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Women’s Rights Activists Under Attack in Pakistan

By 25 September 2012 No Comment

In a cruel illustration of coincidence, on the morning of July 4, 2012, even as the Women’s Empowerment Group of Pakistan (WEG) was holding a conference for female journalists, 26-year old Farida Afridi, co-founder and human resource manager of SAWERA organisation, was murdered. Afridi was openly assassinated as she left her home for work in Peshawar. Her death has a chilling resonance: it is similar to the murders of Zartif Khan Afridi, a well known human rights defender in the FATA region, in December 2011 and Mukkaram Khan Atif, a journalist from Mohmand district, in January 2012.

Sisters Farida and Noorzia Afridi were identifying and meeting the needs of the women and children of FATA in the Khyber Agency region, having co-founded the Society for Appraisal and Women Empowerment in Rural Areas (SAWERA) NGO in 2004. But for Farida, an eight-year dream run came to a sudden end with, what her sister tells Newsline was, a first-of-its-kind experience for the SAWERA organisation.

The issue surrounding women’s rights activists in Pakistan is two-sided. The UN explains that women ‘human rights defenders’ who experience security threats in the course of their work “are targeted for who they are” (women) and “for what they do” (advocating and pursuing the rights of women). In Pakistan, women’s rights activists are targeted because it is the inherent “nature of the job” explains Khawar Mumtaz, CEO of Shirkat Gah, in a conversation with Newsline. But, ironically, it is even more dangerous to pursue the rights of women in Pakistan if one is a woman. This paradox becomes apparent when Samar Minallah, a documentary filmmaker and human rights activist since 2002, explains how it is her gender, specifically, that makes “it easier for me to interact with rural women.” But despite this advantage, female humanitarians are simultaneously “more vulnerable,” according to Ms Mumtaz. Thus, while a woman campaigning for women’s rights in Pakistan may find her job easier than her male co-workers because of the ease with which she can bond with the target society, she is also likely to face great dangers.

A fitting illustration of this danger is what happened to Asma Jahangir and her fellow associates when they attempted to arrange a mixed gender marathon in Lahore in 2005. In the wake of incidents such as the Mukhtaran Mai case, Jahangir, one of the founders of the Woman’s Action Forum (WAF) and the former chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), wished to raise awareness concerning the abuse of women in the country. However, a police contingent was despatched to put paid to the plan and the posse was given strict orders to be brutal in their dismissal of the gathered crowd. As a result, the participants of the marathon were beaten and their clothes ripped – including Asma Jahangir. Similarly, Samar Minallah actually had to go into hiding after her life was threatened following the role she played in helping to raise awareness about the brutality of the Swat flogging released on video in 2009.

Khawar Mumtaz describes how working as a woman in the 1980s, during Shirkat Gah’s early days, was admittedly dangerous, but the threat always minimal. Back then, she says, women’s rights advocates would often receive threatening letters and telephone calls, but she believes that the risk has become far more “palpable” now, with physical abuse and murder a common occurrence.

Women’s human rights activists in Pakistan are threatened perhaps because the locals, particularly men, fear the changes that NGOs will bring to their villages: women, enlightened about their rights, will eventually begin to assert themselves. This is not acceptable in a predominantly patriarchal society. Bushra Gohar, a parliamentarian from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, has said that those NGOs are targeted that try to change the established status quo. This, contends Samar Minallah, is because men fear “the power structure being disturbed and challenged.” Sarah Zaman, Director of War Against Rape (WAR), a humanitarian organisation that focuses specifically on rape victims in Pakistan, explains to Newsline that police officers become “incensed” because they believe the changes in the law (and those too, very few) mean that women now have the opportunity to register false rape charges against men. Furthermore, even though the men in the victims’ families are often supportive in allowing the WAR team to provide legal and psychological help to their abused women, but when it comes to the disbursement of funds the women are pushed to a side while the men negotiate the terms with WAR members. Mukhtaran Mai’s case further illustrates this point. She is famous world-over simply because she dared to raise and make her voice heard when all others before her had been stifled. Her story is unique in that she is not only a human rights activist for others – a key point in the UN definition of the term – but she was first and foremost an activist for herself: after being sexually assaulted by a group of men in her village, Mukhtaran bibi appealed to the highest courts in Pakistan, thereby setting a precedent for all women. Even though controversy now plagues the credibility of Mukhtaran Mai’s case, after Bronwyn Curran, author of the book Into the Mirror and former Islamabad correspondent for the AFP, suggested in 2006 that it was not Mukhtaran Mai but a cleric who registered the charge on her behalf, the one lasting consequence of the Mukhtaran Mai case has been the establishment of the Mukhtaran Mai Women’s Welfare Organisation that aims to educate young girls. Mai’s own motto is: “The end of oppression through knowledge” (Oslo Freedom Forum speech 2010).

Meanwhile, the threat factor for women remains potent. In March 2012, the Hifza Brigade threatened to attack co-ed schools, cyber cafes, CD shops, cable TV operators and NGOs in the Manshera district, if they did not immediately cease their activities. This incident highlighted the prevailing – and growing – attitude towards technological innovation. The UNICEF, USA and Germany partner with SAWERA, for example, and it is possible that this knowledge leads the groups that regularly threaten NGOs to believe that their work is being propelled by an alien influence. Sarah Zaman endorses this when she says that NGOs in general are viewed as “foreign agents that rant and rave about issues that don’t exist and take money (in dollars) from foreign agencies that know nothing of our culture, all with an aim to malign Pakistan’s pristine society.”

Qudsia Mehtab Mahboob (Head of Corporate Communication of the Women’s Empowerment Group of Pakistan), a journalist who has worked in Khyber-Pakhtunkhawa, Abbottabad and Sindh, believes that often other reasons, beyond merely gender, are the cause of violence in Pakistani society. While admitting that some areas in Pakistan, particularly the NWFP where she has conducted field work, can reflect a conservative mindset, she asserts that this is not the prevailing attitude in all of Pakistan. She explains that “cultural sensitivity” is the key to safety. As a journalist who has worked in the field gathering information concerning HIV aids, as well as trying to bring to light the issue of sexuality in traditionally conservative locations of Pakistan, she feels that people can be quite open if approached in the right way. Despite the fact that she travelled unaccompanied, she discloses she was only met with slight reproach at first, and was eventually warmly accepted. Samar Minallah similarly opines that once she secures the trust of the people she needs to interact with, she has found them to be “generally open to ideas and change” after which “things move smoothly.”

Bilquis Edhi shares a similar opinion in a candid interview with Newsline. A humanitarian who has been part of the profession for 42 years and has worked in places near the Israel border as well as in Chaman on the Pak-Afghan border, she explains that she has not once felt threatened or insecure in the course of her work. Nonetheless, she believes that the key for women involved in promoting women’s rights is not to cross certain “limits.” Belonging to and working within an “eastern” milieu, she says that rights activists must not violate local cultural sensibilities. Her assertion concerning the need to toe the line would then, still seem to point back to gender as a determining factor in local social attitudes and practices. Ms Noorzia Afridi is a local of the FATA region herself and has worked there for the past eight years, and she clarifies that the changing mentality among a generally conservative-minded society (referring to the tribal areas) is not as thorough as it may appear. Talking about the increased awareness of the importance of education, she explains how the quantity belies the quality – although many more girls are now receiving an education, it is only at the most basic level. Those women who wish to pursue higher education find themselves restricted. She cites her late sister, Farida Afridi, as one of the very few women who had a higher education degree – a Masters in Gender and Women Studies.

When it comes to help from the government, little is expected and little is desired. Asma Jahangir has received numerous death threats throughout the course of her work; in 1995 she was threatened for her defence of a 14-year old boy, Salamat Masih, who was accused of writing blasphemous words on the wall of a mosque and subsequently sentenced to death. Jahangir won the case but was later hounded, along with her driver, and her car was smashed outside the high court. She also received death threats during her defence of 32-year old Samia Sawar who was trying to secure a divorce from her husband. As recently as June 2012, she shared with the press how only recently she had been tipped by a “credible source” about a plot to murder her. Despite these experiences, she has expressed the belief that the government cannot be relied upon to help human rights activists in her position and that betterment will only come from the effort of private citizens.

Bilquis Edhi also maintains that she too has never accepted government donations – nor does she wish to. She is happy to rely solely upon private donations from the general public.

Mukhtaran Mai, the ‘world’s bravest woman’ in 2005 according to Glamour magazine and the person “who has been more courageous – or more effective – in the struggle for women’s rights in the developing world” according to prominent New York Times writer Nicholas D. Kristof made a rather sombre observation when she said that there is no hope for either the poor or the women of Pakistan (PBS: Need To Know, May 5, 2011).

Not only does the government provide little assistance when it is needed, which leaves NGOs little choice but to turn to foreign help, according to Ms Zaman, the “state actors,” all the way up to “DIG level police officials,” actually obstruct the work of female humanitarians. Furthermore, according to Zaman, she and her staff, the majority of whom are females, often find it hard to be taken seriously by the authorities.

But Noorzia Afridi contends that the government’s lack of support to humanitarian agencies cannot change the fact that it is still one of the only institutions that can actually provide the required security.

Although SAWERA has never been in contact with, nor received help from the government, Afridi says that those organisations in her area with links to the government have greater security than those without. In other words, NGOs have no choice but to rely upon the government, despite its futility, because without its support human rights workers are much more vulnerable.

Everyone seems to agree on one point, however, and that is the need to involve more men in the advocacy of women’s rights. Zaman believes that this is one way to open people up to the idea of women’s rights, while Samar Minallah says that in order to have a “lasting change” men also need to get “on board” the advocacy train. Perhaps this can convince the doubters of women’s rights that it is something worth fighting for – a universal cause that requires a universal effort.

This article was originally published in the September issue of Newsline under the headline “Death By Gender.”




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