Pakistan: Clerics forbid aid via women in earthquake-hit Pakistani Kashmir Print E-mail
 -- August 24, 2006

Pakistan clerics tell quake aid groups 'no women'


ISLAMABAD -- Muslim clerics in part of earthquake-hit Pakistani Kashmir have told aid agencies to fire all local women employees or face violent protests, officials and religious leaders said Thursday.

The threat, given to district officials and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Bagh city Tuesday, will dent hopes that the October 8 quake could have a positive effect on women's rights in the conservative region.

"We have told the administration that we won't allow NGOs to exploit our women and asked them to give a date suitable to them for removal of all female workers," Syed Atta Ullah Shah, prayer leader of the Bagh central mosque, said.

"If our demand is not met then we will take direct action and extreme steps. There will be demonstrations and damage may be caused to public property and a law and order situation would be created in the area," he added.

The religious leader said that locals were angered by "obscene" activities at NGOs.

"They hire beautiful girls and take them to Islamabad for enjoyment. They keep women in offices as decoration pieces because we know that women have no work and there no such work that men cannot do," Shah said.

The 7.6-magnitude earthquake, Pakistan's worst ever disaster, left more than 73,000 people dead and 3 million homeless. Tens of thousands remain in tented refugee camps.

Aid groups say that female workers are vital to ensure that religious and social conventions are respected when dealing with women in the devastated region, especially for health matters.

The United Nations, which has coordinated aid efforts after the quake, said that it was aware of the issue.

"Discussions are going on with the government and clergy. Things are not finalized yet," Raabya Amjad, public information officer for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said.

Officials and police said that the administration had assured the clerics that a solution would be found by September 3.

"They warned that NGOs cars and compounds will be stoned and burned, shops will be closed, and demonstrations will happen throughout Bagh city if NGOs fail to fire all female employees," one aid official said on condition of anonymity.

The clerics had told NGOs that they were thankful for their help in the wake of the disaster, but that it hurt their beliefs and social values to see Muslim women mixing with strangers, the aid official said.