Pakistan’s battle with Islamic extremism intensified yesterday when a fanatical religious preacher shot a woman cabinet minister for not wearing a Muslim veil at a public meeting she was about to address.
Zilla Huma Usman, Punjab’s Minister for Social Welfare and a strong campaigner for women’s rights, died on her way to hospital. The 36-year-old had previously invoked fundamentalist wrath for organising a marathon in which women were allowed to compete.
Ms Usman was shot in the face from less than two metres away as she was being showered with rose petals by supporters on arrival at a public meeting at the ruling Pakistan Muslim League’s building in Gujranwala, 70km north of Lahore.
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Her bearded attacker, Mohammad Sarwar, called out: “Why aren’t you in Islamic dress?” and calmly shot her in the left side of her face with a pistol before he was wrestled to the ground.
Ms Usman, a mother of two sons and a widely respected politician who was a strong supporter of President Pervez Musharraf, was wearing a traditional Pakistani shalwar kameez, that consists of a tunic and baggy pants, which would have been acceptable to the maulvi (religious cleric).
But her sin in his eyes was not wearing the traditional veil – the so-called dupatta that Pakistani women use to cover their heads and which religious extremists insist they must never be without. Sarwar, a stone mason in his mid-40s, was calm when he appeared later on Pakistani television, telling an interviewer that he had carried out God’s demand that women who sinned should be killed.
“I have no regrets. I just obeyed Allah’s commandment,” he said, adding that Islam did not allow women to hold positions of leadership.
“I will kill all those women who do not follow the right path if I am freed again,” he declared.
Sarwar, a father of nine, gained nationwide prominence as an alleged serial killer in 2003 charged with shooting dead three prostitutes and wounding six others in late-night attacks targeted at “debauchery”.
Reports yesterday said he had been “surprisingly acquitted in all these cases … as most of the families of the victims received attractive money or did not appear in court”.
Ms Usman, a lawyer who was the wife of a doctor, was elected to the Punjab Provincial Assembly four years ago and was a strong supporter of women’s rights and General Musharraf’s so-called policy of “enlightened moderation”, designed to deal with religious extremism.
Last night, Pakistani leaders from General Musharraf down expressed outrage over her killing, the country’s minister for social welfare describing her death as “an unbearable loss to the cause of women’s rights and their empowerment”.