India And Pakistan's
Code Of Dishonour
By Salman Rushdie
13 August, 2005
honour-and-shame cultures like those of India and Pakistan, male honour
resides in the sexual probity of women, and the "shaming"
of women dishonours all men. So it is that five men of Pakistan's powerful
Matsoi tribe were disgracefully acquitted of raping a villager named
Mukhtar Mai three years ago. Theirs was an "honour rape,"
intended to punish a relative of Mukhtar for having been seen with a
Matsoi woman. The acquittals have now been suspended by the Pakistan
Supreme Court and there is finally a chance that this courageous woman
may gain some measure of redress for her violation.
has little to be proud of. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan says
that there were 320 reported rapes in the first nine months of last
year, and 350 reported gang rapes in the same period. The number of
unreported rapes is believed to be much larger. The victim pressed charges
in only one-third of the reported cases, and a mere 39 arrests were
made. The use of rape in tribal disputes has become, one might say,
normal. And the belief that a raped woman's best recourse is to kill
herself remains widespread and deeply ingrained.
For every Mukhtar
Mai there are dozens of such suicides. Nor is courage any guarantee
of getting justice, as the case of Shazia Khalid shows. Dr. Khalid was
raped last year in the province of Baluchistan by security personnel
at the hospital where she worked. A Pakistani tribunal failed to
convict anyone of the crime.
Khalid says that
she was subsequently "threatened so many times" that she was
forced to flee Pakistan. "I was hounded out," she says, expressing
dissatisfaction that the government neither brought her attackers to
justice nor protected her from the threats that followed.
That is the same
government, led by President Pervez Musharraf, that confiscated Mai's
passport because it feared she would go abroad and say things that would
bring Pakistan into disrepute; and it is the same government that has
allied with the West in the war on terrorism, but seems quite prepared
to allow a war of sexual terror to be waged against its female citizens.
Now comes even worse
news. Whatever Pakistan can do, India, it seems, can trump. The so-called
Imrana case, in which a Muslim woman from a village in northern India
says she was raped by her father-in-law, has brought forth a ruling
from the powerful Islamist seminary Darul-Uloom ordering her to leave
her husband because as a result of the rape she has become haram (unclean)
for him. "It does not matter," a Deobandi cleric has stated,
"if it was consensual or forced."
the village of Deoband 90 miles north of Delhi, is the birthplace of
the ultra-conservative Deobandi cult, in whose madrassas the Taliban
were trained. It teaches the most fundamentalist, narrow, puritan, rigid,
oppressive version of Islam that exists anywhere in the world today.
In one fatwa it suggested that Jews were responsible for the 9/11 attacks.
Not only the Taliban but also the assassins of The Wall Street Journal
reporter Daniel Pearl were followers of Deobandi teachings.
interpretations of sharia law are notorious, and immensely influential
- so much so that the victim, Imrana, a woman under unimaginable pressure,
has said she will abide by the seminary's decision in spite of the widespread
outcry in India against it. An innocent woman, she will leave her husband
because of his father's crime.
Why does a mere
seminary have the power to issue such judgments? The answer lies in
the strange anomaly that is the Muslim personal law system - a parallel
legal system for Indian Muslims, which leaves women like Imrana at the
mercy of the mullahs. Such is the historical confusion on this vexed
subject that anyone who suggests that a democratic country should have
a single, unified legal system is accused of being anti-Muslim and in
favour of the hardline Hindu nationalists.
In the 1980s, a
divorced woman named Shah Bano was granted "maintenance money"
by the Indian Supreme Court. But there is no alimony under Islamic law,
so orthodox Indian Islamists like
those at Darul-Uloom protested that this ruling infringed the Muslim
Personal Law, and they founded the All-India Muslim Law Board to mount
protests. The government caved in, passing a bill denying alimony to
divorced Muslim women. Ever since Shah Bano, Indian politicians have
not dared to challenge the power of Islamist clerical grandees.
In the Imrana case,
the All-India Muslim Law Board has unsurprisingly backed the Darul-Uloom
decision, though many other Muslim and non-Muslim organizations and
individuals have denounced it.
chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mulayam Singh Yadav, has also backed
the Darul-Uloom fatwa. "The decision of the Muslim religious leaders
in the Imrana case must have been taken after a lot of thought,"
he told reporters in Lucknow. "The religious leaders are all very
learned and they understand the Muslim community and its sentiments."
This is a craven
statement. The "culture" of rape that exists in India and
Pakistan arises from profound social anomalies, its origins lying in
the unchanging harshness of a moral code based on the concepts of honour
and shame. Thanks to that code's ruthlessness, raped women will go on
hanging themselves in the woods and walking into rivers to drown themselves.
It will take generations to change that. Meanwhile, the law must do
what it can.
In Pakistan, the
Supreme Court has taken one small but significant step in the matter
of Mai; now it is for the police and politicians to start pursuing rapists
instead of hounding their victims. As for India, at the risk of being
called a communalist, I must agree that any country that claims to be
a modern, secular democracy must secularize and unify its legal system,
and take power over women's lives away, once and for all, from medievalist
Diinstitutions like Darul-Uloom.
is the author of The Satanic Verses and the forthcoming Shalimar the