Violent debate on women's rights in Pakistan

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Working for the public was a gift from God for Zille Huma Usman, Punjab's provincial minister for social welfare.

But two weeks ago, Muhammed Sarwar violently disagreed, killing her before a crowd because, he said, God does not allow women to work. He later told police that he felt no remorse for his crime.

Ms. Usman's death, which shocked the country, comes at a moment of violent flux over the role of women in Pakistan. As the Pakistani government clamps down on Islamist extremists, the conflict over competing visions of Islam has enveloped the issue of women's rights, turning it into a battleground issue between moderates and Islamist extremists.

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"There is a growing sense of menace among women. I've heard working women express anxiety about driving on the streets alone. They work not only because they have to, but as a statement," says Jugnu Mohsin, the publisher and managing editor of The Friday Times, a progressive weekly newspaper. She adds that the threat emanates from a minority segment of society, but has grown worse over the years, incited in part by legislative victories favoring women's rights over fundamentalist interpretations of Islamic law.

In December, Pakistan's Parliament passed the Women's Protection Bill, which amended the Hudood Ordinances, a set of religious laws long considered discriminatory toward women. But by shifting the laws from religious codes to secular ones, the bill unleashed widespread political discontent.

"The Women's Protection Bill has focused attention on the issue. Women have become the target because it's a victory for women, even a partial victory," says Kamila Hyat, joint director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in Lahore.

Although not directly related, recent events suggest a growing arc of violence against women and girls. In the North West Frontier province, at least three girls' schools have been bombed, and threats circulated by pamphlets have directed female health workers to leave the area.

Despite what appears to be escalating violence, government officials say the situation is under control. "We are cognizant of the matter, and we are taking all possible measures to make sure the area does not get Talibanized," says Brigadier Javed Iqbal Cheema. the director of the National Crisis Management Cell, which deals with matters of internal security.

A troubling parable of Pakistani society, observers say, rests at the intersection where Usman and her killer collided on the afternoon of Feb. 20 in Gujranwala, a northeastern city of more than 3 million.

Usman, the first female politician in her family, was a proud symbol of change. Thanks to national laws which allotted one-third of all local legislative seats for women, some 30,000 women entered local politics after 2001, according to a 2004 World Bank study.Usman herself began working up the ladder four years ago.

"She was very interested in giving charity to the poor. Her belief was that if you want to work, it is no matter if you are a man or a woman," her husband, Muhammed Usman Haider, says at the family home in Gujranwala. "I'm proud to say she's the most pious woman. She knows more about Islam than anyone."

Meanwhile, religious leaders universally condemn Mr. Sarwar's stated motives, and while few clerics would support his extreme actions, the rising violence indicates that there may be segments of society who do. A debate rages over what Islam says about a woman's right to work and hold office.

"Whoever did this was wrong. She was not un-Islamic. There is nowhere in the Koran that women cannot hold office, as long as they act with modesty," says Aqeel Ahmed, who works at a computer shop in Gujranwala.

More than religion, what most disturbs observers is that Usman was not Sarwar's first victim. In 2003, he confessed to police that he had killed at least four women and wounded four others, mostly prostitutes and dancers.

His gruesome acts made national headlines, but when Sarwar appeared in court, he changed his story and the cases fell apart. There were also allegations, according to the local press, that religious leaders paid compensation money to the victims' families, who eventually dropped the cases.

While police deny any wrongdoing or neglect in Sarwar's previous cases, his frequent run-ins with the law, observers say, expose the institutional discrimination at work within the Pakistani justice system.

"[Women] are not getting real justice. They're not going through the police and the judiciary ... It will take so much time and insults of that lady," says Humaira Hashmi, the regional general manager of the Punjab Rural Support Program in Multan, which addresses issues of women's rights.

Such lapses are part of the larger fabric of abuse toward women that goes unchecked in Pakistani society, according to observers. An October 2006 United Nations report highlighted that honor killings claimed the lives of 4,000 men and women between 1998 and 2003 in Pakistan.

"Police almost invariably take the man's side in honor killings or domestic murders, and rarely prosecute the killers," said a 1999 Amnesty International report. "Even when the men are convicted, the judiciary ensures that they usually receive a light sentence, reinforcing the view that men can kill their female relatives with virtual 'impunity.' "

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