied in a rape case based on criteria (”circumstantial”) that is susceptible to interpretation. The fact is that this law is not above the judiciary when judges can decide whether a case should be tried in a criminal court or not. Second, what remains to be seen is just how much access and recourse women will have to the bill. It’s one thing to have a law on paper, it’s another thing whether it is put into practice. Social, political, and “law and order” forces often constrain women in various ways from reporting such an incident.

There needs to be a real reform for a real change.