Friday, November 17, 2006

Religion & Politics: The Hudood Law

Listen, Bush, this does sound like good news at last from Pakistan on that infamous hudood law--the one that demanded four male witnesses from women accused of rape, or threatened them with adultery charges if they failed to produce them. Well, semi-good. Your, er... good friend, Pervez Musharraf seems to have been forced by world opinion into a reform that is seen as at least a partial vindication for those who have been pressuring for relief from this medieval, draconian, religiously-inspired law.

This week's amendment to the law approved by the Pakistani lower house of Parliament, as I understand from reports I have read, allows rape cases to be charged in civil rather than Islamic courts and removes the four male witness requirement. It also allows for the consideration of forensic and circumstantial evidence in addition to the absurd reliance on eye-witness testimony. As a concession to the religious opposition to the change, however, it upholds the law against "fornication," by which a woman may still be charged with a legal offense in cases of adultery. This, it seems, is the sop to radical Islamists and the continuing bone of contention among those fighting for women's rights.

Revealing, I thought, was what Musharraf felt obliged to say in his address to the Pakistani people about the passage of this controversial law (the fact that it is even controversial in this day and age is almost incomprehensible to the Western mind): "I assure the entire nation," Musharraf insisted, "that no Pakistani can ever think of enacting law that is repugnant to the Holy Koran and the Sunnah”--the recorded teachings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad.

You see how troublesome it becomes, Bush, when you add religion to the political mix. We would do well, however, not to be too smug about Muslim influence in Pakistani law while we continue to allow the radical arm of the Christian right to influence our own political issues here at home. I think, of course, of the Terry Schiavo case last year, when your Republicans in Congress enacted legislation in the attempt to keep a poor brain-dead woman alive--and you rushed back overnight from Texas to sign it in a flurry of publicity; of the road blocks you personally have set up against the progress of stem cell research; of the continuing battles over the teaching of "intelligent design" as an alternative to evolution in our schools.

So let's not be pointing our fingers, Bush, at the Pakistani people; let's not be scoffing too loudly at their backwardness in matters where we ourselves are none too forward-looking. But special thanks are due to writers like Nicholas D. Kristof of the New York Times, whose efforts to bring world attention to this particular barbarity have surely played a large part in the eventual passage of this halfway measure in Pakistan. It was his story of Mukhtar Mai that first brought my attention to the dreadful hudood law, and I'm sure that of many others. And more importantly, let's not forget to honor that brave woman herself, and all those who chose to risk not only their reputations but also their very lives to fight against this injustice.

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