[updated on 14 November 2008]
WAF seeks ouster of Zehri, Bijarani from cabinet
by Asim Yasin
ISLAMABAD: The appointment of Senator Mir Israrullah Zehri (federal minister for postal services) and Mir Hazar Khan Bijarani (federal minister for education) has come under severe criticism from the Woman Action Forum, which has demanded that these two should be dropped from the federal cabinet.
In an open letter to President Asif Ali Zardari, the Women Action Forum has said that the induction of these two, known for their anti-women role, into the federal cabinet negates the legacy of Shaheed Benazir Bhutto. “We request you to recall the legacy of Mohtarma Shaheed Benazir Bhutto and her tireless efforts to improve the lot of Pakistani women, towards the goal of women’s empowerment and gender equality.”
At the same time, the women rights activists praised the government for inducting progressive, forward-looking women including Ms Sherry Rahman, Ms Shahnaz Wazir Ali, Ms Shazia Marri, Ms Sassui Palejo, Ms Tauqir Fatima Bhutto, Ms Farzana Raja and others.
When this correspondent tried to contact ministers Israrullah Zehri and Mir Hazar Khan Bijarani for their comments, they were not available as they were busy in meetings. However, their close associates rejected the allegations saying that the ministers were enlightened, progressive and liberal-minded politicians having deep regard and respect for women.
Criticising the appointment of Senator Israrullah Zehri and Mir Hazar Khan Bijarani as federal ministers, the WAF said it was shocked, horrified and outraged at the appointment of Senator Mir Israrullah Zehri as federal minister.
“This is the man who is on record as having defended the barbaric and inhuman crime of burying women alive as “a traditional custom.” The WAF stated that Zehri also threatened, on the floor of the Senate, Senator Yasmin Shah, who had spoken against the heinous crime. “WAF is of the opinion that such beliefs reflect a blatant flouting with impunity of Pakistani law, according to which this heinous crime is murder with premeditated intent - a cognisable and non-bailable offence, which carries strong punishments. It is also a violation of the 1973 Constitution and the teachings of Islam.”
WAF Pakistan stated that it is outraged that despite evidence of involvement of Sattar Umrani and Fateh Muhammad Umrani (Balochistan PPP leaders) in these killings, the acting chairman of the Senate Jan Muhammad Jamali refused to condemn the killings, and the police investigating this case appears to have reached unsatisfactory conclusions.
The letter stated that the WAF salutes the brave local reporters who brought this news to public attention, as well as the national media and the civil society activists for following it up. “We are extremely concerned to note that they are now receiving open threats, and we call upon you and your government to provide them effective protection,” the letter stated.
The WAF Pakistan also condemns the appointment of Mir Hazar Khan Bijarani as federal minister for education. “Please, recall that Mr Bijarani is the MNA who headed a jirga in 2006, which made the decision to give as compensation 5 little girls (aged 2-5 years) to settle a feud between two warring tribes. Despite assertions to the contrary, WAF is in factual possession of documentary evidence about it,” the letter stated.
The WAF in its letter to President Zardari stated: “Such person is not fit to head the ministry of education, as he cannot understand the need to ensure equal educational opportunities for girls, or to develop and implement progressive education policies and programmes or forward-looking curricula.”
The WAF lamented that a minister for women’s development has not yet been appointed. It said it is strongly opposed to the idea of appointment of a JUI-F candidate or any other conservative individual for such a sensitive portfolio. “You have a number of good options for this post and there are many committed and progressive individuals, such as Senator Rukhsana Zuberi, and MNAs Ms. Fauzia Habib, Ms. Nafisa Shah, Ms. Bushra Gohar, who understand, subscribe to and advocate gender justice, equality and women’s human rights,” the WAF letter stated.
The letter said: “Mr. President, we recommend that you kindly re-read the PPP and the JUI-F election manifestos, particularly the sections on women, before you decide to allocate the ministry of women’s development to JUI-F or any other conservative party or individual. Just to quote some relevant sections from the PPP manifesto: “We promise to give high priority to empowerment of women and ensure their equal rights; the PPP commits to its sons and daughters of Pakistan an education system that enables a brighter future than that of their parents; the party will take institutional initiatives to prevent crimes against women in the name of tribalism, such as honour-killings and forced marriages.”
’Anti-women’ cabinet riles Pakistan activists
- Brutal attitudes alleged in row over new ministers
- ’Honour’ killings and giving away of girls cited
by Saeed Shah in Islamabad
Two notorious politicians accused of brutal attitudes towards women have been made cabinet ministers in Pakistan, causing outrage among human rights activists.
Mir Hazar Khan Bijarani, charged with presiding over a "jirga" which gave away five young girls as a form of compensation, and Israrullah Zehri, who recently made international headlines after defending the burying alive of women in "honour-killing" cases, have been elevated to ministerships.
Last year the supreme court ordered the arrest of Oxford-educated Bijarani over the allegations, though he remained at liberty. He has now been made minister for education. Street protests and angry newspapers editorials met the induction of Bijarani and Zehri, who were brought in as part of a major expansion of the cabinet last week.
"It is a very clear message from the government that they don’t care about these things," said Samar Minallah, a human rights campaigner who had brought the court case against Bijarani. "I think they deliberately chose these two people to be ministers to send that message."
The practice of settling disputes by awarding girls taken from the family of those convicted by a traditional meeting of village elders in a jirga to an aggrieved party is illegal but it continues in rural parts of the country. Bijarani, a land-owner from Sindh province, is accused of heading such a jirga in 2006, in which five girls, aged between two and five, were given as compensation to the family of a murdered man.
Bijarani, who denies the allegations, is a stalwart of the Pakistan People’s Party, an avowedly progressive party which leads the coalition government that came to power with the restoration of democracy earlier this year, following eight years of military rule under Pervez Musharraf. The government is led by Benazir Bhutto’s widower, Asif Zardari, as president.
"Is this the politics of appeasement?" said Tahira Abdullah, a member of rights group the Women’s Action Forum. "It almost looks like rewarding these men for their deeds against women."
Iqbal Haider, co-chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said: "The basic character of the cabinet is in support of honour killings. Had Benazir Bhutto been alive she would never have allowed this."
Bijarani claims he was acquitted by a lower court in his home province. However, it is unclear how a district court could have dismissed the case while it remains before the supreme court after Musharraf dismissed the judiciary in November last year.
"The jirga system has to be finished slowly," said Bijarani, appearing on a television show in recent days. "When education spreads, then it will finish."
Zehri, a member of Pakistan’s upper house of parliament from a minor party in the coalition, has been made minister for postal services. Earlier this year, in response to news that three teenage girls had been buried alive for trying to choose their own husbands, he told parliament it was "tribal tradition". He later said: "These are centuries-old traditions and I will continue to defend them. Only those who indulge in immoral acts should be afraid."
Cabinet of curiosities
By Ayesha Azfar
How do parliamentarians — and there are many besides Senator Zehri — pledge to follow the law of the land when, at the same time, they uphold archaic tribal traditions that militate against it? (file photo)
THERE are several names in the recently expanded federal cabinet that raise eyebrows. But none stands out more prominently — or sorely — than that of Senator Israrullah Zehri whose infamous defence in August of anti-women traditions in Balochistan created a national uproar.
The incident that led to Senator Zehri’s controversial remarks was nothing short of grisly. It involved the honour killing of at least two Baloch women believed to have been buried alive, although the police denied the presumed manner of their death after carrying out a post-mortem on the recovered bodies.
Admittedly, the senator has been given charge of a rather innocuous portfolio — the Ministry of Postal Services — and one sincerely hopes that he sticks to his department and does not start eyeing the still vacant top slot in the Ministry of Women Development. However, why a new portfolio was carved out of the Ministry of Communications to accommodate him, as seems to be the case, is something of a mystery. Unless, of course, it was Prime Minister Gilani and President Zardari’s intention to mollify the senator after the verbal battering he received at the hands of incensed women’s groups, the media and others.
This, probably, was not the case as Mr Zardari, surely, did not have misogynists in mind when he said after the Feb 18 polls that he wanted to take ‘everyone’ on board for a government of consensus.
Perhaps, in light of the highly unexplainable nature of Pakistani politics and its decision-making machinery, it would be a waste of time to look for an answer regarding Senator Zehri’s appointment. But the implications of it cannot be ignored and some basic reflection is in order.
First, what is the message that the administration is sending out to the people when it assigns a ministerial slot to a politician whose views on half the population would be disowned by any self-respecting government? It appears to be a tacit acceptance of a medieval stance that has struck fear in the hearts of women in all the provinces and brought nothing but shame to the country.
As it is, sexist remarks and gestures by our heads of state, past and present, have not escaped international notice. The inclusion in the cabinet of parliamentarians who hold not only conservative but downright barbaric opinions when it comes to the protection of women serves to reinforce the impression that Pakistan does not mean well by its female population.
Second, attempts to mollycoddle parliamentarians taking a dim view of standard human rights norms is very much at odds with efforts to promote women’s empowerment in the country. For instance, what does one make of the recent cabinet approval of a bill to eliminate harassment at the workplace — the brunt of which is borne by women — when there are minds in the ministerial team that are unable to grasp the idea of breathing space being allowed to the ‘other’ sex?
The truth is that legislation to do away with anti-women practices in society can only be effective when politicians themselves are convinced of the need to do so. After much debate in parliament, they may have succeeded in watering down draconian anti-women laws rooted in the Zia era by enacting the Protection of Women Act 2006, but what are they doing to stop girls’ schools from being bombed by Taliban militants in the north? Why aren’t those who preside over unlawful jirgas that sentence women to death in order to ‘protect’ family and tribal honour being caught and tried in a court of law?
The last point relates to the final but perhaps most pressing question of all. How do parliamentarians — and there are many besides Senator Zehri — pledge to follow the law of the land when, at the same time, they uphold archaic tribal traditions that militate against it? How do they condone the violent abuse of human rights on their own turf when their role as legislators in parliament forbids the violation of the constitution and the law?
The answer to this may lie in the crisis of leadership that we face today. It indicates the government’s inability, in fact, unwillingness to evolve a just order with an emphasis on equal opportunity for all — men and women, the rich and the poor. That may well be the reason why we are stuck with Mr Zehri and his ilk in the Senate, the assemblies and the cabinet.
Letters to the Editor
A misogynist in the cabinet
Wednesday, November 05, 2008
I was appalled to see the name of Mir Israrullah Zehri of the Baluchistan National Party in the list of ministers who were sworn into the newly expanded cabinet recently by President Asif Ali Zardari. Politicians as well as the Pakistani masses are infamous for having short memories, but that the nation can so quickly forget and forgive Mr Zehri’s impassioned defence of the horrendous practices of honour killing of women is a depressing testament to our collective national indifference and apathy. Just six weeks ago the Baluchistan senator had justified the inhumane practice of honour killings under the pretext that they were ’century’s old traditions’ meant only to punish those guilty of conducting ’immoral acts’.
His outrageous remarks had come when fellow Senator Bibi Yasmin Shah had raised the issue of the murder of five Baloch women whom The Asian Human Rights Commission had confirmed were brutally buried alive by men belonging to the Urmani tribe. These victims included three teenagers aged between 16 and 18 and two older women who were first abducted then shot, and while injured, thrown into a pit and buried alive. Their crime was that they wanted to get married to men of their own choice. The two older women were their mothers, killed possibly because they were sympathetic to their daughters’ wishes. Mr Zehri had stunned parliament by pronouncing that such medieval and barbaric traditions helped stop obscenity, and therefore, other legislators ought not to make a big issue out of it.
Not only did the Senate then give a largely muted response to such an outrageous remark (with the only notable exceptions being Bibi Yasmin Shah and three other senators), President Asif Ali Zardari has now rewarded Mr Zehri by appointing him as a minister in the cabinet. In any civilised society with even the tiniest amount of respect for human dignity, a man with such views would have been barred for life from holding any public office, yet in Pakistan, we see that he is elevated to the status of a minister with the due blessings of the president. How are Pakistani women suppose to feel secure or confident of getting their rights when men with such parochial and hidebound thinking are sitting in the highest echelons of power?
The inclusion of Senator Israrullah Zehri in the cabinet should raise some serious concerns about the PPP’s seriousness in fighting the menace of honour killings. Mr Zehri is the same person who defended the practice of honour killings as a ’tribal custom’ when the recent case of the alive burial of five women in Baluchistan was raised in the senate.
That he has been added to the cabinet on Nov 3 makes it all the more striking since the alleged perpetrator, Abdul Sattar Umrani, the brother of Sadiq Umrani, a provincial minister who belongs to the PPP, was also involved in a similar case in January 2006. After that incident, the police did not file a murder case for several months until Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry intervened.
The contrast between the PPP’s allergy to the restoration of the deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and its willingness to have ministers like Sadiq Umrani and Israrullah Zehri paints a clear picture about its lack of commitment to human rights causes. That neither the ANP nor the MQM, the other so-called liberal parties and allies of the PPP, have protested against the induction of supporters of honour killings into the cabinet also speaks volumes about where they stand. Whether the PML-N, the PML-Q and other opposition parties raise their voices on this issue in the coming days will reflect on their position too.
I am extremely disturbed by the appointment of Senator Israrullah Zehri as a minister in the federal cabinet. He is the same person who had earlier justified honour killing of women in the Senate. Not only did the PPP not condemn his words but for the sake of the coalition even appointed him as a minister. What is next? Making Baitullah Mehsud governor of NWFP to make him negotiate with the army? And worse what a negative role model the current government is providing to the youth like me. Should we start killing women to become ministers? I hope Mr Zardari does something right for once and reverses Zehri’s appointment as a minister.
Civil society condemns induction
Wednesday, November 05, 2008
by Myra Imran
Condemning the induction of Israr Ullah Zehri as minister of state, civil society activists on Tuesday said that the decision conveyed a strong message to the public to give up demanding their basic rights as the state was behind those who consider tribal traditions above the constitution.
Zehri is a senator from Jafarabad, Balochistan, representing Balochistan National Party in the coalition. He recently became a controversial figure on defending the tradition of honour killing, saying it was an old tradition that had to be respected.
In his comments after five women in Jafarabad were buried alive, he said that these were centuries-old traditions, and he would continue to defend them. “Only those who indulge in immoral acts should be afraid,” he said.
The civil society had called for his dismissal from the Senate over such remarks.
In August, the Asian Human Rights Commission reported that five women (including three teenagers) in a remote village of Balochistan had been beaten, shot and buried alive in a ditch for the ‘crime’ of having wished to choose their own husbands.
Expressing disappointment over the decision, the representatives of civil society said that nothing had changed. “We were expecting some change this time but the same tribal and feudal power structure is back in the government ranks once again,” the activists said.
Human right activist Tahira Abdullah said that she strongly protests the induction of Zehri and vowed to continue her struggle against the decision. “It is an unbelievable move by the Pakistan People’s Party leadership,” she remarked.
Tahira said that that she respects PPP’s manifesto and its workers for they had always been with civil society in the past but she was not expecting such a decision from its leadership. “The Zardari government is diverting from the party manifesto,” she pointed out.
Ethnomedia’s Samar Minallah condemned the induction of both Mir Hazar Khan Bajarani as minister for education and Zehri as minister of state. “Zehri should be given the portfolio of minister for honour killings whereas Bajarani should be appointed Minister for ‘Vanni’ and ‘Sang Chatti’,” she suggested.
She said that in 2005, Bajarani presided over a ‘jirga’ in Kashmore, Sindh, forcing five minor girls to be given as compensation for a murder through the custom of ‘Sang Chatti’ or ‘Vanni’.
“This decision gives a clear message to people that they should obey such decisions as there was no use of expecting protection from the state because same people rule the state as well,” she said.
Minallah said that information about these ministers on the internet speaks volumes about their reputation. She said that the bill on honour killing tabled by Federal Minister for Information Sherry Rehman states that all those who would aid or abet the killers should be liable for punishment. “Instead of punishing them, the government is awarding them with high ranks in the government,” she regretted.
Naeem Mirza of Aurat Foundation said that the decision was a classic example of political expedience. “Civil society that called for dismissal of Zehri as a senator has been given a disappointing response by the government by awarding him the cabinet portfolio.”
He said that the decision had proved that principles and civilised norms of governance and any kind of human face of politics did not hold ground in our politics.