ISLAMABAD, Nov 23: Foes became friends for a while once again on Thursday as the Senate passed a key women’s rights bill in the face of protests by hardline religious parties and their threat to resign from the National Assembly.
The overwhelming ‘yes’ vote in the 100-seat upper house, in which three non-religious opposition parties voted with the ruling coalition, completed the parliamentary approval of the Protection of Women (Criminal Laws Amendment) Bill, which now needs only a presidential assent to become law to reform the 27-year-old controversial Hudood decrees on adultery and rape.
The bill was passed by the 342-seat National Assembly last week when religious parties grouped in the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) boycotted the voting and threatened to resign from their 65 seats in the house to protest against what they saw as a move to negate Islamic punishments for sex outside wedlock but the MMA took full part in the two-day Senate debate — often marked by an unusually frank public discussion about the facts of life — and in the final vote, refraining from an expected walkout, although its members chanted protest slogans at the end of the proceedings as chairman Mohammedmian Soomro prorogued the house after a three-day session especially called to pass the bill.
The chairman also called a new opposition-requisitioned session of the Senate on Friday beginning at 10am for a debate on an Oct 30 missile strike on a madressah in the Bajaur tribal area and an apparently retaliatory suicide bombing on Nov 8 in Dargai in the NWFP.
The People’s Party Parliamentarians (PPP), which had voted for the bill in the National Assembly, repeated its act in the Senate, along with the Awami National Party (ANP) and the Pashtunkhawa Milli Awami Party (PKMAP).
But PPP parliamentary group and leader of opposition in the house Raza Rabbani said his party's support was only for women's rights rather than for President Pervez Musharraf’s government or his concept of ‘enlightened moderation’ and that the parties of the combined opposition, though voting differently on the bill, would demonstrate in Friday’s requisitioned session that they were united in their struggle to restore democracy and parliamentary sovereignty and end the military role in politics. The Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N), which is a PPP partner in the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy and the Democratic Alliance of non-religious parties in the Senate, abstained in the voice vote although its parliamentary group leader Ishaq Dar who criticised the government for not referring the bill to the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) and its another Senator, Prof Sajid Mir, joined voices with the MMA to speak against the bill.
The house rejected a total of 17 amendments, most of them moved by MMA Senators, which seemed aimed to nullify the purpose of the bill, which the government says is in accord with Islamic injunctions and is meant to protect women from the widely complained misuse of the Hudood ordinances about Zina (adultery and rape) and Qazf (false accusation of Zina) enforced in 1979 by then-military ruler General Mohammad Ziaul Haq.
It also voted down an MMA member’s motion seeking to refer the bill to the CII for advice whether it was or not repugnant to Islam.
Senator after senator from the MMA and some from other groups attacked the bill with religious arguments that it was contrary to the holy Quran and Sunnah because of perceived changes being made in Islamic punishments for Zina.
The treasury benches put up a strong defence, which included hard-hitting speeches by piloting Law and Justice Minister Mohammad Wasi Zafar and Tourism Minister Nilofar Bakhtiar and a brief but authoritative interpretation from Senator S.M. Zafar of the ruling PML, whose suggestion to go to the Federal Shariat Court for ‘Ijtihad’ rather than resign from the National Assembly was dismissed by at least two MMA speakers.
The MMA leadership has said its members in the National Assembly would resign from the lower house by Dec 7 in a move that is feared to plunge the country in a political crisis.
The MMA Senators also did not seem to be impressed by what another PML Senator, Gulshan Saeed, said was a message sent by PML president Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain through her to assure the religious parties that he would support amendments in the new law if it were found at any stage that any of its provisions was un-Islamic.
Law Minister Wasi Zafar, who came down quite hard on the religious parties, recalling one-time opposition to the creation of Pakistan by some of them and what he saw as their rise and prosperity of their leaders during the Zia era, said the 1979 Hudood ordinances were un-Islamic because they mixed up divine and man-made laws and the new bill sought to correct their defects to spare the women of injustices suffered by them.
“They rode on Ziaul Haq’s shoulders,” he said about the leaders of the religious parties, accusing them of trying to fail the present system and added: “Government is not their responsibility, not at all. Government is a separate thing (from religion). Those days are gone when you could befool people with sticks and threats to capture government.”
“How long a small minority will bulldoze the majority in the Šname of Islam,” said Ms Bakhtiar as she braved MMA interruptions to explain the role of women activists in exposing the perceived ills of the Hudood ordinances.
MMA leading figure Prof Khurshid Ahmed made a last-minute appeal to the ruling coalition to refrain from what he called “a clear defiance of the Quran and Sunnah” before the bill was put to the final voice vote, with the law minister again rejecting the charge.
After they lost the vote and while the Senate chairman was reading out the presidential order proroguing the house, MMA members stood up and repeatedly chanted “Zani ko sangsar karo” (stone the rapist to death) and “America ka jo yar hai, ghaddar hai, ghaddar hai" (whoever is a friend of America is a traitor) while walking out.
Sharp came a challenging slogan from PML women senators: "Resign karo, resign karo" (Resign now).