Pakistan lawmakers passed amendments to the country's contentious rape laws, making it easier for victims to prosecute their attackers, and dropping the death penalty and flogging as punishments for extramarital sex.
Islamist fundamentalists, however, were furious and stormed out of the National Assembly, or lower house of parliament, in protest at Wednesday's vote.
Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf applauded the lawmakers and said it was necessary to amend the "unjust rape laws" in order to protect women.
The changes, which are likely to be approved by the Senate, give judges discretion to try rape cases in a criminal rather than Islamic court, where women have to present at least four witnesses for a conviction.
Musharraf urged the Senate, or upper house, to pass the Protection of Women Bill within days.
The Senate will meet on Monday to discuss the bill, said Sher Afghan, federal minister for parliamentary affairs.
"We have a majority in the Senate, and the Senate will also approve the bill," he said.
The new legislation comes amid Musharraf's efforts to soften the country's hard-line Islamic image.
The amendments won cautious support from human rights activists, but they urged the government to take bolder steps and scrap the law, known as the Hudood Ordinance.
Pro-Islamic lawmakers, however, threatened to block the bill's passage in the Senate.
"We reject it," Maulana Fazlur Rahman, a top Islamist opposition leader, told reporters after the vote, which he described as a "dark day" in Pakistan's parliamentary history.
Strict Islamic laws dictate that a woman who claims rape must produce four witnesses in court, making a trial of the alleged rapist almost impossible because such attacks rarely happen in public. Those who admit that sex took place outside of marriage but cannot prove it was rape risk being charged with adultery.
Under the changes, consensual sex outside of marriage is still considered a crime, but punishable by five years in jail or a 10,000 rupees (US$165) fine instead of death or flogging, said a parliamentary official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Hina Jillani, a top female Pakistani human rights activist, said the government was moving in the right direction, but had not gone far enough.
"We wanted a total repeal of the 1979 rape law, but the government has not done it," Jillani said.
Musharraf and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said the amendments were not contrary to Islamic laws.
Discussion on the new bill broke down in September after the government failed to win support from opposition Islamic groups, particularly for abolishing the need for four witnesses to a rape. In a compromise, the government proposed the clause allowing a judge to choose to try a case in either a criminal court or in an Islamic court.