An order issued by Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf has freed hundreds of women imprisoned under the notorious Hudood Ordinances. However, many women in prisons do not want to be released. For them, the world outside the prison is fraught with danger. Many others long for release but do not have the means to arrange the bail amount.
Saima, 30, is one of 80 prisoners in Karachi who were selected for release. Her husband had charged her with adultery because she pressured him to get a job to support the family. She says, "My husband took his revenge by implicating me in a false case of adultery. He is roaming free outside and has connections with criminals. He won't spare me if I am released." She has no parents or relatives to turn to.
Women like Saima - charged under the notorious Hudood laws - have a chance to get out of prison because of the Legal Reforms Ordinance 2006, which allows women bail in all cases, barring charges of murder, terrorism and financial corruption. According to Pakistani law, an ordinance has to be ratified by Parliament within nine months, failing which it lapses. If it does lapse, the president has the power to re-promulgate it.
The Hudood Ordinances - which lay down punishments for the crimes of adultery, rape, theft, and bearing false witness - were promulgated in 1979 as part of the then military ruler Zia-ul-Haq's efforts to bring about the 'Islamisation' of Pakistani society. Under the controversial zina (adultery and fornication) laws, a woman's claim that she was raped and not involved in adultery needs to substantiated by four pious male witnesses. Further, only Muslim men can testify in cases involving Muslim women. For married couples, the punishment for adultery is death by stoning, while unmarried couples that are convicted receive 100 lashes. Finally, if a woman is unable to produce the required witnesses, she is herself charged with the crime of zina.
On July 7, 2006, General Musharraf had raised hopes that the Hudood laws would be repealed. On July 17, though, the government declared that these laws would only be amended. And this is what the Legal Reforms Ordinance seeks to do. Musharraf declared that the law is part of the government's policy to ensure gender equality and provide relief to women. This statement comes amid persistent demands from human rights and women's groups in Pakistan for the repeal of controversial clauses in the country's Hudood Laws.
Ironically, the presidential ordinance defies the logic of even the Council for Islamic Ideology - a constitutional body that advises the government on whether or not a particular law is repugnant to Islam. In an Interim Report submitted in 2006, the Council categorically stated that "partial amendments to this Ordinance cannot bring it into accord with the letter and spirit of the Qur'an and Sunna".
Sheeba Shah, Superintendent of the Karachi women's prison, says, "We have got reports (of women refusing to leave jail) from many prisons. The main reason for such refusals is fear. Most of these women live in fear of their own families." Naseema Tanvir, 28, an inmate of Lahore's women's prison, does not want to leave. She wanted to marry a man her brother disapproved of. "We were going to court to register our marriage when my brother intercepted us and charged us with adultery." Naseema, like Saima, fears for her life if she leaves prison. "There is nowhere I could go where I would be safe from my brother."
Jurist and former judge of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, Nasir Aslam Zahid, points out another aspect that has not been considered by the presidential ordinance: the payment of surety. "Even if a woman is allowed bail, she won't be released unless she pays the bail amount," says Zahid, who works on women's issues. Noor Naz Aga, vice-chairperson of the Sindh Bar Council and an enthusiastic women's rights activist, says she personally knows dozens of such women. "In practice, the order does very little for women who have been languishing in jail for years. The government should make the amendment and find a solution for the problem of surety," she argues.
There is also a lack of reliable data on how many women are covered by the presidential order. "We do not have our own database on imprisoned women. We have been told by the provincial prison authorities and NGOs that there are a total of about 1,300 women prisoners in jail. But we don't know how many of them are charged under the Hudood Ordinances," admits Mahmood Salim, a senior official in Pakistan's Women's Development Ministry.
Clearly, the so-called 'law reform' is half-hearted. It makes no provision for shelter or support for the released women, nor has it considered the fact that many women may not be able to arrange the bail amount.
On the brighter side, there are women who have availed of the presidential order and are now hoping for a better life. Among them is Shumaila, 32, who was arrested three years ago on charges of killing her husband after her in-laws registered a case against her in Karachi's Landhi area. "I had nothing to do with his murder," she says with tears in her eyes, "but my in-laws trapped me." However, her natal family still supports her. "But the reality is that I will only know what life is going to be like after I am released and go back home to my family."
There are also scores of children living in jails along with their mothers (Salim says there are over 100 such children), who will now have an opportunity to see the outside world. Ayesha, 10, is a student of the jail school in Karachi. She lives in the jail with her brother Dervesh, 6, and her mother Rubina, 35, who was arrested in a narcotics case. "I don't have any friends here because all the children are younger than me and the older ones are much older." There is no playtime built into her daily routine. But the days that her father visits are happy ones, she says. "I've forgotten what the outside world is like - but I really want to go and discover it all over again."