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Rape law reform roils Pakistan's Islamists

The new law, passed Wednesday, would empower rape victims by shifting the burden of proof.

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Putting an end to a skirmish but not to the longer battle, Pakistan's lower house of parliament voted on Wednesday to amend the Hudood Ordinances, the country's religious-based laws that govern rape and vice.

Before, women who reported rape were compelled to produce four male witnesses to the crime or face charges that they had committed adultery. If the law passes the upper house, it will replace that burden of proof, deemed both virtually impossible and misogynistic, with standard evidentiary procedures.

Wednesday's vote was a chance for lawmakers to show that secular law trumps religious edict in Pakistan. But this small victory for secularism comes only a day after provincial legislators in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), a stronghold of conservatism, passed a bill establishing an Islamic accountability bureau – a kind of vice and virtue squad with analogies to the Taliban.

The bills passed this week promise to reheat the existential debate about what Pakistan stands for and how it projects itself to the world: whether it is driven by "enlightened moderation" or the tenets of religious conservatism.

Even the national assembly's progressive sex crimes bill, officially known as the Women's Protection Bill, came with caveats. Pakistan's minority religious parties managed to squeeze in an amendment making sex between unmarried persons a criminal offense.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's treatment of the amendments to the Hudood Ordinances exposes his waning commitment to secular reform at a time when religious parties are becoming one of his pillars of support, analysts say.

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