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Pakistan: Minister and fighter for women’s rights killed by fanatic

Zilla Huma Usman
Zilla Huma Usman

Zilla Huma Usman, 35, Pakistani minister and fighter for women’s rights, has been shot dead by an Islamic fundamentalist. Ms. Usman was about to address a meeting of party activists in Gujranwala, 120 miles south east of Islamabad, where her office is based. When she stepped out of her car, the attacker fired a single shot from his pistol at close range at her and hit her in the head. She was airlifted to a hospital in Lahore, but died soon afterwards.

Zilla Human Usman was minister for social welfare in Punjab province and joined the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League after being elected in 2002. She was a strong supporter of the President’s policy of “enlightened moderation” and an outspoken and courageous proponent of women’s emancipation. In April 2005, she encouraged the holding of a sports event involving female competitors in Gujranwala. The program led to riots and police had to protect it from armed Islamic fanatics, who tried to disrupt it. Ms Usman also run a fashion shop and encouraged women to wear modern dress. Giving an example, she herself used to wear salwar kameez like many professional women in Pakistan, and to go without veil. Ms Usman was married and mother of two sons.

The assassin, Mohammad Sarwar, is a stone mason in his mid forties, who seems not to belong to any fundamentalist outfit, but is known for his fanatism. After his arrest, he appeared relaxed and calm when he told a television channel that he had carried out God’s order to kill women who sinned. “I have no regrets. I just obeyed Allah’s commandment,” he said, adding that Islam did not allow women to hold positions of leadership. He also criticized that the minister did not obey the Islamic dress code and wore no veil. “I will kill all those women who do not follow the right path, if I am freed again,” he said. Sawar had been previously held in connection with the killing and mutilation of four prostitutes in 2002, but was never convicted due to lack of evidence.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in a recent report said that violence against women had increased alarmingly, with some of the incidents incited by Mullahs opposed to women’s emancipation. Islamists also campaigned against the Women Protection Bill which was recently passed by parliament, which seeks to provide protection to women who have suffered discrimination under Islamic Sharia laws.

Women are gravely under-represented in Pakistan politics. They make up about 20 per cent of the lower house of parliament, and there are three women ministers in the cabinet of the federal government.