If Pakistan is sometimes a bizarre blend of the modern and the archaic, nowhere is the archaic more powerful than in the way the country's legal system treats women who accuse men of rape. The problem lies in the so-called Hudood ordinances, a series of Islamic decrees that are enforced in tandem with the country's secular legal system. Human rights activists say these laws blatantly discriminate against women. For a rapist to be convicted, for example, his crime has to be confirmed by four adult male Muslim eyewitnesses, or the rapist must confess. If the court rules that there was consent, the woman can be convicted of adultery. Sentences under the Hudood ordinances include amputation for theft, flogging for drinking alcohol and stoning for adultery. And, while the medieval punishments are never carried out, convicted adulterers often spend years in prison. At least half of the women in Pakistani prisons are either awaiting trial or have already been convicted under the Hudood laws.
The case of Zafran Bibi, 28, is unusually complicated. At least five lawyers have been involved in her defense, though none wants to take responsibility for what has happened to her. "It is a horrible story of manipulations by her family, lawyers, police and even by the court," says Afrasiab Khattak, chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, which estimates that a woman is raped every two hours in the country. Zafran Bibi's husband, Naimat Khan, claims his own father used Zafran Bibi to settle a score with another villager. Khan, who until last year was in jail himself on a murder rap, says his father forced Zafran Bibi to make the rape accusation against a man who had refused to marry one of the elder Khan's daughters. After her trial began, Zafran Bibi confessed that she had accused the wrong man, and said she had actually been raped by her brother-in-law.
"We are not aware of the law but I have complete trust in almighty Allah," says husband Khan, waiting with his two little boys, as temperatures reached 37°C, to visit his wife at the Kohat prison where she remains incarcerated along with the baby girl she gave birth to seven months ago. Khan says Zafran Bibi actually became pregnant after a conjugal visit to him in jail, an assertion that, if accepted by a court, could clear his wife of the adultery charge, though not the shame of the whole affair. "It will be justice for me if my wife is handed back to me," he says.
Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf has emphasized his commitment to women's rights, but his government hasn't tried to modify or scrap the Hudood ordinances, which were put in place more than 20 years ago by a previous military dictator, Zia ul-Haq. Human rights activists say the laws, and their abuse, help promote the very extremism that Musharraf is trying to fight in Pakistan. When Musharraf first learned of Zafran Bibi's case during a meeting with foreign reporters in Islamabad earlier this month, he was startled. "Is that the law? Now? I don't even know," he said. But he promised that Zafran Bibi would not be stoned to death and, two weeks ago, a Peshawar court temporarily suspended the sentence. Human rights activists say this isn't enough. "As long as such laws are on the books, people will suffer," says Khattak.
Musharraf concedes that he has no plans to do away with the Hudood laws. Tampering with this code would enrage Pakistani religious conservatives, with whom Musharraf is engaged in a delicate dance of challenge and accommodation. "He cannot change it," says Malik Hamid Afridi, a former prosecutor in Kohat. "There is no force other than God. There is no change to the Koran. There are no amendments." But near the Kohat court, a prosecutor who reluctantly helped to convict Zafran Bibi disagrees. "Of course women suffer more because of our customs, because there is no freedom for women," he says. "Actually, it is not the fault of the judge. It is the fault of the law. The law should be amended."