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Searching for Freedom, Chained by the Law

In Pakistan, women charged with adultery face the possibility of being sent to prison. New shelters are being opened to house the accused women, often for their own protection. Video: Mary Jordan/The Washington PostEditor: Francine Uenuma/

Maulana Rahat Hussain, a senator in the Pakistani Parliament from the religious party Jamiat e Ulema e Islam, said in an interview that the laws criminalizing extramarital sex also defend God's will: "Islam has its special laws about adultery and extramarital sex, and nobody has the authority to bring any sort of change in those laws."

When asked if the laws came down harder on women than men, the senator said, "Many good laws can be misused."

He dismissed critics of the laws as "nonprofits and Westernized women working for so-called women rights." These people, he said, were motivated by "getting funds from international donors and invitations for free foreign trips."

Nazir Afzal, a top British legal expert on "honor" crimes in which men have killed daughters and sisters for flirting or dating, said it is not only older people who believe that women must hold to a different standard in sexual conduct. He said a young man had explained his reasoning this way: "A man is like a piece of gold and woman a piece of silk. If you drop gold into the mud you can polish it clean, but if you drop silk into mud, it's stained forever."

In 1979, military dictator Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq enacted the Hudood Ordinance, a set of laws based on a strict interpretation of the Koran that included laws on rape, adultery and sex before marriage. By 2006, under pressure from human and women's rights groups at home and abroad, Parliament amended the laws. The most notable change was that women alleging rape were no longer required to provide four male witnesses, a virtually impossible task.

But at the same time, conservative religious factions succeeded in inserting into the penal code laws against "fornication," including the "abductions for sex" charge.

"These laws opened up abuses against women that we were trying to close," said Jilani, who has argued cases before Pakistan's Supreme Court.


In a busy, noisy neighborhood of Rawalpindi, Arshad, the woman jailed for adultery, now lives in a shelter with guards out front and bars on the doors and windows.

Judges send women here after their court proceedings to make sure they have a place to live that keeps them safe from enraged husbands or brothers. But the women can be virtual prisoners, forbidden to go out.

More than 1,000 women live in these provincial government-run shelters, many of which have opened in the past two years.

Last year, more than 3,000 women sought help at a separate network of facilities, the national government's Benazir Bhutto Women Centers, recently renamed after the late female former prime minister who was assassinated in this city in December. In 2005, there were 10 of these centers for women fleeing abusive homes. Today, there are 25, and the federal government said it plans to raise the number to 55 in coming months.

Arshad is from a village outside Rawalpindi, a busy city of about 3 million people best known as headquarters of the Pakistani army.

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