Pakistan's Women Are Lifting Their Veils
by Richard S. Ehrlich
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Segregated and repressed women, who are attempting to lift their veils and gain equality, scored a victory when Benazir Bhutto won the election this month, becoming the first female leader in the Muslim modern world.
They hope Prime Minister Ms. Bhutto will fulfill her pledge to remove "Sharia" laws, drawn from the Muslim holy book the Koran, which are used against women whose statements in court are worth only half of a man's testimony.
During the past 11 years of increasingly strict Islamic law, the women's struggle for equal rights in this South Asian nation has suffered a losing battle.
Women striving for personal and political freedom are still condemned by the nation's powerful Muslim clergy, who demand women be veiled in public, confined to household roles, and kept in "purdah" -- segregated for most of their lives in separate rooms away from men.
Official endorsement of these restrictions was symbolically swept away when Ms. Bhutto won the election, despite opposition from Islamic fundamentalists who said Pakistan must never be ruled by a female.
Especially brutal is the way Pakistan's "Zina" laws -- which forbid willful sex outside marriage -- are used against raped women, who are given harsh punishments for falling victim to rapists.
If a woman is raped, but loses her court case, she is liable to be guilty under Zina laws, because she has admitted to having illicit sex but not able to prove rape.
This also happens to unmarried raped women, who are too ashamed to make a complaint but later become pregnant and are charged by others.
Adultery and premarital sex is punishable with death by stoning, if four "pious" adult males witnessed the act, or the person charged confesses.
Though executions are rare, they traditionally entail burying the person up to the neck in public, and then throwing stones at their head until the person is killed.
If there are no witnesses, nor confession, the sentence may be reduced to a public whipping, plus lengthy rigorous imprisonment.
Zina laws are said by the Muslim clergy to be drawn from the Koran, in an effort to purge society of promiscuous women who distract men from God.
In one of the most stunning cases, Safia Bibi, 20, was allegedly raped in 1983, but because she was almost totally blind she could not identify the rapists.
After she accused her landlord and his son, but lost her case, she was then tried under Zina laws because she was pregnant and single.
She was sentenced to 15 lashes and three years in jail, but a public outcry led to her eventual freedom.
Jehan Mina, a 13-year-old orphan, was allegedly raped by her uncle and his son, became pregnant, and also lost her case.
The court then tried her under Zina laws and sentenced her to 100 lashes.
On appeal, the sentence was changed to three years rigorous imprisonment, and ten whip lashes to be given two years after the baby is born.
Illiterate females whose divorced husbands fail to file divorce papers have also been thrown in jail -- and threatened with being stoned to death for adultery -- after the women later remarry without realizing they were not legally free to do so.
Shahida Parveen, 26, suffered such a fate along with her newly assumed husband, Mohammad Sarwar, 35.
She is currently languishing in dreaded Karachi Central Jail after narrowly winning a stay of execution.
Shahida was recently quoted as saying, "I was asked in court how I lived with Sarwar. 'As man and wife,' I said.
"They said I was to be stoned to death."
Asma Jehangir, a lawyer and one of the founders of the influential Women's Action Forum (WAF), said such "anti-women legislation" also allows for sickening abuses by police and others.
"Police brutality on women has increased, because they (police) feel that any woman, if she does not behave herself, can be booked under the Zina Ordinance -- 'We can rape her and we can get away with it'. There are numerous such cases that have come our knowledge in the past few years," Ms. Jehangir told The Herald magazine.
Many women, either by tradition or intimidation, often wear a bedsheet-sized cloth draped over their heads, which covers their entire body except their hands and feet.
The suffocating outfit, called a "burqa," has tiny holes through which the wearer can peer out, whenever in public.
Other women wear a shorter "chador" facial veil, which covers the neck, lips, nose and cheeks, but allows the eyes to remain uncovered.
One Pakistani female psychologist said though she considered the veil a disgusting infringement of her freedom, she wears it in the bazaar because otherwise the all-male shopkeepers yell obscenities at her.
She complained that even during marriage celebrations, women cannot dance.
"Men dress up as girls with oranges under their blouses" to substitute for dancing women at marriage ceremonies throughout Pakistan, the psychologist said in an interview.
"Our men are idiots. They don't respect women. They think women who work in offices are not good women, because they're working with men," she added.
Pakistan's city streets, and public buildings, are often devoid of females.
Unlike other non-Muslim, Third World nations, women rarely work as shopkeepers, secretaries, ticket collectors or serve food in restaurants.
In the big cities of Islamabad, Karachi, and Lahore, however, females sometimes operate modern devices, such as video terminals at airline offices or telecommunications machines at hotels, while wearing lipstick and jewelry.
In the countryside where most Pakistanis live, however, women often pick cotton and do other manual labor.
Much to the delight of many men, meanwhile, television broadcasts have recently included several unveiled, gorgeous women, wearing heavy make-up while reading the news or advertising various products.
Men in Pakistan also enjoy polygamy because, by Islamic tradition, they are allowed up to four wives.
Now that she is prime minister, Ms. Bhutto promises to remove many of the Islamic laws which repress women.
But to do that, she will have to tackle the constitution which prohibits legislation contrary to Islam, the national religion.
Ms. Jehangir said Ms. Bhutto's victory was not really a show of strength by the women's movement, and instead chided Ms. Bhutto for not naming many women to positions of real power.
"All the women in the Third World who have come into power have not done so solely on their own merit, but as an inheritance," Ms. Jehangir lamented.
"Look at Mrs. Bandaranaike, Indira Gandhi, Hasina Wazid, Cory Aquino or Benazir Bhutto," she added, referring to past or present leaders in Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, the Philippines and Pakistan who became powerful political figures only because their husband or father was a politician who suddenly died.
Ms. Bhutto swept the polls after invoking the memory of her father, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was toppled in a 1972 coup by Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq and later executed.
Zia died in a mysterious August plane crash.
Copyright by Richard S. Ehrlich
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Richard S. Ehrlich's Asia news, non-fiction book titled, "Hello My Big Big Honey!" plus hundreds of photographs are available at his website http://www.oocities.com/asia_correspondent