Challenging the law: the case of Safia Bibi

The Hudood Ordinances were the first laws introduced in Pakistan by General Zia ul-Haq in 1979 as part of his programme of Islamization. They are a collection of 5 criminal laws dealing with theft and armed robbery; Zina or rape, abduction, adultery, and fornication; Qazf or false accusation in respect of Zina; prohibition of alcohol and narcotics and public whipping. Most of these were already offences in Pakistan when the Hudood Ordinances were promulgated, but these new Ordinances introduced forms of punishment recognized by Muslim jurists. Asma Jehangir and Hina Jilani, in their book ‘The Hudood Ordinances: A Divine Sanction?’ described the promulgation of the Hudood Ordinances as ‘transparent political opportunism’. (Jahangir and Jilani, 2003) Their framing and implementation has been described as ‘slipshod’ at best and lending no credibility to the notion of Islamisation. However, once a religious label has been attached to a law it becomes an extremely sensitive issue and any criticism is perceived as heresy.

While there was widespread consternation at the promulgation of the laws they were brought sharply into focus in 1983 with the case of Safia Bibi. Raped by her landlord and his son Safia Bibi became pregnant. Her father filed a complaint of rape when her pregnancy was revealed and the case went to court. Because she was blind and therefore unable to visually identify her alleged attackers they were set free. Her resultant pregnancy though was seen as admission of zina, adultery, and she was convicted and sentenced to 3 years imprisonment, public flogging and a fine. These laws caught Safia Bibi in their web. Under them she, the victim, had become the accused.

Women’s activists and supporters of human rights were outraged and for the first time the Women’s Action Forum (WAF), formed in 1980, went out onto the streets to protest this punishment and demand changes to the laws. Pressure was mounted as journalists wrote articles to highlight the issue and women lawyers agitated in their Bar Association. While many had opposed the promulgation of the laws this incident gave a focus to concerted agitation and attempts to negotiate for their change. It was a defining moment in the life of emerging women’s organisations, and that original protest is still celebrated each year by women’s groups around the country. It continues to provide opportunity for raising issues that concern gender violence. When the Federal Shari’a court acquitted Safia Bibi on a technical ground it made clear in its ruling that national and international pressure had played no small part in this decision.

While there was success in seeing the particular decision overturned, much of those Hudood Ordinances remain in force today. The question must be asked; was this an individual revolution or have women’s organisations and activists been able to use this as an opportunity to engage and negotiate?

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