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Strength in challenging times: Women stemming the tide of intolerance

In Pakistan, 2011 started with a shock. On the 4th of January Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was killed. Shot at close range by his own guard. It shook every intellectual who had a keen interest in the proceedings of the socio-political landscape of Pakistan and it was a particular blow to the relatively liberal mindset of the country. Taseer was allegedly killed due to his opposition of the country’s blasphemy laws and his visit to Pakistan’s first women convict to be given a death sentence. Asia Bibi’s case, was an accusation of blasphemy after an argument over drinking from the same water bucket while working in a field. Other women did not like it that Ms. Bibi, a non-Muslim, touched their drinking water. Asia was accused of committing a crime under Article 295(C) of Pakistan Penal Code which is punishable by life imprisonment or death. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are said to be incompatible with the International human rights standards as they impose undue restrictions to the freedom of expression and freedom of religion. At times, a mere accusation of blasphemy can incite a vigilante mob to burns down a whole village.

In light of the increasing pressure on Pakistan by the international community, the late Governor Salman Taseer went to visit her in prison despite warnings from his legal advisors and rights advocates, a courageous step which cost him his life. To the surprise of many, the local media and most TV anchors along with the lawyers’ community applauded the step of the murderer, Malik Mumtaz Qadri, causing an outcry from the more liberal civil society groups throughout Pakistan. The religious minorities felt isolated and terrified. The Christian teacher next door whom I hardly spoke to came to hug me and share condolences saying, ‘whatever happened is sad.’

The recent events seem to be signaling to Pakistan’s foreign donors that extremist elements within the country have gone far beyond the control of the state authorities, which needs to be addressed. Anyone can be shot in the streets if what you say or do is considered abusive or unaligned to their cause. Numerous countywide rallies and demonstrations have been organized in favour of blasphemy laws. The European Parliament has recently passed a resolution demanding President Asif Ali Zardari to grant a pardon to Asia Bibi and repeal the laws. The Vatican City has pressed for a pardon too.

The question is how will Pakistan handle the massive infiltration of extremism into its institutions, including the security, education and media sectors? How will it keep the countries that keep the Pakistani economy afloat happy without causing massive unrest in the country itself? Thus, Pakistan finds itself between a rock and a hard place, or, as the local saying goes, between a valley and water well.

The clerics openly challenged the liberals of Pakistan, threatening that whosoever will show solidarity with Salman Taseer will meet the same fate. I personally was very impressed by the courage of a few Pakistani women in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, who disregarded the death threats and openly condemned the acts of the religious leaders who kept on inciting hate and violence among their followers in mosques. While following some surprisingly malicious discussions and arguments on social media platforms, I noticed that these women do not try to hide their identities or use pseudonyms when airing their views. I decided to meet a few of these women to discuss how they still saw hope for a possible solution while many have declared it a hopeless a situation since talking of change has precipitated violent reactions. I traveled to the three major cities of the country to find out how these women see this growing divide within the country as being bridged and to find out what compelled them to put their lives at risk for what they do.

Starting my exploration from Lahore, I met Bushra S. of SAFMA who had to cancel a conference on ‘Women and Extremism’ due to the untimely death of Taseer. In an informal discussion, she shared concerns about the level of distrust (read fear) which emerged almost abruptly between employees in the same organization. “We do not know if we can trust our drivers, cooks or guards anymore. We have no way of knowing how they are being influenced by the current state of affairs,” she said. “Due to the threats, no one was willing to attend the reference (a type of wake, ed.) arranged for the governor, and we, as a nation, are moving towards polarity,” her tone dripped with apprehension.

I was invited to meet Beena Sarwar, a journalist and activist, at a reference for Salman Taseer in Karachi. The event was organized from the platform of ‘Citizens for Democracy,’ an umbrella network of individuals and organizations from political, social, corporate and legal entities, spearheaded by Beena. She instructed me to meet her at the Karachi Arts Council. A few hours before the event, I was informed the venue for the event had been moved to Pakistan Medical Association House due to security threats. “The Arts Council people refused to hold the event at the last moment as they said they were receiving threats from extremist elements,” Beena told me later. “We could not even inform people about the last minute change in venue but still managed to have a good turnout. You saw it.” she said to me. And I did see it; the small hall had about five hundred participants. “The PMA House has been receiving threats too.” she added.

Meeting different Christian groups in Karachi’s Abbasi Shaheed hospital, I got the feeling that many religious minorities saw the late governor’s ‘act of kindness’ had put them at further risk. They felt that the reactionary vigilantism was to be expected. Some representatives of the Hindu community also share this view. They feel that the country was not prepared to deal with the violence. Beena thinks otherwise, saying this was no time for the minorities to keep quiet. “They can either keep on suffering in silence or join us in the fight to end this madness,” she said. “Our work and support will help strengthen the government in tackling the issue,” she added while pointing out the need to show solidarity with the bemused government who had just lost a prominent leader.

Marvi Sirmed, an Islamabad based activist and journalist has voiced her disapproval of the act by the elite force guard in print and electronic media. I was to meet her in the local hotel but the plan changed due to her security advice. We met at her Islamabad office instead. Marvi does not see the Taliban as being responsible for this wave of violence and intolerance but rather the ‘politicization of Islam’ which is now rooted deeply into the system. She says that the middle class youth who spent most of their time on social networking platforms were previously thought to be apathetic to the Islamization process. “They are the people who changed their profile pictures on Facebook to that of Qadri’s. That battle from within is going to be the toughest one which has been so infused into our general social fabric. They are not the extremists, these are the Islamist elements.” Speaking of possible ways to move forward, she admitted it being a much tougher battle than before and regarded the battle to repeal or amend the blasphemy laws a symbolic one. “When we will win the blasphemy law battle, then the real war begins.” she said. “We need to take Pakistan back by having greater presence in the Urdu print media and social networking platforms. We are few, but not so few.” she added, pointing to the lack of progressive writers in Urdu newspapers that shapes the opinion of the majority of country’s population.

Marvi is of the opinion that the shaping of current scenario lies on the failure of the civil society to collaborate with the politicos and the electoral mandate of Pakistan. “Some of us [activists] have approached the U.S congressmen to ban entry of biased journalists to their country. The west needs to realize that we have a common enemy with the west so we need to work together.” she said, emphasizing on the need to collaborate with the international media and the West [U.S]. “Let us be friends with the world. No one has benefit attached to our destruction, let us give sanity a chance.” she pleaded. Marvi is a person who has not stopped believing. “My daughter, in whom I see our future generations, gives me hope. I have been threatened to be killed several times, even on local TV shows, and the fact that I am not killed yet, it gives me hope!” she said smilingly.

Coming back to Lahore I had the chance to witness a very different face of Pakistan. I was invited to attend a Consultation for Economic Empowerment of Women at the Lahore Chamber of Commerce and Industries. I met over thirty leading women entrepreneurs of the city. The highlight of the event was a statement made by the key speaker, Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan, Federal Minister for Women Development. She shed some light on the need to utilize the potential of women, who are more than half of the country’s population. “Extremist mindset is the major speed-breaker for women rights. We have to overcome this extremist mindset. Let us sit together and work on a plan of action to engage this 51 percent of population, a great potential which is not utilized.” The sense of urgency in her tone was clear. Although a very different set of women leaders, it does highlight that Pakistani women have no plans of succumbing to the pressure by the extremist elements to run their lives.

Salman Taseer's death acted as an intolerance barometer for many and has shown how deep the divide is in Pakistan. If all the stakeholders do not unite to address the issue of radicalization, vigilantism and further politicization of religion in the state, Pakistan's institutions will continue to decline into fragmented, biased institutions. The repeal of the blasphemy law does not appear to be the solution. It is of fundamental importance to win back the population that has been lost out to the extremists due to repeated security lapses (bombings), power cuts and corruption. The government and the civil society must collectively address the current challenges which have given the extremist elements the opportunity to flourish and gain popularity, with a much wider reach than originally perceived possible. I was personally inspired by the courageous journeys of these remarkable women. The efforts of these Pakistani women may be a small contribution in the greater challenge and it may take years before the desired results are seen. But the fact that these messengers of peace keep the struggle alive is a great sign.

This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 30 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most unheard regions of the world.

Comments

Nusrat Ara's picture

You have written about a very

You have written about a very important issue at present for the people of Pakistan. I was really shocked to know that lawyers so facilitators of delivery of justice applauding the killer. This is the worst time for Pakistan and it's only upto its people to bring it back on the track.

You have done well to put out the perspective of women.

Keep writing. May God bring things /people on track soon in Pakistan. Till then you will have to put a fight.

Love

Nusrat

Iffat Gill's picture

Nice to hear from you

Thank you for your comment Nusrat. These brave women do give other like-minded women the courage to keep the struggle alive, no matter how bad things get. It is always up to the people of the troubled country to work for its betterment and improvement and I hope things get somewhat better soon in this country.

Best wishes.

Iffat Gill

Potter's picture

Brave Article Bravely Written

Mariposa, thank you for this article! It was encouraging to read the words of so many brave women, determined to assert their voices, including your own. You are building an amazing network and bolstering the courage and effectiveness of all your Pakistani sisters.

Iffat Gill's picture

Need of time

Thank you for your comment dear Jana. I do think it is a crucial time for the country and the decisions made today will definitely play an important part in how the future will take shape.

Best.

Iffat Gill

Lisa Cox's picture

Module 2

Hi MariposaAsia

I was assigned to review your module 2 assignment and loved every minute of it! Your passion for the topic came shining through. Although I have no experience with the issues you wrote about, your article made me want to join forces with the women you interviewed and walk with them in their fight for tolerance. Keep thinking, keep questioning, keep speaking out and keep writing - you are doing a great job!

Iffat Gill's picture

Glad to hear that

Dear Lisa,

I am glad you liked the piece. There is so much good work being done in the country to promote 'sanity' and 'peace' but a lot needs to be done still. The people struggling for it could be few in numbers, but they are really putting up a fight. It was an extremely touching experience for me to speak to these people who put their lives at risk for a cause they believe in.

Best wishes.

Iffat Gill

WILDKat's picture

Stakeholders unite, blasphemy's at hand

I appreciate the effort to which you have researched and interviewed women leaders about extremism in Pakistan. You well inform the reader of the circumstances surrounding the murder to which you begin your article and around which the entire issue of inciting violence is couched. Your starting angle of the assassination of a man who was interested in delivering justice for a woman accused of blasphemy and the price he paid for that caring, startled me. You further make the case for this international story to draw a focus on greater social challenges in Pakistan with religious views of extremists.

Your personal story and experience living and working for women's rights in Pakistan reveal how deeply you connect with those who are dedicated to those changes. You draw back the curtain of Pakistan's tolerance and solutions for women in this conflicted culture of wanting to be modern within an ancient set of values

Naturally grateful,
Kat Haber

"Know thyself." ~ Plato

Iffat Gill's picture

These questions

Dear Kat,

After the event the visit of the governor to the blasphemy law victim, all eyes were set on the ruling party. A female member of parliament, Sherry Rehman (also from Pakistan People's Party) had submitted a private members bill to amend the anti-blasphemy laws. The questions I was trying to address are a concern for every Pakistan. Will the current government continue to kneel in front of the Mullahs to save their government or will they take a stand.

During my research, I also found out that Sherry Rehman was not the only member who submitted a private member's bill for the amendments. There were other members including women parliamentarians, but she was the only one who was highlighted and later targeted, as was the governor. This also is a question mark as to why certain people's actions are highlighted more and then a propoganda is built around it in a very irresponsible manner by the opposition and the local television talk show anchors. The role of media is also of vital importance in shaping the current scenario of the country.

Pakistani women who have 'modernized within an ancient set of values' are very unique in their approach to both religious and cultural challenges. And I find it amazing myself, how we mange to do it!

Thank you for reading and for such a wonderful analysis of my piece.

Best.

Iffat Gill

Mariposa,

In an age of ever swift media, the quickening of the truth may ultimately be the slippery slope over which injustice will fall. Your critical citizen voice may give birth to the end of blasphemy laws in Pakistan and their use as weapons of silencing voices of opposition. Write on, Mariposa!

Naturally grateful,
Kat Haber

"Know thyself." ~ Plato

Iffat Gill's picture

Thank you for the kind words

Thank you for the kind words Kat. appreciate it.
Best.

Iffat Gill

Ruun Abdi's picture

Dearest Mariposa, This is

Dearest Mariposa,

This is beautifully written and you presented it so well. Although I don’t know much of the issues in Pakistan or their jurisdictions and how different religions have been treated but reading your article made me aware of many things I didn’t know before. Accusing someone for touching a drinking water! this is really sad and I wish all people had known well their religions because in Islam its allowed for Muslims to eat what Christians have cooked, if this is allowed will touching water makes it dirty?!

For sure all Muslims, Christians and the whole world got one common enemy and its the terrorists. For example, in Somalia it’s been considered to be the only country which 100% Muslims. But now we have got some who came from out side the country claiming they are the real Muslims and everyone who opposes them will be killed. They killed many people, mutilated others by cutting their tongue and ears claiming they were spy, they also cut hands and legs of other civilians - what kind of people are they??? few hours ago an attorney has been assassinated in one of the stable cities in my state (we consider this state to be stable but the truth is there have been assassinations for prominent figures including attorneys, religious leaders, businessmen and government officials), they shoot them when someone is entering or coming from the mosque. we cant call such people they are really fighting for religion but rather they are targeting everyone who can help their country and people, they are targeting everyone they think can bring change to the community.

I am so happy to hear that brave women in Pakistan are taking their part to raise the issue and raise their voices.

Regards

Iffat Gill's picture

Dear Ruun Abdi, Thank you for

Dear Ruun Abdi,

Thank you for your comment. It is equally sad for me to read the somewhat similar situation in your country where vigilantism and intolerance towards other human beings is at its peak. Urgent steps should take place globally to facilitate peaceful survival for our future generations.

Best.

Iffat Gill

Rachael Maddock-Hughes's picture

Very Well Written!

Great job on this assignment Mariposa. I particularly love the pace and flow of your writing--you really keep the reader engaged and interested the entire way through. I also love the fact that you went to so many different places to speak with women leaders--that is courageous and I am sure it was an eye-opening experience for you. One thing that I think would make the piece even stronger is to identify who these women are--are they Muslim? Christian? Hindu? That will make the background just a bit clearer.

The state of Pakistan these days is heavy with chaos and you get the sense that we are all waiting for someone or something to come up with a solution. Thank you for bringing the voices of these women on the ground to the forefront of our thoughts.

Keep up the great work!

Rachael

"In every human heart there are a few passions that last a lifetime. They're with us from the moment we're born, and nothing can dilute their intensity." Rob Brezny

Iffat Gill's picture

Hi Rachael, Thank you for

Hi Rachael,

Thank you for your comment, and for your interest in the situation in Pakistan. All these women I met were Muslims mostly, who are raising their voices for the equality of all citizens of Pakistan. The Christian organizations and their representatives have to keep a low profile if they want to stay alive to keep on working on such issues! I did meet the top few Christian organisations and minority groups in all of the three cities I visited. The religious leaders from the Christian community mostly refrain from commenting when speaking to mainstream media people. But there are some powerful organizations who are trying to bring a change at the policy making level, which is most important right now.

Best.

Iffat Gill

warona's picture

Great!

Dear Mariposa!

This is well laid gal, thank you for taking us through.

All the best to you gal

Warona

"success will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time " And when confronted conquer with love

Iffat Gill's picture

Greetings Warona, Thank you

Greetings Warona,

Thank you for your comment. Best wishes.

Iffat Gill

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