By Saud Mehsud
DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan July 20 (Reuters) - Clerics in northwest Pakistan have issued a temporary ban on women shopping unless accompanied by a male relative, a police official said on Saturday, in a step designed to keep men from being distracted during the holy month of Ramadan.
Police are supporting the ban, announced over mosque loudspeakers on Friday in Karak district in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, district police official Fazal Hanif told Reuters.
Unaccompanied women will be arrested and shopkeepers may be punished for selling items to women on their own.
One trader said he feared the ban would affect business and damage the region's reputation.
"We never supported this ban and convened a meeting on Wednesday to protest over the clerics' decision," Munwar Khan, one of the merchants in the region, told Reuters.
Vast swathes of rural Pakistan, whose name means "Land of the Pure", are deeply conservative. Thousands of women have been killed in recent years for behaviour their families considered improper.
The mosque announcements said the ban was intended to stop men from being distracted during Ramadan, when Muslims are meant to fast from dawn to sunset. The annual period of fasting and prayer falls in July this year.
The ban was proposed by a faction of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party led by Fazl-ur-Rehman, local administration official Sarfaraz Khattak said.
Such religious parties have typically performed poorly in Pakistani elections, winning only a handful of seats. But mainstream politicians are often slow to criticise religious leaders, partly for fear of being targeted by their supporters.
Some residents of the area also oppose the ban.
"The male members of the family don't have enough time to take women to the market," said Mohammad Naeem Khattak. "Where can women go for shopping if they are banned in the market?" (Additional reporting by Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar; Writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)