A battered, 10-year-old Toyota taxi sped along a busy stretch of desert highway 130 km northwest of Islamabad, capital of Pakistan. The driver, a short, bearded man in baggy white trousers and a blue shirt, pulled over to the side of the road, stopping in the shade of a tree. Apologizing to his passenger, he pulled a prayer rug from the back seat, spread it on the ground and facing west towards Mecca, Islam’s holiest shrine, began his midday prayers —pressing his forehead to the ground in submission to Allah. It was a familiar scene in Pakistan, a country that was created 41 years ago as a homeland for the Moslems of the vast Indian subcontinent.
Indeed, Islam’s influence on the lives of Pakistan’s 97 million citizens has increased under the country’s current president, Gen. Mohammed Zia ulHaq. The revival is partly a product of the rise of fundamentalism throughout the Islamic world. But Zia, who took power in a 1977 military coup, has gone further than many secular Moslem leaders by introducing a wide range of laws inspired by the Islamic holy book, the Koran. His program of “Islamization,” as Pakistanis call it, includes restrictions on the rights of women, the imposition of flogging and stoning as punishment for some crimes, and the abolition of interest charges by banks and other lending institutions.
Fears: But a decade after Islamization began to take effect, few Pakistanis appear satisfied with the results. On the one hand, many conservative clerics, or mullahs, say that Zia’s campaign does not go far enough. They contend that most of the changes have been cosmetic—in banking, for instance, service charges are levied instead of interest, which amounts to much the same thing—and that Pakistan is still a long way from a true Islamic state. By contrast, many educated and Westernized Pakistanis voice fears that the country is coming under the sway of an unrepresentative group of religious fanatics. Above all, they object to any attempt to replace the country’s existing legal structure —inherited from the British—with a system of Islamic law.
So far, the strongest opposition to Islamization has come from Pakistan’s small but influential women’s movement. Indeed, Zia’s attempts to rewrite the laws governing relations between
the sexes led to the creation in 1981 of the country’s most powerful women’s coalition, the Women’s Action Forum. Said forum member Nausheen Ahmed, 25, a corporate lawyer in Karachi who studied at a British university: “We are not interested in the usual (Western) feminist issues like sexual freedom, abortion and equal pay. Our struggle is about basic human rights.” According to some activists, the most serious assault on women’s liberties is a 1979 law under which the maximum
penalty for adultery is death by stoning. Critics call the law discriminatory because a man can only be convicted of adultery if there are four independent witnesses to the act. By contrast, a woman is automatically considered guilty if she gives birth to an illegitimate child—even if she claims to be the victim of rape. In one highly publicized 1983 case, an 18-year-old blind girl who became pregnant after a multiple rape was sentenced to 15 lashes and three years in jail, although the judgment was overturned on appeal. And last month a 25-year-old woman was sentenced to stoning after a court rejected her claim that she had obtained a legal divorce from her first husband before remarrying. The verdict and sentence are under appeal.
Members of feminist groups say that they are also angry about the regime’s attempts to force women to conform to
strict Islamic standards of modesty. The government issued a series of directives between 1980 and 1982 ordering all female civil servants, teachers and students to cover their heads with a shawl, or chador. Later, the authorities also banned women from taking part in spectator sports except in front of all-female audiences. Still, most women in urban Pakistan refuse to cover their heads. And women civil servants have led the revolt against the chador. Said Rifat Qazlibash, an official of the ministry of information and broadcasting: “The mullahs put on a lot of pressure, but we made it clear that we were not going to give in. After a while they realized that they were not dealing with a bunch of ignorant villagers, so they left us alone.” Confused: Many Pakistani women now are concerned about what they regard as a government plan to drive women out of the workforce and back into the home. One current proposal would create separate universities for women, emphasizing such subjects as home economics and Islamic studies. “The strategy seems to be to make sure that women who leave university are not equipped to compete with men,” said Najma Babar, 37, an editor with the Star, a Karachi daily newspaper. Babar, who was educated by Christian missionaries, added that neither she nor her husband are practising Moslems. “I try to teach my son the values that are common to all religions, not just Islam,” she said. “But he is confused. His teachers at school tell him that Moslems are superior and that everybody else will go to hell.”
To the dismay of liberals, the conservative tide appears to be gathering strength. But religious fundamentalists such as Taqi Usmani, principal of a theological institute near Karachi, complain of the difficulty of transforming Pakistan into a truly Islamic society. Constitutionally and legally, Usmani noted, the country has made important strides: the consumption of alcohol, for one thing, is now punishable by 80 lashes, while the penalty for theft is to have the right hand amputated. But by themselves, those reforms are meaningless, said Usmani, 45. He added: “Deep down, the real problem is that we were colonized by the British, and during those years all of our systems were corrupted. So we have to create a new society, filled with an Islamic spirit. It might take two or three generations.”
Differences between the sects represent another obstacle to Islamization. About 15 per cent of the population are Shiites, breakaway followers of the seventh-century Imam Ali, whom they believe was the divinely appointed successor to the prophet Mohammed. And while the rest—apart from a one-percent Christian minority—are mainstream Sunnis, they are themselves divided between those who follow a rigid, legalistic style of Islam and those who belong to a mystical sect, known as Sufis. Shiite leaders complain that in drafting new laws legislators have relied on Sunni interpretations of the Koran, which often differ markedly from those of Shiite scholars. Said Saghir Hussein Jafri, 55, a prominent Shiite lawyer and former government minister: “It is not right for the majority to impose its will on the minority, especially when we disagree on the fundamentals.”
Flogged: Faced with the threat of widespread Shiite unrest, the government has offered some concessions. In 1979 it enacted a law requiring all citizens to donate 2.5 per cent of their savings to charity, in accordance with an Islamic tradition known as zakat. But the government exempted Shiites after they protested that, according to their belief, zakat must be voluntary. In most other cases, however, the majority will has prevailed. Although both branches of Islam permit a man to have up to four wives, Shiite doctrine also allows an unlimited number of “temporary” marriages, each lasting 18 days. “Unfortunately, our men have to do such things in secret,” said Jafri. “They are afraid of being flogged or stoned to death.”
Revolt: Since 1985, when Zia lifted martial law and began a partial return to democracy, the pace of Islamization has slowed. Some observers say that the president is reluctant to go further for fear of forcing the Shiites into open revolt. In addition, some analysts say he may have concluded that Islamization has outlived its political usefulness. “Intuitively, we feel that Islam can provide the answers to our problems,” said Khalid Ishaq, 61, a lawyer who resigned from a presidential advisory council on Islamization in 1981 because of his concern about the rightward direction of government policy. “But that does not mean that we have to accept the Islam of the mullahs that refuses to change and adapt to the times.” But although that is how some Pakistani moderates view the debate over Islamization, even they seem to accept that the fundamentalist lobby is likely to become stronger in the years to come.
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