New Internationalist

The making of an Islamic Jack the Ripper

May 2007

Hafiz Muhammad Sarwar is a notorious serial killer of women, but – unlike Jack – there’s no doubt at all about his identity. In fact, he’s a free man who thinks women should be secluded. Abbas Zaidi tells a disturbing tale about the underbelly of politics in Pakistan.

When, on the morning of 21 February 2007, a bearded man walked up to a woman and asked ‘Why aren’t you wearing proper Islamic dress?’ he was not looking for an answer. It was just a rhetorical question because, before the woman could respond, he had pumped a bullet into her head which killed her.

The woman – dressed so traditionally that only her face was visible – was Zill-e-Huma, who at the time was addressing a public meeting in her capacity as Social Welfare Minister of Pakistan’s largest province, Punjab.

After shooting the Minister, Hafiz Muhammad Sarwar calmly stood his ground, allowed the police to arrest him and said loud and clear: he had killed the Minister because, as a good Muslim, she was supposed to be staying inside her home and not ruling men. The rule of women, said Hafiz Muhammad Sarwar, was anti-Islamic. Women seen outside the home are evil. ‘I have killed her out of conviction that she was leading an un-Islamic life and spreading an evil influence on other women.’

He also proudly claimed that in the past five years he had killed twelve prostitutes and seriously injured dozens more for being immoral women: ‘One immoral woman will cause one hundred men to go to hell in the hereafter; hence no immoral woman should be left to stay alive.’

The police officers there confirmed that Hafiz Muhammad was a well-known prostitute-killer. When asked what would happen to his children, he replied: ‘I am not worried about the future of my children. I have killed the women in line with God’s commandments and He will take care of my children.’


The immediate reaction to the murder was this: Pakistan’s President, Prime Minister and scores of Ministers and Members of Parliament condemned the murder and pledged ‘exemplary’ punishment of the killer (which means the hangman’s noose). One female Senator, who is a member of General Musharraf’s ruling Muslim League, demanded that at least one female relation of the killer be murdered, just like Zill-e-Huma had been murdered. Religious scholars and leaders also condemned the murder, but claimed that a ‘foreign hand’ (read: India) was behind it. Come sunset, and the electronic media had reduced the whole episode to a one-liner.

Next day, newspapers wrote condemnatory editorials on the murder, but in the same breath added that ‘Maulvi Sarwar’s murders had nothing to do with his being an Islamic fanatic because he was mentally unsound’. Interestingly, few mentioned that the killer is a hafiz or that ‘Muhammad’ is a part of his name. A hafiz is a person who has memorized the Qur’an and can recite any part of it from memory. According to Muslim beliefs, on the Day of Judgement a hafiz will not only be given a very high place in Paradise, he will also be allowed to take at least a dozen people with him. A few newspapers rightly called him a maulvi, a term used for anyone who has a beard – whether such a person is religious or not is irrelevant. Even Karl Marx is half-seriously spoken of as Maulvi Marx’. But both religious and liberal leaders of Pakistan – male and female – were outraged. The Pakistan Senate held a session in which a joint Government-Opposition statement was issued condemning the use of maulvi for the killer. ‘Calling the murderer a maulvi is a conspiracy against Islam!’ said the statement.

Who is Hafiz Muhammad Sarwar?

The hafiz is a locksmith who lives with his wife, five daughters and four sons in Baghbanpura, a poor township of Gujranwala, Pakistan’s fourth-largest city. He got his education from a madrassa (an Islamic seminary) and graduated as a hafiz. Later he earned his living teaching little kids how to read the Qur’an in Arabic.

You cannot separate the hafiz from the city – a place where I was born too. Gujranwala used to be known for its wrestlers, and for sumptuous roasted sparrows and pigeons, until the Islamists conquered it in the late 1980s. Now Gujranwala is known as the most ‘Islamic’ city of Pakistan. It has given more jihadis and martyrs to the world than any other place in Pakistan. More actors are arrested for immorality in Gujranwala than anywhere else. Theatres and cinemas have almost disappeared from the city. Noted an editorial: ‘He was not the only one who was inspired. The city’s police and the magistracy equally took part in “acts of piety” by arresting actresses from the city theatres. Only Maulvi Sarwar went further than that.’

It is in Gujranwala that people – Muslims and Christians – have routinely been shot, slashed and burned alive for blasphemy. The victims of blasphemy have been involved in incidents like accidentally dropping the Qur’an. Salamat Masih, the little Christian boy who was given refuge by Germany after a death fatwa was issued against him for insulting the Prophet Muhammad, also belonged to Gujranwala. Gujranwala has so many jihad- and piety-related trophies that it is impossible to name them in just one article. Interestingly, the present Minister for Cultural Affairs of Punjab also belongs to Gujranwala; he very reluctantly accepted the portfolio, saying that the very concept of culture is anathema to Islam.

Divine mission

Hafiz Muhammad Sarwar, a Wahhabi by religious persuasion, started his divine mission on the night of 3 November 2002 when he shot Dabbi, a poor prostitute. Within six months he had killed half-a-dozen prostitutes and hurt many more in Lahore and Gujranwala, and came to be known as ‘Serial Killer’. At the time of his arrest in 2004 he proudly confessed to having killed ‘immoral’ prostitutes. His favourite method of attack was to knife or shoot the prostitutes just above the crotch. If they survived the attack they would be paralyzed or permanently disabled (which actually happened).

But he was never punished, because his affluent Islamist friends and patrons took care of the murder witnesses and the relations of the prostitutes, either by paying them the Shari’a-sanctioned blood money, or by simply terrorizing them. During his incarceration he was examined by a noted psychiatrist who pronounced him ‘normal’ but religiously fanatical. Thus, after spending one year in jail, he was a free man. His patrons helped him set up in business as a locksmith, and he enjoyed the reputation of an honest, clean man.

It is interesting to note that no-one, including the women’s rights-intoxicated NGOs, came forward to take up the cause of the prostitutes. Why? Because those unfortunate women belonged to extremely poor families, and in Pakistan highlighting the plight of the prostitutes is not a politically correct thing to do. Western-funded NGOs raise Cain over those issues (like AIDS, population control, child labour) that win them space in the Western media; but the real issues – like the epidemic of poverty-caused prostitution, endemic sodomy in the madrassas and incest – are not even touched upon.

Not alone

Hafiz Muhammad Sarwar is certainly an Islamic Jack the Ripper. But he is not alone in his mission. It is the entire Pakistani civil society that has created, nursed and honoured him. And that includes General Musharraf’s bogus hocus-pocus of Enlightened Islam. Just to give a couple of examples: within hours of Zill-e-Huma’s murder, an independent television channel in Pakistan showed interviews with two young women. Both of them had been raped by men with power and political connections. One was raped 37 times, with three of the rapes carried out in a police station by police officers. Another channel showed a 15-year-old girl who had been gang-raped by five men. She, her parents, relatives and neighbours insisted that the rapists were at large and living in a nearby village, and that the police had refused to take action against them; but the Deputy Speaker of the Province insisted that the rapists were in jail.

On 22 February, English schools and colleges in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier province began to be closed, after Islamists threatened to blow them up because the female students were not wearing veils. A rocket was fired at a girls’ school in Quetta. On the same day the Islamists’ ‘anti-anti-polio’ campaign gained new momentum, winning the following comment by an editorialist: ‘The report that a cleric in Swat has been telling people not to get their children vaccinated is yet another reminder that there are some areas in the country where clerics have so much sway that they are able to force the local population to live a life more typical of the Dark Ages. Coming on the heels of the murder of a doctor and three health workers recently in Bajaur Agency, who were killed because they were spearheading the polio vaccination campaign there, this episode concerning an anti-vaccination maulvi needs to be dealt with sternly by the Government.’

Way out

The above may sound dispiriting to Pakistan watchers. But Islamists, by and large, while regretting violence against women, claim there is an easy way out. Women should not step out of the home at all. On the evening of 1 March, ATV, Pakistan’s official channel, hosted Wajood-e-Zan (Existence of Woman) in which a scholar said: ‘A woman who steps out of her home has no fear of Allah!’ He also said that women are allowed to take up only those professions where they deal with their own gender alone.

Whatever one may make of the scholar’s statement, one must appreciate his candour. That the four walls of the home guarantee security and honour to women is a common belief of the mainstream religious leadership of Pakistan. They are not willing to discuss what will happen to the country if more than half of the population is put in seclusion. They believe that if women are not seen, men will not be provoked at all. But, as my journalist friend Tahir Malik says, sex is not just visual but instinctive: just look at the blind. •

Abbas Zaidi’s writings have appeared in Exquisite Corpse, The Salisbury Review, New York Press, Arts and Opinion, Killing the Buddha, New Partisan, GOWANS, and many more. He is Asian Editor of GOWANS. He is doing a PhD on the sociology of Punjab.

This column was published in the May 2007 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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