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Where Is the Honour in This Vile Code That Condemns Women to Die in Shame?


The Times, Jul. 18, 2005

Photo: Mukhtar Mai

In honour-and-shame cultures, such as those of India and Pakistan, male honour resides in the sexual probity of women, and the 'shaming' of women dishonours all men. So it is that five men of Pakistan's powerful Mastoi tribe were disgracefully acquitted of raping a villager named Mukhtar Mai three years ago. Theirs was an 'honour rape,' intended to punish a relative of Ms. Mukhtar for having been seen with a Mastoi woman. The acquittals have now been suspended by the Pakistan Supreme Court, and there is finally a chance that this courageous woman may gain some measure of redress for her violation.

Pakistan, however, has little to be proud of. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan says that there were 320 reported rapes in the first nine months of last year, and 350 reported gang rapes in the same period. The number of unreported rapes is believed to be much larger. The victim pressed charges in only one third of the reported cases, and a mere 39 arrests were made. The use of rape in tribal disputes has become, one might say, normal. And the belief that a raped woman's best recourse is to kill herself remains widespread and deeply ingrained.

For every Mukhtar Mai there are dozens of such suicides. Nor is courage any guarantee of getting justice, as the case of Shazia Khalid shows. Dr. Khalid was raped last year in the province of Baluchistan by security personnel at the hospital where she worked. A Pakistani tribunal failed to convict anyone of the crime.

Dr. Khalid says that she was subsequently 'threatened so many times' that she was forced to flee Pakistan. 'I was hounded out,' she says, expressing dissatisfaction that the Government neither brought her attackers to justice nor protected her from the threats that followed.

That is the same Government, led by President Musharraf, that confiscated Mukhtar Mai's passport because it feared that she would go abroad and say things that would bring Pakistan into disrepute; and it is the same Government that has allied itself with the West in the war on terrorism, but seems quite prepared to allow a war of sexual terror to be waged against its female citizens.

Now comes even worse news. Whatever Pakistan can do, India, it seems, can trump. The so-called Imrana case, in which a Muslim woman from a village in northern India says that she was raped by her father-in-law, has brought forth a ruling from the powerful Islamist seminary Darul-Uloom ordering her to leave her husband because as a result of the rape she has become haram (unclean) for him. 'It does not matter,' a cleric has stated, 'if it was consensual or forced.'

Darul-Uloom, in the village of Deoband 90 miles north of Delhi, is the birthplace of the ultra-conservative Deobandi cult, in whose madrassas the Taleban were trained. It teaches the most fundamentalist, narrow, puritan, rigid, oppressive version of Islam that exists anywhere in the world today. In one fatwa it suggested that Jews were responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Not only the Taleban but also the assassins of The Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl were followers of Deobandi teachings.

Darul-Uloom's rigid interpretations of Sharia law are notorious, and immensely influential - so much so that the victim, Imrana, a woman under unimaginable pressure, has said she will abide by the seminary's decision in spite of the widespread outcry in India against it. An innocent woman, she will leave her husband because of his father's crime.

Why does a mere seminary have the power to issue such judgments? The answer lies in the strange anomaly that is the Muslim personal law system - a parallel legal system for Indian Muslims, which leaves women such as Imrana at the mercy of the mullahs. Such is the historical confusion on this vexed subject that anyone who suggests that a democratic country should have a single, unified legal system is accused of being anti-Muslim and in favour of the hard-line Hindu nationalists.

In the 1980s a divorced woman named Shah Bano was granted 'maintenance money' by the Indian Supreme Court. But there is no alimony under Islamic law, so orthodox Indian Islamists such as those at Darul-Uloom protested that this ruling infringed the Muslim Personal Law, and they founded the All-India Muslim Law Board to mount protests.

The Government caved in, passing a Bill denying alimony to divorced Muslim women. Ever since Shah Bano, Indian politicians have not dared to challenge the power of Islamist clerical grandees.

In the Imrana case, the All-India Muslim Law Board has unsurprisingly backed the Darul-Uloom decision, though many other Muslim and non-Muslim organisations and individuals have denounced it. Shockingly, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mulayam Singh Yadav, has also backed the Darul-Uloom fatwa. 'The decision of the Muslim religious leaders in the Imrana case must have been taken after a lot of thought,' he told reporters in Lucknow. 'The religious leaders are all very learned and they understand the Muslim community and its sentiments.'

This is a craven statement. The 'culture' of rape that exists in India and Pakistan arises from profound social anomalies, its origins lying in the unchanging harshness of a moral code based on the concepts of honour and shame. Thanks to that code's ruthlessness, raped women will go on hanging themselves in the woods and walking into rivers to drown themselves. It will take generations to change that. Meanwhile, the law must do what it can.

In Pakistan, the Supreme Court has taken one small but significant step in the matter of Mukhtar Mai; now it is for the police and politicians to start pursuing rapists instead of hounding their victims. As for India, at the risk of being called a communalist, I must agree that any country that claims to be a modern, secular democracy must secularise and unify its legal system, and take power over women's lives away, once and for all, from medievalist institutions such as Darul-Uloom.