NationalVOLUME 18 ISSUE # 16

How the system fails Pakistan’s women!

Our system has failed Saima Sabah, a competent and tested woman, who had proved her eligibility for an important post. In fact, our system has failed almost 49 per cent of the population of the country. The Islamabad High Court dismissed a plea of the BS-20 officer of the Pakistan Audit and Accounts Service on February 19, 2023, against the religious affairs ministry, ruling that the decision to not appoint her the Haj director general had nothing to do with her gender.

The outcome of the case was obvious, which was filed by the government officer against a ministry, whose boss didn’t like the woman officer to be appointed the Haj director general for his own reasons. Everybody can guess how the case would have been pleaded before the court from both sides. A two-judge bench, comprising IHC Chief Justice Aamer Farooq and Justice Saman Rafat Imtiaz, observed that there was no recording on an official level during the petitioner’s interview with Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony Minister Mufti Abdul Shakoor for the post.

The court observed that the conversation between her and the minister was recorded by the petitioner herself, an act that was neither appropriate nor could be relied upon as evidence. In December 2022, Saima Sabah contended in a petition to the Islamabad High Court that she had secured first position in a written test for the Haj DG slot by obtaining 71 marks, out of 100, but was dropped due to gender discrimination. The petition alleged that the minister had passed strange remarks against her gender during the interview. Along with her petition, she had also submitted a transcript of the alleged interview. However, a single member IHC bench had dismissed her petition, after which she had filed an intra-court appeal. But she failed to prove her point before that bench too.

The National Commission of Human Rights (NCHR) had earlier expressed ‘serious concerns’ about the rejection of a female candidate for the DG Haj position, allegedly on the basis of her gender. The commission said the eligibility criteria for the position did not exclude women, and noted that Sabah was the highest-scoring candidate for the job with 71 marks. The commission also cited the example of Saudi Arabia where a woman served as the Haj DG for 19 months. “So why should Pakistan impose restrictions on the best qualified candidate, Saima Sabah, just because she is a woman,” the commission raised a question. In a follow-up tweet, the commission said that while Saudi Arabia was encouraging women to manage pilgrims, Pakistan’s religious affairs ministry was “rejecting qualified candidates on the basis of gender”.

A leaked audio had won the woman officer public sympathies, but at the same time it landed her in real trouble. In the audio, a man believed to be Minister Mufti Abdul Shakoor, in a conversation with a woman, believed to be Saima Sabah, can be heard saying: “Haj is a religious mission and people from across the world attend it. Our Haj is completely dependent on the Haj DG and people look up to ‘him’. 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 reassuring the minister 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 minister tells the woman. To this, the woman replies that she agrees with him, but she will wear a dupatta when she finds it necessary. Then the man asks the woman about the significance of the hijab and her choice of not wearing one. “What impression would it give to countries around the world?” he asks.

Later, in a statement through his Twitter account, Minister Mufti Abdul Shakoor doubted the veracity of the audio and said that he could not even “imagine committing gender discrimination” while occupying a constitutional office. “A casual chit chat after the interview was spliced, edited and presented in the alleged audio,” he claimed, adding that he respected the female officer despite her “baseless allegations”. However, the National Commission of Human Rights and civil society members believe that the religious affairs minister asked the interview panel to fail the female officer.

In September last year, tests and interviews were conducted for the posts vacated on Nov 30, 2022. Twenty officers of grade-20 appeared for a written exam for the post of DG Haj. Saima Sabah had secured 71 marks in the test, while Amjad Khan of the Officer Management Group scored 61. The two were declared successful, after which the alleged trouble from the minister began.

According to a private television report, the Prime Minister’s House was informed about the successful candidates, based on their gender, seeking permission for them to retake the examination. However, the Establishment Division rejected the demand. Then the minister found a way out, sources in the ministry told the channel. In an interview held on October 26 last year, he planned to fail both successful candidates with the interview panel joining hands with him. During the 48-minute interview, the minister kept Saima Sabah occupied with questions, and later failed her by giving her zero marks.

When the audio went viral, the minister alleged that the female candidate had illegally recorded the interview proceedings, and that an inquiry would be initiated against her. It was a veiled threat to the female grade-20 officer of the Pakistan Audit and Accounts Service that if she decides to go along the judicial proceedings, she might face a departmental action for “illegally recording the interview process”. It is a simple question: how come a candidate securing the highest marks in the written test would get zero marks in the interview? And its simple answer is that Saima Sabah was failed by an anti-woman mindset, and the other simple answer is that the country’s system failed almost 49 per cent of the population of Pakistan.

The writer is a physician by profession. She has worked as an intern at the Capital Health (New Jersey) & the Mount Sinai St. Luke’s Hospital (New York). Rights and gender issues are the areas of special interest to her. She can be reached at: [email protected]