Violent Debate on Women's Rights in Pakistan ; A Recent Murder Indicates a Backlash by Some against Women as Their Rights and Opportunities Increase

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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.

"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. …


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