Pakistanis face a watchdog's growl
- From: pluto <pluto@xxxxxxxxxxxx>
- Date: Thu, 04 Aug 2005 07:03:12 +0800
Pakistanis face a watchdog's growl
By Somini Sengupta The New York Times
WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 3, 2005
PESHAWAR, Pakistan Since it won power in state elections nearly three years
ago, a coalition of radical Islamist parties here has floated a number of
trial balloons in North-West Frontier Province.
First, the parties made it illegal to play music on city buses, but that
seemed to fall flat on its face, and caravans of lurid painted buses today
cruise the streets of Peshawar, tinny pop music pouring out of their
Then they banned mannequins in shop windows; but shopkeepers shrugged it
off, and here in the capital at least, the mannequins quickly returned to
the bazaar, displaying stiff smiles and shimmering shalwar kameez sets.
The Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal, as the coalition of religious radicals is
called in Urdu, succeeded in closing the two pubs that served alcohol
(officially, only to non-Pakistani Muslims). Their foot soldiers went on a
free-for-all, vandalizing advertising billboards that displayed pictures of
women. They banned musical performances at a government-owned concert hall.
Meanwhile, high unemployment, dysfunctional schools, a dearth of doctors in
the countryside and women dying at alarmingly high rates at childbirth are
problems they have been thus far unable to tackle.
Now, in the latest tussle over the influence of religious radicals over
Pakistani society and politics, the Islamist-led provincial Legislature has
passed a bill that would empower religious police to ensure that the people
of Frontier province comply with "Islamic etiquette and norms" in everyday
life. The authors of the law assure that the hisba - roughly meaning
accountability - police, and a local clerical "ombudsman" to adjudicate,
would use persuasion, not force.
Already, the bill has prompted an outcry against what critics call the
potential Talibanization of the province. Pakistan's president, General
Pervez Musharraf, a self-described moderate Muslim, has spoken against the
The furor in Frontier province echoes recent efforts in the predominantly
Muslim states of Nigeria to impose sharia, or Islamic law, in criminal
cases. There, like here, hard-line state politicians wrestled with the
federal government over their right to impose laws that clashed with the
In Pakistan, an Islamic state, sharia, already regulates civil matters like
marriage, divorce and inheritance. But the constitution guarantees personal
freedoms, which critics believe, the hisba law would violate.
The most controversial provision of the hisba bill is the appointment of a
"mohtasib," which roughly means ombudsman, in each of the state's 84
counties and districts. The mohtasib would have the power to regulate a
broad spectrum of public and private life, from making sure Muslims offer
daily prayers and children obey their parents to enforcing units of
measurement in the market and prohibiting the traditional practice of
It would be up to the mohtasib to interpret Islamic "norms in each
locality. He would have a police force at his disposal. There would be no
"The law is very clear - the mohtasib does have extraordinary powers to be
judge, jury and executioner," said Bushra Gohar, who runs a nongovernment
organization here that promotes women and children's rights. "No one can
appeal. No one can question.
"I personally find it is a law that is being brought to frighten people."
Lawyers for the federal government say they worry that it would give the
ombudsmen "broad, vague, generalized powers" to interfere in the private
lives of Pakistani citizens and install, in effect, a parallel Islamic
judiciary in Frontier province.
>From district to district, said Pakistan's attorney general, Makhdoom Ali
Khan, the mohtasib's interpretations could be slightly different on a host
of issues, from whether women should be allowed to drive, for instance, or
whether mandolins can be played in public.
The state's top politician, Chief Minister Akram Khan Durrani, said
recently that the mohtasib would only recommend, not enforce, proper
Most of the hisba police force would be drawn from the ranks of existing
police, he said.
"Our idea is to give people access to justice," Durrani added. "Our
political opponents have made an issue of it. There's nothing to be worried
Durrani, whose political coalition includes those who once openly backed
the fundamentalist regime in neighboring Afghanistan, dismissed comparisons
to the Taliban. After all, he said, his government had acted in favor of
Recently, he added, he had spoken out in favor of women's franchise,
decrying moves by local politicians in various districts across the
province to bar women from contesting and voting in the approaching local
However, local heads of his party and others recently signed agreements in
four counties of Frontier province barring women from contesting and voting
in local government elections; local tradition forbade it, they said.
Dozens of women last week defied their order and filed their nomination
papers for the elections.
Pakistan's Central Election Commission vowed to punish those who blocked
women's participation. Durrani said this week he concurred with the federal
At a local college radio station here the other evening, the young
employees shrugged off the hype over the hisba bill. Shazia Irum, manager
of Campus Radio FM 107, said that although she opposed the legislation, she
did not fear its consequences.
"There are so many provisions of this bill that can't be implemented," she
said. "I don't think it will be signed."
The bill, the students here said, was nothing more than an attempt by the
ruling party to show that it had made some kind of difference, ahead of
elections in 2007.
"It's of no concern to anybody," said Behzad Hussain, 24, a business
administration student. "It's a political thing. There's nothing in it."
Besides, he said, with so many laws on the books that cannot be implemented
in reality, what teeth would such a broad new law have anyway? "It's simply
The hisba issue puts Musharraf in a particular difficulty.
More than ever before, he is keen to demonstrate his moderate credentials,
and it would be difficult for him not to speak out against hisba. On the
other hand, to quash it in the federal courts could only help the Islamists
declare to their constituents that their sharia law ambitions are being
hindered by a pro-Western military ruler.
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