Pakistan rights body accuses religious affairs minister of gender bias

NewsDrum Desk
31 Jan 2023

Islamabad, Jan 31 (PTI) A Pakistan rights body on Tuesday accused the religious affairs minister of gender bias for rejecting a woman candidate on a senior post under his ministry.

The National Commission of Human Rights (NCHR) went into action after it was said that Minister for Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony Mufti Abdul Shakoor refused to appoint Saima Sabah as Director General (DG) for Hajj for being a woman.

Sabah is a senior BS-20 officer of Pakistan Audit and Accounts Service who had applied for the post and reportedly came on top after the test but the minister refused to appoint her.

In December, Sabah said in a petition to the Islamabad High Court (IHC) that she had secured first position in a written test for the position by obtaining 71 marks out of 100 but was dropped due to gender discrimination.

The petition alleged that "the minister in charge of MORA and IH (Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony) made strange remarks against the gender of the petitioner" during the interview proceedings.

Sabah requested the court to direct the religious affairs ministry to declare her the successful candidate and issue her notification for the appointment of the DG Hajj accordingly.

The single member IHC bench had dismissed the petition but Sabah had filed an intra-court appeal. The high court reserved its decision in the case on Thursday.

The NCHR in reaction said the eligibility criteria for the position of DG Hajj did not exclude women.

It said that there existed a precedent of a woman serving as Saudi Arabia’s DG Hajj for 19 months so "why should Pakistan impose restrictions on the best qualified candidate Saima Sabah just because she is a woman?" In another tweet, the commission said that while Saudi Arabia was encouraging women to manage Hajj pilgrims, Pakistan's religious affairs ministry was “rejecting qualified candidates on the basis of gender”.

An audio clip of the interview, purportedly featuring Mufti Shakoor and Sabah, has been doing the rounds on social media.

In the leaked audio, a man believed to be Shakoor, in a conversation with a woman believed to be Sabah, can be heard saying: "Hajj is a religious mission and people from across the world attend it." "Our Hajj is completely dependent on the DG Hajj and people look up to him,” he says. "So if the appearance and personality of that person are not according to the Sunnah, what message will go about Pakistan’s mission?" At this, the woman can be heard confirming that she was indeed a Muslim and that her father was also a man of faith.

"No, I am talking about you … covering your head with a scarf is compulsory in our religion,” the male says. To this, the woman said that she agreed but would take a dupatta when she finds it necessary.

Shakoor later on in a Twitter statement cast doubts over the veracity of the audio and said that he could not even "imagine (committing) gender discrimination” while occupying a constitutional office.

"Casual chit chat after the interview was spliced, edited and presented in the alleged audio," he said, adding that he respected the female officer despite her "baseless allegations”.

He also announced to accept the verdict of IHC while saying that the woman officer tried to bring political influence for appointment.

Shakoor belongs to the hardline Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam religion-political party of Maulana Fazlur Rehman and is minister of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony in the coalition government. PTI SH ZH ZH

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