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KARACHI, Nov 21 2008 (IPS) - 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’’.
"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.
Recalling the pressure he faced in getting a resolution passed in the senate in 1999, to condemn honour killing, Haider, said: "I was consistently told to withdraw the resolution.’’
His resolution was in response to the cold-blooded murder of 29-year-old Saima Sarwar in the offices of her lawyer by her own parents, when she sought to divorce her husband. "When I wouldn’t succumb to the pressure, they would keep putting off the debate. When the resolution was finally taken up for voting, many senators slipped out …others abstained from coming into the hall,’’ Haider recalled.
Of the 30 legislators who had signed on Haider’s resolution to define honour killings as simple and brutal murder and to make them compoundable offences so culprits do not go scot-free, 22 opposed the bill and he was left with four people who stood by him.
"Zardari seeks to blackmail us by saying that his new cabinet appointments should not be protested against because the alternative is military rule. This strategy is working, but ultimately something will have to give," said Hoodbhoy.
"I am shocked at the appointments, but more shocking is the silence of our women parliamentarians," said Samar Minallah, an anthropologist who has been at the forefront of the movement to get rid of the custom of vani.
"The Zehris and Bijranis, I can understand, share a certain kind of a mindset which will take ages for them to 'unlearn' but what I fail to understand is why our women representatives are so silent!" Minallah said. "They are actually supporting these two appointments by remaining silent.’’
She sees these appointments as the worst form of "perpetuation of violence against women on state level".
Terming the silence of the legislators, male or female, "disheartening", Adil Najam said: "It either comes from a sense of utter despondency or from an actual acceptance of the views that these two (ministers) seem to espouse."
"I hope it is the first, but the second one would be a really tragic indictment of all of us as a society."
In the Gender Gap Report for 2008, the World Economic Forum indicates the low social and economic status of Pakistani women, ranking it 127th among 130 countries. Perhaps the only silver lining is that in the category of political empowerment of women, it came 50th, a legacy of the Musharraf government that allowed women to come into politics even if it was through reserved seats.
The WAF holds the President accountable for the promises made in the PPP manifesto to take "institutional initiatives to prevent crimes against women in the name of tribalism, such as honour killings and forced marriages".
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