ISLAMABAD: The National Commission of Human Rights (NCHR) on Tuesday expressed “serious concerns” about the rejection of a female candidate for the Haj director general’s (DG) position, allegedly on the basis of her gender.
In December, Saima Sabah, a BS-20 officer of Pakistan Audit and Accounts Service, contended 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.
She had 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 Haj accordingly.
The petition alleged that “the minister in charge of MORA and IH (Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony) passed strange remarks against the gender of the petitioner” during the interview proceedings.
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 Sabah had filed an intra-court appeal. The high court reserved its decision in the case on Thursday.
Addressing the matter, the NCHR said the eligibility criteria for the position of Haj director general did not exclude women while noting that Sabah was the highest-scoring candidate for the job with 71 marks.
It said that there existed a precedent of a woman serving as Saudia Arabia’s DG Haj for 19 months so “why should Pakistan impose restrictions on the best qualified candidate Saima Sabah just because she is a woman?”
In a follow-up tweet, the commission said that while Saudia Arabia was encouraging women to manage Haj pilgrims, Pakistan’s religious affairs ministry was “rejecting qualified candidates on basis of gender”.
An audio clip of the interview, purportedly featuring Minister for Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony Mufti Abdul 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: “Haj is a religious mission and people from across the world attend it.”
“Our Haj is completely dependent on the DG Haj 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 with him but would take a dupatta when she finds it necessary.
Subsequently, the man asks the woman about the significance of 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, Shakoor doubted the veracity of the audio and said that he could not even “imagine [committing] gender discrimination” while occupying a constitutional office.
“Casual chitchat 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”.
Shakoor said that he would accept whatever the court decides, and requested the IHC to rule on the matter soon.
The minister alleged that the female officer had tried to exert political influence on the appointment prior to her accusations.