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Pakistan's Newest Cabinet Members Support Premeditated Murder of Women

Women in Pakistan's parliament have been surprisingly silent about the anti-woman appointments.


KARACHI -- By appointing as cabinet ministers two politicians known for their anti-women views, Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari has stirred up a storm of protests from rights activists and prominent personalities who believed that an elected government would help their country emerge from feudalism.

A "slap" in the face of "decency" is how rights activists in Pakistan have described the elevation of Senator Israrullah Zehri, who made headlines recently when he supported in parliament the barbaric custom of honour killing as being "part of our custom" and declared that he would defend it.

The other politician to be given a ministry, this month, was Mir Hazir Khan Bijarani. In 2006, he was ordered to be arrested by a five-member Supreme Court bench for participating in a jirga (tribal council which is both judge and the jury and banned since 2004) that encouraged the practice of vani (in which minor girls are married off to end blood feuds).

The charges against Bijarani -- that of heading a jirga that gave away five girls, aged between two and five, as compensation to the family of a murdered man -- were later waived by a lower court and the President has now put him in charge of the education ministry.

In an open letter to President Zardari, the Women Action Forum (WAF), a women’s rights organisation, said it was "shocked, horrified and outraged" at the appointments and demanded that the two politicians be dropped from the cabinet immediately.

The WAF letter said supporting honour killings was ‘’a blatant flouting with impunity of Pakistani law according to which this heinous crime is murder with premeditated intent’’ and a ‘’cognisable and non-bailable offence carrying severe punishments’’.

Islamabad-based peace activist Pervez Hoodbhoy said the cabinet appointments reinforced ‘’the general feeling that Pakistan is still light years away from peoples’ participation in government, and that what is today called democracy is nothing but a sleazy system of patronage’’.

"It will adversely affect the [ruling] Pakistan People’s Party. These decisions are in utter disrespect to the legacy of its slain chairperson Benazir Bhutto," warned former senator Syed Iqbal Haider. "The ruling elite seems least pushed about the public opinion" and is only "inviting disrepute" by such decisions, said Haider.

Echoing Haider’s sentiments, Adil Najam, a political analyst, said these appointments were not only morally wrong but also as a "political mistake".

According to Najam, Zardari should have removed them to make the point that he is, indeed, a "different person not just another ‘wadera’ (feudal lord) whose sensibilities have been tempered by his years in the wilderness’’.

"By simply ignoring the public outcry as if it were not even happening, he is sending the signal that he does not care," explained Najam.

"Zehri’s appointment ensures that he will use his position to protect the killers," said A.H. Nayyar who, like Hoodbhoy, is a prominent, Islamabad-based peace activist and academician.

Nayyar’s reference was to the support given by Zehri for the live burials in August of five women for opposing marriage plans for three of the women, in their teens, by tribal leaders in his native Balochistan province.

It is a generally-accepted fact that it is Pakistan’s feudal culture that has allowed the persecution of women and the political scene to be dominated by a large sprinkling of people drawn from the feudal class.

But what has most disappointed rights activists and people like Nayyar, Najam and Hoodbhoy is the brooding silence in parliament that has greeted the appointments.

"Such issues were taboo during the times when I was in the senate, getting the harshest possible reactions… not much seems to have changed since," said Haider.

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