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Violent debate on women's rights in Pakistan

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Working for the public was a gift from God for Zille Huma Usman, Punjab's provincial minister for social welfare.

But two weeks ago, Muhammed Sarwar violently disagreed, killing her before a crowd because, he said, God does not allow women to work. He later told police that he felt no remorse for his crime.

Ms. Usman's death, which shocked the country, comes at a moment of violent flux over the role of women in Pakistan. As the Pakistani government clamps down on Islamist extremists, the conflict over competing visions of Islam has enveloped the issue of women's rights, turning it into a battleground issue between moderates and Islamist extremists.

"There is a growing sense of menace among women. I've heard working women express anxiety about driving on the streets alone. They work not only because they have to, but as a statement," says Jugnu Mohsin, the publisher and managing editor of The Friday Times, a progressive weekly newspaper. She adds that the threat emanates from a minority segment of society, but has grown worse over the years, incited in part by legislative victories favoring women's rights over fundamentalist interpretations of Islamic law.

In December, Pakistan's Parliament passed the Women's Protection Bill, which amended the Hudood Ordinances, a set of religious laws long considered discriminatory toward women. But by shifting the laws from religious codes to secular ones, the bill unleashed widespread political discontent.

"The Women's Protection Bill has focused attention on the issue. Women have become the target because it's a victory for women, even a partial victory," says Kamila Hyat, joint director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in Lahore.

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