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
"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
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