Dear President Musharraf,
I was among the Pakistani and Pakistani American women you addressed on Sept. 17 at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York on the issue of violence against women in Pakistan. You exhorted us not to air Pakistan's dirty laundry abroad, meaning you do not want us to publicize cases of violence against women, such as those of Mukhtar Mai and Shazia Khalid, both of whom have been raped and both of whom have been denied justice in Pakistan. You threatened the women's rights activists among us who are involved in international campaigns about violence against women in Pakistan and called us unpatriotic.
President Musharraf, you seem to want to cleanse the reputation of Pakistan without addressing the real issue: violence against women and the failure of the legal system to hold the perpetrators of this violence responsible. You keep reminding us, and the international media, that violence against women occurs all over the world, including in Western countries. You say that Pakistan should not be singled out for attention. But the issue is not that violence against women occurs elsewhere; it is how the government responds to such violence, what laws and other mechanisms it puts in place to protect women, and how well it implements such laws.
Pakistan has not only systematically failed to implement and enforce laws to protect women from violence, but the system that is in place re-victimizes victims of violence rather than delivering justice. The Hudood Ordinance requires a confession or the testimony of witnesses other than the victim to secure a conviction for rape, and rape victims can find themselves being punished for fornication if rape is not proved. You acknowledged the deficiencies in the system while talking about your stance in Mukhtar Mai's case: You told us that you had issued instructions for punishment of the perpetrators of the gang rape of Mai regardless of the law. Pakistani women want the right to have the perpetrators of violence against them punished by the law rather than despite it.
You said legal reform was pointless because the personnel in the police and other agencies responsible for law enforcement were of a certain "mind-set" that would have to be changed before effective reform could take place. President Musharraf, the "mind-set" of the people of Pakistan did not stop you from committing Pakistan's resources to hunting down al Qaeda supporters in Pakistan at the request of the United States. So why use the argument that we have to tread slowly and carefully on the issue of violence against women while we are waiting for "mind-sets" to change? Do the demands of the women of your own country (the "weak sex," in your words) not match the demands of a superpower? Isn't the fight against sexual terrorism that potentially affects approximately half of your own population at least as important as the fight against international terrorism on foreign soil?
Women who are victims of violence need immediate remedies and access to justice. Enactment and enforcement of progressive legislation that ensures women access to justice is a way to change mind-sets and to end the current system of impunity for perpetrators of violence.
Pakistan is a signatory of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, one of the seven major international human rights instruments, and has recently submitted its first report to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. As part of the reporting process, nongovernmental organizations will submit shadow reports to this committee and, to the extent that your laws and practices do not conform with the standards of the convention, your representatives will have to engage in a dialogue with the committee.
If you do not want your dirty laundry aired abroad, please take urgent measures to wash it at home by repealing the Hudood Ordinance, reforming legislation on rape, enacting laws on domestic violence, effectively implementing laws on violence against women, and creating other systems and mechanisms that ensure women access to justice, rehabilitation and protection.
The writer, a Pakistani lawyer, published the first study of domestic violence in Pakistan. She is employed by the United Nations, but the views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations.