Pakistan's Ruling Party Seeks to End Forced Marriages

Pakistan's ruling party on Tuesday introduced a bill to outlaw forced marriages, including under an ancient tribal custom in which women are married off in order to settle feuds.

The proposed law was introduced in the National Assembly, or lower house of Parliament, by Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, a lawmaker and head of the Pakistan Muslim League-Q party.

Hussain's party, which has a majority in both houses, strongly supports President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who has vowed to give women more rights in line with his policy to project Pakistan as a moderate, progressive Islamic nation.

"Whoever coerces, or in any manner whatsoever compels a woman to enter into marriage shall be punished with imprisonment" for up to three years and a fine, according to the proposed law.

The bill foresees the same penalty to discourage "wanni" or "swara," a tribal custom in which a woman is forced into marriage to settle a dispute between two families or clans.

Another provision bans forcing a woman into a "marriage with the Holy Quran," a practice still seen in deeply conservative rural parts of Pakistan in which a woman swears on Islam's holy book never to marry. Critics argue the tradition is used to prevent a woman from taking her share of a family's land with her when she marries.

Illegally depriving a woman of her inheritance rights would be punished with up to seven years in jail, under the bill.

It was unclear when lawmakers would vote on the bill, which must first be discussed in a parliamentary committee.

In December, Musharraf signed into law a bill that made it easier to prosecute rape cases in the courts.

The amendments allow judges to try a rape case in a criminal court rather than under Islamic laws in which a victim must produce four witnesses to the alleged assault.

Islamic radicals, who accuse Musharraf of trying to introduce Western secular values into the country, staged rallies across Pakistan to protest the changes, calling them un-Islamic.

Rights groups, however, say violence against women remains rampant and have urged the government to go much further.

The independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said last week that at least 565 women and girls died in 2006 in so-called "honor killings," nearly twice as many as the previous year.

Some men consider it an insult to family honor if a female relative has an affair outside of wedlock or marries without their consent, and view attacking or killing the women or their partners as a way to restore family honor.

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