The Hudood Ordinances were introduced by Zia-ul-Haq, a former Pakistani president.

They are a compilation of five laws which deal with a range of offences, including theft, drug use and rape.

The Zina Ordinance which deals with the offences of rape, abduction of women, prostitution and adultery is by far the most controversial and rights groups have long pushed the government to reform or repeal the law.

Civil law

During the summer, the government proposed a women's protection bill that initially aimed to prosecute rape cases under civil rather than Islamic law.

Under the secular penal code there would no longer be a need to present four male witnesses.

The draft bill faced widespread condemnation from the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) - an alliance of Islamic parties - which threatened to resign from parliament if the bill were passed.

The government established a committee of religious scholars in an attempt to appease the religious parties.

It proposed a system whereby rape could be tried in either an Islamic or civil court.

There was, however, an additional clause that gave pre-eminence to the Hudood Ordinances over any law with which they might come into conflict.

Reaction

MMA legislators tore up copies of the bill and stormed out of parliament.

When the final bill was presented in September, members of the MMA along with some from the Pakistan Muslim League, walked out of parliament.

Rather than push the bill through anyway, the government decided to sideline it and have now returned to it again.

Some religious scholars are already preparing their reaction to any attempt to reform the Hudood Ordinances and are threatening nationwide protests if it is passed.

Qari Hanif Jalandhry, the general secretary of an Islamic group called Ithad-e-Tanzimat-e-Madaris-e-Dinya, said that the women's protection bill was a matter of faith rather than politics.

He told reporters at a convention of Islamic clerics: "If the government passes the bill as ... [we] will launch a nationwide protest move against the government."

Rights groups are hoping that Musharraf will push ahead regardless but they fear that even if he does, the new bill still does not go far enough.

Brad Adams, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said: "Any relief provided to those charged under these unjust laws is welcome.

"But the proposed amendments don't end the discrimination. The Hudood Ordinances are fundamentally flawed and must be repealed in their entirety."