Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani president, has vowed to give women more rights in line with his policy to project Pakistan as a moderate, progressive Islamic nation.

Inheritance rights

"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.

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 the Quran 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.

The bill would also outlaw notorious customs like "vani", where blood feuds in rural areas are settled by offering young girls in marriage to the offended party.

Police said last week that a four-year old girl was married to a 45-year-old man in a remote northwestern town to settle an argument, leading to the arrest of 12 people from two families.

Shaukat Aziz, the Pakistani prime minister, said the legislation would prevent the exploitation and discrimination of women and showed the government was committed to women's rights.

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

Violence against women

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.

Those who accuse Musharraf of trying to introduce Western secular values into the country, staged demonstrations across Pakistan to protest against the changes, which they called 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 "honour killings", nearly twice as many as the previous year.