'Anti-women' Cabinet riles Pakistan's activists

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” (council) that 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 newspaper editorials greeted 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.

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?” asked Tahira Abdullah of the Women’s Action Forum. “It almost looks like rewarding these men for their deeds against women.”

Iqbal Haider, co-chairperson 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.

“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.”—

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