The Politics of Rape in Pakistan:
Victim or Criminal?

By Mehnaz Sahibzada

"Fifteen-year-old Jehan Mina became pregnant after being raped by her uncle and cousin. Her family filed a complaint of rape but since there were no witnesses, the alleged rapists were acquitted. Yet her pregnancy was proof that "zina" [extra-marital sexual intercourse] had taken place and she was sentenced to 100 lashes in public. The punishment was later converted to 3 years imprisonment and 10 lashes."

--excerpt taken from an Amnesty International News Release on Pakistan, 10 June 1997


Unfortunately, Jehan Mina’s story is only too familiar for many rape victims in Pakistan. In the past two decades, numerous rape victims who have pressed charges or become pregnant out of wedlock have in turn been charged with adultery. Under the Hudood Ordinance, a woman who has been raped can be imprisoned or subjected to corporeal punishment if unable to provide adequate witnesses to the incident. One male witness is considered sufficient, while the testimony of two women is admissible only as one reliable source; the testimony of a female is considered half that of a man’s in a Pakistani court of law. The law requires that an equivalent of four Muslim male witnesses of good character verify a woman’s claim to being raped. Otherwise a woman is still considered guilty under the Hudood Ordinance, according to Vandana Singh, member of Saheli, a South Asian women’s support group based in Austin, Texas.

Since the passage of the Hudood Ordinance in 1979 under the military government of Zia al Haq, "zina" or extra-marital intercourse, has been considered a crime against the state in Pakistan. The Hudood Ordinance, which also punishes crimes such as alcohol consumption and theft, was passed in an effort to bring the laws of Pakistan more in line with Islamic law. According to a June 1997 report by Amnesty International, this law often prescribes cruel and devastating punishments, such as whipping or stoning the individual(s) in question, and explicitly discriminates against women. Specifically the "zina" or adultery law under the Hudood Ordinance has legally blurred the distinction between rape and extramarital sex, resulting in the imprisonment and/or physical punishment of numerous women who have come forward with charges of rape without witnesses. Consequently, many rape victims are deemed criminals in a Pakistani court of law.

About seventy to seventy-five percent of women imprisoned in Pakistan have been convicted under the Hudood Ordinance, according to a August 1997 Inter Press Service article. Shahla Haeri, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Boston University, and specialist on women’s issues in Iran and Pakistan, confirms that "chances are great that most women in jail in Pakistan are imprisoned under the Hudood Ordinance."

The Women’s Action Forum (WAF), an important women’s group in Pakistan was formed in 1979 in reaction to the Hudood Ordinance and in particular the "zina" or adultery law which affects women, according to Singh. WAF is concerned with military dictatorship and violence against women. WAF also supports victims of violence by publicizing rape cases and the corrupt behavior of the police.

Although a number of international human rights organizations and women’s groups in Pakistan have recently submitted recommendations to the government to repeal the "zina" law, no action is known to have been taken, according to Amnesty International. In April 1997, the National Assembly decided to award the death penalty to individuals convicted of gang rape; however, "the government made no move to amend provisions of the Zina Ordinance that have been interpreted in such a way that rape victims may be charged with adultery if they are unable to prove rape," according to a 1998 Human Rights Watch World Report.

The government’s inaction has not gone unnoticed by Pakistani activists. "Pakistani feminists, such as the Women’s Action Forum, have been quite vocal inside Pakistan, and have been quite effective in engaging the state and in publicizing rape cases," Shahla Haeri explains. As a result, "many politicians have become really sensitive about this issue and toward rape victims."

"However, religion and politics have become more intertwined than ever in Pakistan, so no politician wants to check these laws or take bold action," Haeri said. The problems with challenging this law are both cultural and religious. "The whole issue of honor and control of a woman’s body is a feudal ethos which plays an important role in Pakistan. Women are to be controlled because the honor in a family rests with them." As a result, in many cases when women are charged with "zina" or adultery, "the public treats women much more harshly than men," Haeri said.

This cultural perception is one reason why women imprisoned for "zina" in Pakistan are also subject to harsh treatment, such as being raped and tortured routinely by police officers. According to a November 27, 1988 article in the Manchester Guardian Weekly, approximately seventy percent of women jailed specifically for "zina" were raped by police officers because they were perceived as immoral and dishonored.

Punishment for "zina" or adultery does have an Islamic basis, but "the fact that rape has collided with adultery and is punishable does not," explains Haeri.

Another problematic feature of this law is the negative way it has impacted women’s rights in divorce cases. For example, if a wife wants to divorce an abusive husband he can falsely accuse her of having an affair with another man; a husband may be successful in having his wife charged and imprisoned with adultery under the "zina" law, according to Singh. A husband may decide to let his wife out on bail even if he is successful in having her falsely incarcerated, "but then the wife is still under the control of the husband," Singh said.

Some Pakistani parents have also used the "zina" law to control the marriage of their daughters. A father may accuse his daughter of adultery if she decides to marry someone against his wishes. A recent example which ended on a positive note is the Humaira and Mahmood case, as explained by Vandana Singh: Humaira fell in love with Mahmood, who belonged to a different tribe, and decided to marry him against the wishes of her father. Because her father threatened her, she went to a women’s shelter to seek support. Her father was able to send police officers to retrieve her from the shelter because he is a prominent member of the Legislative Assembly of Punjab. Humaira’s father falsely claimed that Mahmood was a second husband since Humaira was already married. Therefore Humaira was punishable under the "zina" law, for her relationship with Mahmood was deemed adulterous. However Shirkat Gah, a resource center in Pakistan that conducts studies and workshops for women, got heavily involved in the case and created a commotion in the legal community. Early this year, the case was taken to Pakistan’s Lahore High Court and the court ruled that Humaira and Mahmood’s marriage was legal and the false allegations of the father were dismissed. According to Singh, Hina Jilani, a prominent female lawyer in Pakistan, hailed this a landmark case. "Humaira’s fate could have been much worse if the women’s group had not intervened," Singh said.

The "zina" law has made Pakistani women more hesitant to risk reporting actual rape cases. There is both the chance of imprisonment and corporeal punishment, as well as the subsequent social stigmas with which women are burdened. However, in terms of the social consequences of reporting a rape case, Pakistan is one example of a global problem. Even in the United States numerous rape cases often go unreported every year due to the social consequences or obstacles involved in coming forward. Women’s support groups in Pakistan have recently been more successful in making the Pakistani public aware and sensitive to the problematic application of the "zina" law on women, as the case of Humaira and Mahmood has demonstrated.

However, little is internationally known about the problematic treatment of many Pakistani women under the "zina" law. Vandana Singh pointed out that many women’s support groups in Pakistan "do not have much presence on the Web." This is important "because the Internet is becoming more and more a medium for people learning about different parts of the world," Singh said. Greater awareness both within Pakistan and internationally will aid in strengthening the cause of women’s groups in Pakistan which struggle against the issue of rape victims being charged and incarcerated with adultery. A stronger presence on the Internet will further allow Pakistani women’s groups an even greater opportunity to engage in a cross-cultural discourse concerning the global problem of rape.

Mehnaz Sahibzada is a 1999 graduate of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at The University of Texas at Austin