"It was shocking to read that General Musharraf had publicly aired his low opinion of women ...," opposition MP Sherry Rehman said on Friday about Musharraf's comments in an interview with the Washington Post this week.

"This is very frivolous way of looking at rape cases in the country," human rights activist Kamila Hyat said.

Musharraf made the comments after being asked about the high-profile case of Mukhtaran Mai, who was gang raped on the orders of a tribal council in 2002 as punishment for her brother's alleged love affair with a woman from another tribe.

 

Her treatment by the Pakistani government, which tried to bar her from addressing US rights groups about her ordeal, earned the still conservative Islamic country international wrath.

 

"You must understand the environment in Pakistan," Musharraf told the Washington Post.

 

Money-making concern

 

"This has become a money-making concern. A lot of people say if you want to go abroad and get a visa for Canada or citizenship and be a millionaire, get yourself raped," the Pakistani president said.

 

Musharraf, a general who seized power in 1999, later said he had been quoting someone else, Pakistani media reported.

 

"A lot of people say if you want to go abroad and get a visa for Canada or citizenship and be a millionaire, get yourself raped"

Pervez Musharraf,
Pakistani President

But "it is true that the issue is used to defame Pakistan", the Dawn daily quoted him as telling reporters in New York on Wednesday.

 

Musharraf banned Mai, 33, from addressing US rights groups reportedly because he thought it would give Pakistan bad publicity.

 

He later lifted the ban under pressure from Washington.

 

Mai won worldwide acclaim for her pursuit of justice in June when Pakistan's Supreme Court ordered the re-arrest of 13 men linked to her case and suspended their acquittals by lower courts.

 

Global curse

 

Musharraf, in the US for a UN summit, told the Washington Post rape was a "curse" that was "everywhere in the world" and Pakistan should not be singled out.

 

Rehman, from the opposition Pakistan People's Party, agreed but said "it is horrifying for a military general to be voicing this kind of spontaneous sentiment".

 

"All Pakistanis must have lowered their heads in shame to be represented by such views at the United Nations forum," she said.

 

Activists said only 32-year-old doctor Shazia Khalid had left the country after her rape in January and this was apparently on the request of the government.

 

"We understand that the government asked her to do so (leave)," Hyat, from a private human rights commission, told AFP.

 

Rape figures

 

Hyat said at least 800 rapes and gang rapes were recorded in Pakistan last year, but this was believed to be a fraction of the number taking place. There are no government figures for rape.

 

Mai (R) was gang raped on the
orders of a tribal council in 2002

The doctor left the country under mysterious circumstances, with some media reports saying the government asked her to go to hush up the case as it involved a military official.

 

She told AFP in an interview in February she had chosen to leave as it was not possible for her to be accepted by society after her name and rape became public.

 

Women's rights activist Shehnaz Bukhari said organisations dealing with rape in Pakistan did not want women to leave the country.

 

"Doctor Shazia was sent abroad by the government itself while we insist that criminals be tried and victims are provided justice in their country," said Bukhari, head of the Pakistan Progressive Women's Association.