India and Pakistan's Code of Dishonor
Salman Rushdie, United Kingdom/India
July 10, 2005
In honor-and-shame cultures like those of India and Pakistan, male
honor resides in the sexual probity of women, and the "shaming" of
women dishonors all men. So it is that five men of Pakistan's powerful
Mastoi tribe were disgracefully acquitted of raping a villager named
Mukhtar Mai three years ago. Theirs was an "honor rape," intended to
punish a relative of Ms. 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.
Pakistan, however, 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.
Dr. 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 Mukhtar 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."
Darul-Uloom, in 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
Darul-Uloom's rigid interpretations of Shariah 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
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 favor of the hardline Hindu
In the 1980's, 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. Shockingly,
the 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
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
honor 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 Mukhtar 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
institutions like Darul-Uloom.
Salman Rushdie is the author of The Satanic Verses and the
forthcoming Shalimar the Clown.
From The New York Times, July 10, 2005.