The recent passage of the Shariat Bill in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP), bordering Afghanistan, is being seen by many as the beginning of Pakistan's Talibanisation. The 15-point Shariat Bill, which was unanimously approved by the NWFP Assembly on June 2, 2003, promises imposition of "Allah's rule on the earth through His pious men".
The Bill declares Shariat as the supreme law of the province (NWFP) and empowers the government to set up three commissions to examine the current systems of economy, judiciary and education and to recommend ways to "Islamise" them and eradicate "obscenity and vagrancy".
Under another proposed law, the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) government in NWPF plans to set up a Hasba (accountability) department, whereby ombudsmen will be appointed at the provincial, district and local levels to ensure that Islamic laws are enforced. Each ombudsman will have under his command a Hasba force, which is being interpreted as the Pakistani version of the Taliban's vice-and-virtue police in Afghanistan.
Progressive groups fear that the Hasba would be abused and that setting it up would amount to creating a parallel legal system. "The Hasba force will be able to enter or search any premise without a search warrant. This is against the personal liberties of the citizens provided by the constitution," says Qazi Anwar, a renowned Supreme Court lawyer.
Meanwhile, the passage of the Shariat Bill has provided a parliamentary backing to the NWFP government, which is controlled by an alliance of six religious parties, to implement its version of Islam through legislative and administrative mechanisms.
While political parties in Pakistan consider the Bill to be no different from the existing constitution and laws, civil society groups are worried that the Bill will impose retrogressive laws in the name of religion, to stifle personal freedom, civil liberties and human rights. They fear that once such laws are enacted, it is always difficult to have them repealed. For instance, the Huddood ordinances enforced by General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s are heavily pitted against women but the powerful clergy has resisted all past efforts to have them repealed.
"The bill shows the MMA government's fascist desires to forcefully impose its own nefarious wishes on people in the name of Islam," says a spokesperson of the Joint Action Committee (JAC), a forum of civil society groups.
Mairaj Humayun, who heads a 30-member NGO alliance, finds the MMA government's drive a waste of time and resources on non-issues. Instead, she says, "The government should focus on developing the province, which includes some of the most backward areas in the country. Why do they want to curtail whatever little role women are playing in the province with the conservative social set-up and tribal traditions?"
The Bill and MMA's future plans did not go down well with the federal government either. While it hinted at taking administrative action against the NWFP government, the federal government also said that there was no need for the MMA government to enforce Shariat because the centre is already in the process of formulating laws in accordance with the teachings of Islam.
The fact is that the MMA government came into power in NWFP in 2002, on an anti-American and pro-Taliban platform. Over the past few months, the MMA government has already banned the playing of music in public transport; it has also banned the coaching of women athletes by males and the coverage of women's sports by male journalists. Several girls' schools have ordered their students to cover their heads, and the Principal of Khyber Medical College (Peshawar) has enforced the purdah (veil) for women students.
Last month, MMA supporters defaced or pulled down several billboards in Peshawar, saying these were un-Islamic because they displayed unveiled women. Against this backdrop, the civil liberties groups fear that MMA's Islamisation drive would further marginalize women and the minorities. "The policies of the MMA government are clearly aimed at dividing the society along gender lines. The want to keep men and women separate, further reducing chances for women to play a part in social and political processes," commented Afrasiab Khattak, president of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.