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.

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