Broken Promises: The Punjab Women’s Protection Act

It’s a shame, but not much of a surprise, that eight months after the passage of the Punjab government’s Protection of Women Act, it has not yet been implemented. Unfortunately this is illustrative of the fact that when it comes to women’s empowerment, the government talks a good talk, but tangible and measurable follow through is hard to find.

The Act was to base its foundations in a system of Violence Against Women Centers, or VAWCs for short. The VAWCs were envisioned as a one-stop shop where women who suffered domestic violence, rape, or any other kind of assault could come and be treated like humans and survivors instead of animals and criminals. Women could find shelter close to their homes rather than having to go to a bigger city, as VAWCs would be set up in every district in Punjab.

Poor women victims of violence do not have the funds or the freedom to run here and there to get their complaints redressed, their medical and psychological needs attended to, and the legal process streamlined and made easy for them. The VAWCs would provide medical services and on the spot first aid for victims. They could file FIRs and medico-legal statements at an on-site police desk. They could obtain hard-to-find legal and psychological counseling services. A toll-free number provided for complaints and investigation services were also planned to be housed under the VAWC’s roof.

Yet the Bill, passed in February, is still to be “notified” for implementation, whatever that means in the strange language of Pakistan’s bureaucrats and government offices.  Foreign diplomats and the heads of international aid agencies were invited to the groundbreaking ceremony of the first Violence Against Women Center, but today, based on Imran Gabol’s report, we find that the inaugural VAWC, for which Rs. 40 billion were allocated, has yet to be completed, with a projected completion date of December 2016 at the earliest.

Last November, I was in the Hague for a global conference on Women’s Shelters, and I was fortunate enough to interview the renowned lawyer and women’s rights activist Hina Jilani (Asma Jehangir’s sister). We spoke about the VAWC, and she told me she hadn’t even been invited to its inauguration, despite her decades of work in establishing women’s shelters and advocating for the survivors of domestic violence.

She didn’t express much optimism in the government’s ability to actually implement and successfully run a program of this scale. Her doubts seem to have been borne out today, in light of Resident Director of the Aurat (Women) Foundation Mumtaz Mughal’s observations that the Bill can’t truly be implemented until and unless the first VAWC is actually completed. Furthermore, she said the government didn’t have enough funds to establish such costly centers in every district, and that the currently existing Darul Aman shelters were being “upgraded” to fulfill the government’s promise.

This is the problem in Pakistan when it comes to the “uplift” of women. The government promises a lot, but delivers nearly nothing. Even the laws that have been passed for women’s protection come with catches, loopholes, and frankly a lack of willpower to make them strong and active. And the idea of a Protection For Women’s act still remains nascent in the face of the overwhelming belief in Pakistani society that women can and should be beaten and abused in order to keep them in line, in order to maintain a man’s authority, and more than often enough, just because a man feels like it.

This is why in Pakistan we need much independent research on the actual effectiveness of these bills, these acts, these organizations. We cannot trust that the government is doing anything more than floating big ideas that it has no true intention of making reality.

This holds true even in the case of BISP, the Benazir Income Support Program, run by the very capable and hardworking Marvi Memon (a personal childhood friend of mine), which is by all accounts proving successful in giving income support to the poorest women of Pakistan. BISP’s transparency and credibility will be strengthened if there is independent research and assessment conducted by a variety of groups: gender researchers, economic thinktanks, donor agencies, and independent journalists.

For every promise, there needs to be accountability, otherwise we can relegate the Punjab Women’s Protection Act to that stuck drawer where all the other protections promised to Pakistan’s women lie and gather dust.

Pakistani women and national defense

The way nations wage war, make peace and protect their borders has changed immeasurably over the last fifty years, and Pakistan, at the forefront of today’s conflict zones, cannot remain immune to these changes. One of the fundamental transitions in this respect is the growing recognition by global security experts of the ways that war and conflict affect men and women, civilians and soldiers. Because of this reality, neither can war be conducted nor peace achieved without the active participation and inclusion of both women and men in all aspects of safety, security, and peacekeeping. This change presents an exciting opportunity for Pakistan’s women to participate more fully in Pakistan’s national defense system, to the benefit of the nation only.

Historically, women have been part of Pakistan’s military since 1947. At first they were only allowed to serve in the medical branch; even today the majority of Pakistan’s 4000 women officers serve either in the Army Medical Corps or the Armed Forces Nursing Services. Within these limits, there was no restriction for how high women could go; Pakistan is the only Muslim or developing nation to have had two women generals, both serving in the Army Medical Corps. In this way Pakistan has led the system for both developing countries and Muslim nations in the inclusion of women in the armed forces.

Gradually women began to serve in different non-combatant branches of the military: the Education Corps, ISPR, Signals, Engineering, and IT departments are currently the most popular avenues to military career for women. Combat roles for women is a bit controversial issue, because of social conservatism and strong opinion beliefs that women should not be on the front lines of war. While a select few have been trained as pilots in Pakistan Air Force and as paratroopers, and while Pakistani women serve in the police and in the UN peacekeeping forces, it’s unlikely that Pakistan Army will induct women in any significant numbers to fight alongside men on the conventional battlefield.

In Pakistan, the military and national defense arenas have always been dominated by men making all important decisions in strategy, logistics, peace talks, treaty negotiations, and peace-keeping efforts. However, in the year 2000, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1325, which recognized “the inordinate impact of war on women” and “the pivotal role women should and do play in conflict management, conflict resolution, and sustainable peace.” And while this resolution applies to UN peace and security efforts, Pakistan, as a member of the United Nations, by incorporating and implementing its clauses in national security policy mechanism, it in its own national defense strategy so can become a role model for Muslim nations and developing countries in the forward march towards women’s empowerment.

The UNSC Resolution 1325 reaffirms “the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts and in peace-building, and stressing the importance of their equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security, and the need to increase their role in decision-making with regard to conflict prevention and resolution.” This resolution recognizes the fact that war has changed in profound ways: it has been increasingly targeting civilians, with an upsurge in gender-based violence such as rape and sexual assault, as seen in the Syrian war or the Kashmir conflict. It also recognizes that women have been significantly left out of any peace processes, such as in the current peace negotiations taking place in Afghanistan.
The four pillars of UNSC Resolution 1325 are:

• Increased participation of women at all levels of decision-making.
• The protection of women and girls from sexual and gender-based violence.
• Improving intervention strategies in the prevention of violence against women.
• Advancement of relief and recovery measures to address international crises through a gendered lens.

Pakistan’s women have much to offer in terms of talent, skills and capability in the all-important role of defending the country against attacks or security threats. Yet as the UN resolution illustrates, Pakistani women can help build strong institutions to maintain peace and security by offering their perspectives on the analysis of conflict, as well as their strategies on “creating ties across opposing factions and increasing the inclusiveness, transparency, and sustainability of peace processes.”

The increased participation of women at all levels of decision-making is most necessary in the case of Afghanistan’s peace-making process. Pakistan must play a guiding role in encouraging the participation of women in this process, as a successful peace treaty will not last without the inclusion of women in the negotiations. In Pakistan, treaties negotiated amongst and with warring factions have never included women negotiators, and at places women have been excluded from election process which weakens the democratic institutions of the country.

Women’s peace representatives should also be made part of any conflict resolution processes in Pakistan, such as in traditionally male-dominated jirgas. This is the only way to achieve equitable solutions to conflicts that are fair to both men and women in communities affected by war, terror, and insurrection.

Involving women and women’s networks in conflict resolution, in peace settlements, and in voting will result in increased security for women, not just in refugee population and camps in Pakistan, but also in communities and areas where lack of education and opportunity lead to instability and loss of security. The only way to create a comprehensive and empowering role for the most disenfranchised women of Pakistan is to emphasize their role as leaders, not victims, by including them in all aspects of decision-making, including national, international and regional institutions, in mediation and conflict resolution, in peace-keeping forces like the police and the Rangers.

The protection of women against gender-based violence in conflict must be one of the cornerstones of Pakistan’s national defence policy. Usually the women are perceived as “second-class” citizens, the gender-based violence is counted as a “second class” crime. The prevention of gender-based crimes should be top priority of the state, with Pakistani women involved in the creation of intervention strategies specifically designed to protect female cader. Women must also be involved in the prosecution of those who violate national and international laws and commit gender violence. Women should be given a lead role in strengthening laws for the protection of women, because they are best-placed to advocate for what women need from Pakistan’s legal system. A simple example is the tribal practice of using women as compensation for crimes; it is only when women are part of legal reform that these “solutions” – which are in fact gender-based crimes – are eliminated by gender-sensitive laws, and those laws are enforced by a gender-sensitive security and legal system. This is the way forward to a more just and equitable society, preventing destabilization and insecurity in vulnerable communities.

Addressing relief and recovery measures during times of crisis through a “gendered lens” means, very simply, including women and their perspectives in all aspects of humanitarian relief, refugee camp design and administration, and building mechanisms that respect the civil and humanitarian nature of refugee camps, refugee resettlement programmes and the special needs of girls and women in these camps. Refugee camps are places where women are extremely vulnerable to gender-based violence. Humanitarian disasters also increase women’s likelihood of experiencing sexual violence as traditional structures of security are devastated in the aftermath of earthquakes or floods. Any military or national defence response to these situations has to give special focus and measures for women’s protection in vulnerable places and situations.

There is also a need to formulate a national action plan on women, peace and security as outlined by four pillars of UNSC Resolution 1325. This plan can outline mechanisms for the inclusion of women in all areas of peacekeeping and security strategy. Existing guidelines and plans such as the ones that already exist in countries like the United States and the United Kingdom can be adapted to the Pakistani environment, and its unique needs and challenges.

In order for national defence to benefit from women’s perspectives, women need to be appointed in greater numbers in departments and organizations that oversee all aspects of security policy for Pakistan. This includes the Prime Minister’s office; those ministries and governmental departments that deal with security, such as the Interior Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, the Law Ministry; the Police and Rangers; any committees that deal with defence and the defence budget; all intelligence and secret services bureaus; the National Atomic Energy Commission; and any parliamentary committees that deal with any aspect of defence, security, foreign affairs, and the armed forces.

This list of organizations, departments and committees has always been assumed as the natural domain of men. The idea of including women in these corridors may seem a radical departure from conventional governance, but in line with the increasing visibility and participation of women in all walks of life, the inclusion of women in these arenas will result in a more comprehensive approach towards the national security of all citizens of Pakistan.

National defense is not just about building up military strength or possessing sophisticated equipment in order to vanquish a common enemy; the true defense of a nation means shoring it up against vulnerability. A nation cannot achieve its defense objectives without involving its female population in this process and making their needs a priority in all national defense strategies. This is a long-term investment in the future of Pakistan, for studies show that when women are empowered, nations enjoy higher rates of safety and security. Indeed, in our rapidly changing world, involving women in all aspects of Pakistan’s defense will have to be an indispensable part of protecting the country for generations to come.

First published in Hilal Magazine

The Afghan Woman is Not A Project

This essay is the original version of the essay that appeared in the New York Times on Afghan Women.

One of the major objectives of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan had always been to liberate Afghanistan’s women from the tyranny of the Taliban. Fifteen years later, instead of progress in the field of women’s rights, a series of shocking images of beaten and battered young Afghan women is paraded in the media to mock that once lofty objective.

The latest of these: Reza Gul, whose husband cut off her nose when she objected to his taking a 7 year old niece as a second wife. Gul waits to be flown to Turkey for reconstructive surgery, unaware that she’s the newest face of failed Western promises to elevate the status of Afghan women.

Afghan women’s rights activists and international feminists harbor a bitter belief that Western feminists willfully misrepresented the plight of the Afghan woman, portraying her as the “silent and passive victims of their culture, their men, and their politics,” as Spogmai Akseer writes in “Afghan Women: Identity and Invasion.” This supplied the West with a moral reason to invade the country and “rescue” the women, an imperialist invasion disguised as a humanitarian rescue mission, instead of empowering Afghan women on their own terms.

When you base your entire project to free women on an untruth, is there any surprise when it fails? Today, as Afghan women struggle as mightily for their rights as they historically always have, they remain victims not just of gender-based violence but of a cross-cultural dissonance that has produced ill-informed stereotypes which continue to resonate today. This continued portrayal of Afghan women as victims marginalizes them from Afghanistan’s beleaguered peace process, and ensures that project will fail as well.

Gender-based violence specialist and aid worker Lina Abirafeh spent five years from 2001-2006 working in Afghanistan. In her research and humanitarian work with Afghan women and men, she discovered that aid programs had been implemented without any gender analysis aimed at an understanding of how women-centered aid programs might affect the political situation of women’s rights on the ground. 

She also found that there was a huge gap between what Westerners understood about the experience of Afghan womanhood, and how Afghan women saw themselves. Feminism has always existed in Afghanistan, Abirafeh asserts, but with long-established internal mechanisms working for women’s rights: informal and formal women’s groups, social safety nets, community organizers. Many of these groups documented the Taliban’s worst abuses, hiding cameras under burkas and documenting public executions. 

Enfranchised in the 1964 Afghan constitution and given equal rights in 1977,  the self-image of Afghan women doesn’t match the victimhood awarded them by Western aid workers; they see themselves as brave, capable, and strong. Islam is important to them, and so is their honor. They want to be active participants in their own liberation, but they want to set the pace of their struggle, instead of submitting to a Western-driven agenda that understands neither their contexts nor their character. 

Although they have always been conscious of their suffering, Afghan women did not think of themselves as weak or in need of being saved by outside forces, says Abirafeh. In fact, they resent greatly the idea that foreigners need to intervene on their behalf. The violence against them comes in great part as a backlash against the speeded-up process forced upon them by “outsiders”, whom Afghans have historically always resented. One of Afghanistan’s greatest heroines is Malalai of Maiwind, who urged her compatriots to rise up against the British and was killed at the Battle of Maiwind in 1880 (Malala Yousufzai is named after her).

In 2013, I traveled to Konya, Turkey, for a conference on the poetry and life of the great Sufi poet and mystic Rumi. Amongst our delegation were two young Afghan women (who I will not name in order to protect their security). The first, gentle and reserved, was the director of a cultural house in northern Afghanistan and the editor of its monthly magazine. She was studying Dari literature at university, and had done extensive research on Rumi, and compiled youth poetry written in the Dari language.  The second woman was a fiery and outspoken poet who wrote for a feminist newspaper and also managed a radio station.

These two women were no victims, no poster children for invasion, even though they’d come to Konya through a foreign grant, and their projects at home were being funded by international organizations. They were young women just like I had been in my 20s; studying, working, building a life for themselves. They both kept their hair covered at all times; the first woman with a light scarf, the second with colorful turbans and headwraps. But they argued and debated, laughed and sang with the rest of us as we made our way from Konya to Cappadocia. Last year the fiery poet was elected to her provincial council.

Dr. Sahraa Karimi, a renowned Afghan filmmaker recently spoke at a planning session for a women’s festival in Karachi. She made no pretense of the fact that Afghan women are still suffering greatly. “To be an Afghan woman is very very painful, whether you are ordinary or rich or well-educated. But just because it’s painful doesn’t mean we do nothing.”

According to Karimi, Afghan women are still seen either as victims or as a project – neither attitude leading to true progress. In Afghanistan, development workers and selected Afghan women — Western success stories, as Abirafeh calls them — grow rich on “Women’s Empowerment Projects” and “Minority Interest Projects.” Meanwhile, high numbers of Afghan women intellectuals leave the country in a debilitating brain drain because of their dangerous working conditions and suffocating social environments in the ordinary areas of Afghanistan outside the fortified Western compounds.

Karimi’s outlook is hopeful and positive: Afghan women are now able to raise their voices for justice, with the help of international organizations that are supporting their efforts. Even in the midst of ongoing attacks and violence against women, workshops, trainings, have enabled Afghan women to speak up for themselves to tell their own stories of their suffering, instead of Westerners speaking on their behalf.

Yet Afghan women have to be chiefly responsible for their own uplift, instead of succumbing to the victimhood thrust upon them by the media and the aid machine. As Karimi says, “Peace in Afghanistan is impossible without women. The terrible situation in Afghanistan is because of the absence of women, of respect and acceptance for them.  If they gave even a 10% opportunity to women to be part of the change and decision-making, Afghanistan would see peace.” 

Such a peace can only come when the West abandons the long-cherished idea of Afghan women as victims, or a problem or project to be fixed, and instead continue to support them in their own struggles, giving them the agency they already know is theirs by right. 

Patriarchy, the world’s most popular religion

I’ve been exchanging notes with a novelist in America, Carolyn Cohagan, who has written a very interesting Young Adult novel called Time Zero. In a New York Times article for Women in the World, she describes her book as a dystopian novel for girls, inspired by homegrown fundamentalism. In an email, she asked me, “Do you think people in Pakistan realize that the US has fundamentalist communities with polygamy, forced marriages, and restricted rights for women? What do you think their reaction would be?”

Cohagan was inspired by the Taliban’s draconian rules for girls and women during their rule in Afghanistan. In her novel, Cohagan writes about an America taken over by fundamentalists, and her protagonist is a 15 year old girl, Mina Clark. But in her NYT article, Cohagan refers to not just Muslim communities in the US, but Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, and fundamentalist Christian communities such as evangelical and Mormon ones, immigrant and non-immigrant families. These are where American girls are subject to many of the same rules and practices you might see under the Taliban, or authoritarian regimes or extremist societies in the developing world.

Cohagan’s work (and this is why it’s so important that we talk to each other, especially when we’re from different sides of the world, to see what’s common and experienced universally) reaffirms my own explorations of these subjects. I’ve come to the conclusion that patriarchy is a powerful religion in its own right. Powerful because it is able to subsume so many of our established religions, whether Abrahamic or polytheistic, or non-theistic, and to subvert the roles of women to its own agenda, which is to establish a world order in which women are a type of slave class in servitude to men.

Patriarchy is also intricately linked to capitalism, which requires the servitude of women, minorities, people from developing nations, and ranks them as inferior to a ruling class made up mostly of men. There’s no surprise in the fact that men own most of the property on the planet, most of the land, lead most of the companies and the means of production.

This paragraph in Cohagan’s essay stood out for me.

As the world moves forward with technology and communication, one might assume that social progress is inevitable within these conservative communities. On the contrary, according to the religious scholar Karen Armstrong, fundamentalism thrives in times of technological leaps forward. “All fundamentalists feel that in a secular society, God has been relegated to the margin, to the periphery and they are all in different ways seeking to drag him out of that peripheral position, back to center stage.”

These days, Muslim women are struggling mightily for empowerment in their lives and in their countries and communities.  But their work, in their own contexts and on their own terms, runs the risk of being hijacked by those with other agendas. I’m not talking about ex-Muslims, who have their own struggle and many valuable things to say about the state of affairs in the rotten Denmarks we live in,  both in the Muslim countries and elsewhere. Nor am I talking about secularists and humanists, who have been invaluable in pushing the agenda of human rights and of tolerance of all people, regardless of faith (This is why I very much respect Taslima Nasreen, for example, because she’s been through it all and her perspective is important, even if her atheism is in direct opposition to my practice).

I’m talking about the male “allies” who think they’re freeing Muslim women, when all they’re really doing is replacing the patriarchy of religion, and the religion of patriarchy, with the religion of the future: technology, science, and the self – which can be as oppressive to women as religion can, when all three fields are dominated by men. (Take a look at this article from NatGeo which tells us that most of the world’s secularists are white men). Women, and especially women of color, have no seat at any of these tables.

These “allies” claim to care for the plight of Muslim women, and they firmly believe that without their help, Muslim women will never be “free”. They’re the ones that continue to insist Muslim women cannot free themselves without male stewardship. They show their care by “by bombing their countries, demonizing the religion, and supporting patriarchal structures” as grad student Hari Prasad put it:

I honestly adore how atheists, secularists and neo-cons are so concerned for the plight of Muslim women. It’s heart-warming.

@BinaShah they care so much for Muslim women, by bombing their countries, demonizing the religion, and supporting patriarchal structures

Less violently, but no less insidiously, they choose who can and can’t speak for Muslim women. They lionize certain spokespeople while demonizing others. They decide what Muslim women should and shouldn’t wear.  When Muslim women protest, or insist that they should be the ones with choice, these “allies” declare Muslim women brainwashed, terrorists, apologists, sympathizers, and slaves.

Witness how Mona Eltahawy was pilloried on Twitter when she said (and she doesn’t mince her words) that if you aren’t a Muslim woman, or non-white, you need to “shut up” and “listen”, instead of attempting to call the shots in this movement. The howls of anger were loudest from “allies” who couldn’t believe they were being told they couldn’t take the lead in this revolution. She went on to say “I don’t care about Western feminists. This is a fight for us, Muslim feminists, to have.” (And then she called everyone “fuckboys” which really made the fur fly)

Non-Muslims can certainly be allies to Muslim women in their struggle for empowerment, freedom, and equality. Western feminists, too, can be allies to Muslim women. But they need to take the back seat in this revolution. They need to listen to Muslim women talk about what they want for themselves. As Malik Ali tweeted, “Even the privileged (within Pakistan), unless they’re active or have ground experience can’t fully relate to the struggles of the oppressed. So it’s challenging for those ten thousand miles away, whether they’re expats, ex-Muslims, etc. If you’re sincere, research local activists and social workers, listen to what they say and support them.” (You are wise indeed, and a full ally of this movement)

The moment “allies” impose themselves on this struggle, dictating to Muslim women what’s good and bad for them, and decide what the end result of that struggle looks like (“Give up Islam!” is the biggest refrain which certainly doesn’t help anyone), they cease to become allies. And when men do this, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, eastern or western, they are simply continuing the tradition of patriarchy – only under different rulers.

There’s a great term for these allies, which comes from grammar: “false friends”. They are words “in two languages (or letters in two alphabets) that look or sound similar, but differ significantly in meaning.” In this case, these “allies” of Muslim women are actually false friends who want you to choose them and their way of life over the one that you want for yourself. They want to convince you that you don’t actually know what’s best for you because you’ve been so brainwashed or intimidated or oppressed by the men of your community.  Their agenda is to prove that their way of life is superior to yours, and they need to hold your hand and lead you to it.

Don’t fall for it.

A Girl in the River

Last night I had the good fortune to attend the first Pakistani public screening of the Oscar winning film “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness”. I also conducted a Q & A afterwards with the film’s director Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, who’s been dealing with a lot of controversy in Pakistan for the film’s subject matter and its global success.

The movie’s about a young woman who survived an honor killing and lived to take her would-be killers – her own father and uncle – to court. Did Sharmeen make this film for Western consumption, as a “transaction” as feminist writer Rafia Zakaria puts it, or to gain Western fame and fortune? Or did she do it to hold up a mirror to Pakistani society and to get a difficult conversation going about a societal sickness that kills at least one thousand Pakistani women a year?

TRAILER – A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness from Sharmeen Obaid Films on Vimeo.

Only watching the film can truly answer these questions. And within the first five minutes of its start, you’ll know exactly why Sharmeen made this movie, which is surprisingly lacking in judgment, in preaching, or in overarching pledges to end this horrific form of gender-based violence. Instead, the film unfolds, frame by frame, to tell a searing story of love, murder, survival and redemption: the stuff that many lives are made of, no matter where they’re lived.

It’s Shakespearean in its perspective, starkly told, yet filled with many unexpected moments of beauty. We first meet 19 year old Saba as she’s on an operating table, being treated for the gunshot wounds to her face that were inflicted on her by her father and uncle. We learn that she earned this punishment for leaving her father’s house to marry a man she’d already been engaged to for four years, who her father had approved of initially. He bowed to the pressure of his own brother, who announced that Saba should instead marry his brother in law, and forbade Saba from meeting her fiance, Qaisar.

Saba did not listen. She was firmly attached to Qaisar, and wanted to be with him – as is her right according to the laws of Islam and of human rights. But tribalism and “honor” reign supreme in this backwards part of Gujranwala, where poverty doesn’t stop a neighborhood from being run by its “influentials”. Saba defied them all to marry Qaiser in a court of law. When her family found out what she’d done, they swore they wouldn’t harm her if she returned home so that she could be then sent to her in-laws’ house in a respectable manner.

In the dark of night, her father and uncle took her from her in-laws’ house, to a nearby river. They held her by the neck and put a gun to her head. Saba turned her head at the last minute, which saved her life, but she was still grievously wounded when her uncle pulled the trigger. Then they put her into a bag and threw her in the river.

Saba’s survival from this ordeal is incredible enough. But the journey that follows, to the courts, where Saba wants to see her father and uncle jailed for the crime, is even more incredible. Because in Pakistan, if a man murders a woman for “honor”, the victim’s heirs can “forgive” him and he will be set free. Saba is one of the rarest cases: a woman who survives an attempted honor-killing. Her heirs cannot set her father and uncle free; only she can make the decision.

As family members pressure her and her husband’s family to set her relatives free, we get to know Saba: a vivacious 19 year old who is filled with courage and determination, and an unshakeable belief in justice. Her young husband, Qaiser, is full of tenderness and love for his wife, which provides a necessary counterpoint to the ugliness and hatred of Saba’s father and uncle. These men insist they have done nothing wrong. Indeed, they have acted “honorably” to save their family’s pride. They insist, even from behind bars, that they would do it again, that they would serve their lives in jail for having shown the community that they are men of honor.

The end of the film is a betrayal of Saba and everything that she is fighting for. But even in the midst of this betrayal, there are seeds of hope: Saba is pregnant with her first child, who she wishes to be a girl so that she can “be brave, and stand up for herself.” It makes one think of Malala Yousufzai, who also survived being shot in the head by men who wanted to control her, and brings up the question: why must Pakistani girls be so brave in the face of so much hatred?

I put this question to Sharmeen in the Q & A session afterwards. Was she expecting the controversy? “Yes,” said Sharmeen emphatically. “In a society where there is so much misogyny, I was expecting it. You should see some of the comments that are being left on social media about me. But I wanted everyone to be uncomfortable when watching this film. You should be uncomfortable by what I’ve presented here.”

Sharmeen hopes that the Prime Minister will make good on his word to change the law on honor killings as a result of seeing this film. He promised to do so when the film was shown at the Prime Minister’s House. (Personally, I have my doubts that this will happen: Gujranwala is his personal district, from where he is always elected. The PML-N is totally supported by the religious clergy in the area, campaigning in the last election from Jamaat-e-Islami trucks. The religious right are not on the side of women. Even the Women’s Protection Bill in Punjab that was recently enacted does not allow for any man to be arrested or an FIR filed against him. Violence against women, unlike in Sindh and Balochistan, isn’t criminalized in Punjab, a move that was made to appease the religious right there.)

The fact of the matter is that unless honor killings carry a severe punishment, in the form of significant jail time that cannot be “forgiven” more and more people will do this. Sharmeen says this is exactly the reason why honor killings are increasing in Pakistan. Word spreads that such a crime has taken place but the men got off scot free. This increases their boldness and their arrogance. Saba’s father says it all himself, when he reports that because of his actions, his status has increased in the community. “Now I’m getting proposals left and right for my other daughters. They’ll be too terrified to even think of doing what Saba has done.”

Sharmeen wants the film to be shown everywhere in Pakistan, so that people become aware of the extent of this crime, and how entrenched in society the mindset is that says a girl is a man’s property, to be killed if she is disobedient to his wishes. She invites people to get in touch with her to arrange screenings – in schools, organizations, at festivals, anywhere in Pakistan, so the message can spread across the country. She also wants people to have conversations about this crime, for pressure to be put on the government so that the law is enacted once and for all.

If it takes an Oscar to make that happen, then for once a frivolous, Western-based award ceremony will have actually come to some good.

Why I am a Feminist in Pakistan

My name is Bina Shah and I am a writer, essayist, and feminist.
Feminism is really nothing to be afraid of, even though in Pakistan it is a dirty word, a sign that you’re an atheist, a Western agent, a threat to the system. I’m neither an atheist nor a Western agent. But I am a feminist. I am a threat to the system, to the status quo that dictates where women “should be” in our society. I decided a long time ago that the system was rotten, and that feminism was the best way for me to upend that system. In my talk with you I’m going to explain to you why I made that decision and what I think is at stake.

Continue reading Why I am a Feminist in Pakistan

A Letter to Tashfeen Malik

Dear Tashfeen,

You are dead and gone now, a lifeless body on a California highway barely covered by a blanket. Your legs splayed, your shirt ridden up, blood seeping from you and draining out onto the road. No different in death to the 14 people that you helped to kill killed only a few hours before you ended up the same way. An ignominous, cruel end, headlines around the world, and more questions than there are answers for what you did.

The news of the San Bernadino shooting, the 13th mass shooting in the United States this week alone, broke hearts around the country. When it emerged that one of the shooters, Syed Rizwan Farooq, was possibly Muslim, Muslims everywhere started to become afraid. When we learned that the shooting took place at a facility for people with developmental disorders, disgust rose. But to the news that you, the wife and accomplice of the shooter, Tashfeen Malik, were a Pakistani woman, I had the opposite reaction to fear. I became enraged. That’s why I’m writing this to you, because there are things that need to be said, from one Pakistani woman to another.

I don’t know anything about you other than that you were 27 years old, that you lived in Saudi Arabia, that you came to the United States as the wife of a Pakistani-American, and that you had a baby daughter. Were you a brainwashed victim of a husband’s violent ideology? Were you a good wife, loyal to the end to your ordinary-looking, middle class husband? Did you imagine yourself as Bonnie to his Clyde, guns blazing, together in life as well as in death?

Still, what grievance could have pushed you to put on tactical gear, take up weapons, and slaughter innocent people? Whether this was a “terrorist attack” or another “violence in the workplace” incident, I can’t imagine anything so bad as to make you leave your baby daughter behind, orphaned, defenseless. Imagine her legacy. The daughter of mass murderers.

You are the definition, the epitome, of a terrible mother.

I’m not even going to get into the issue of your Islam. I know nothing about your beliefs, your practice, your way of thinking, your upbringing. It’s clear that something went very wrong in your brain; whether or not you espoused any ideology, you had a propensity for violence. And if it emerges that you used Islam as your vehicle to express that violent streak, you will only be another in a long line of sociopaths and psychopaths who are doing the same thing all over the world – in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, and Pakistan, where you and I are both from. There is nothing special about you in that respect. You are a cliche. You have lost your ability to shock or awe in the very predictability of your actions and your rationale.

But there’s one more thing. With your actions, you have smeared Pakistani women – 100 million of us at home, millions who live in the diaspora. With your act of blazing, outrageous and insupportable violence, you have done much to ruin what we have been working for, for longer than you have been alive. We Pakistani women, who are far more likely to be the victims of rather than perpetrators of violence, who are looking for equality and respect and dignity in our lives, who have to fight so hard to negotiate all the obstacles that our limiting and restrictive environments throw up in our faces.

There are Pakistani women that the world respects: Malala Yousufzai, Benazir Bhutto, Asma Jehangir, Nafis Sadik, Hina Jilani. Those who are educated and knowledgeable about the world remember these names, respect what they stand for. But the majority of the world, the uneducated, the unworldly, will forget their names — if they knew them in the first place — and remember yours when the words “Pakistani woman” come up in any context. We’ll have you to thank when Pakistani women are abused, reviled, spat upon, their children taunted and abused.

If you committed your act of violence for any cause, you failed to achieve your goal, but you achieved a different one: you dragged your Pakistani sisters into the mud. We have a word for that in Urdu: badnaami. You have done this to all of us. And it will take a long time for us to undo the damage that results from it.


Bina Shah

The Female Artist and the Muse

The importance of the muse in the male artist’s life has been well documented over the ages, from the Greek classical poets all the way up until today. Female artists, not so much. For a male artist (painter, writer, poet, musician) the muse is often a young, beautiful woman. Who is it for a female artist? A beautiful young man? Or an older one? A beautiful woman? Someone unattainable, or someone within reach?

Here is a wonderful quote from Germaine Greer about the psychological necessity of the muse:

A muse is anything but a paid model. The muse in her purest aspect is the feminine part of the male artist, with which he must have intercourse if he is to bring into being a new work. She is the anima to his animus, the yin to his yang, except that, in a reversal of gender roles, she penetrates or inspires him and he gestates and brings forth, from the womb of the mind.

Does this mean that for the female artist, the muse is the masculine part of the female artist? And if female artists have women’s bodies, that already can gestate and bring forth life from their physical wombs, what role does the male muse have for the female artist? Are we as “penetrated” by our muses as male artists are by theirs, or, because that is our role biologically in real life, do we penetrate our male muses instead, in order to be the progenitors instead of the bearers of life?

We know a lot about the muses of famous male artists. Many times, the muse was also a talented artist in her own right, but subsumed by the ego of the male artist, who couldn’t compete: Camille Claudel, Rodin’s muse, who was a sculptor but ended up locked away in a madhouse is the best example of this. Male artists have needed women in their lives, not just as inspiration, but in the roles of caretaker, companion, nursemaid.

Some of the female artists have also had muses well recorded in history. For example, the French writer Colette had her Cheri.  But she’s the only one I could think of that immortalised her muse, a younger man, in her work; I searched the Internet to find more examples, but could only come up with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, or Yoko Ono and John Lennon: both men served as mutual muse and lover to the woman artist, and neither gave up his career in order to take care of or pose, figuratively speaking, for the woman.

Is this because we are uncomfortable with the idea that a woman, too, can actively desire, instead of being the passive object of desire? Or are we more uncomfortable with the idea of a man taking up that passive role?

In my own work, I have never consciously picked someone — male or female — to be my muse. But in tandem to my work, I have always had someone or the other in my life who I have liked or loved, but who was largely unattainable. The yearning for that person somehow gets sublimated into the writing, lends it urgency, energy and passion. Sometimes that person gets written into the work, as a character. Other times, the work is addressed to that person indirectly – I write to evoke feelings in that person’s heart. Sometimes the person knows who they are, and what they mean to me, and many times, they don’t.

I could certainly write without that muse, but I think the writing would be flatter and less interesting without him. The muse gives my work its life. How I wish, though, that the process was a little less torturous, and a little easier on my heart.

Jeanne Hebuterne, Modigliani’s mistress and muse




The Myth of the Moderate Muslim

The World Wildlife Foundation recently put out the alarming statistic that the earth has lost half its wildlife in the past 40 years. Along with the Caspian Tiger, the Golden Toad of Costa Rica, and the Pyrenean Ibex, the Moderate Muslim has also died out or gone extinct, if you listen to the current discourse on Islam and terrorism. This organism has now entered the realm of mythology, and was probably last seen circa the summer of 2001, when it was still possible to self-identify as a Muslim and not be strip-searched at the airport when attempting to board a flight for any Middle Eastern destination.

In fact, I have a poster put out by the Muslim Council of America* that shows this magnificent beast in its natural habitat, wearing a colorful scarf on her head, with her arms around a Jew on one side and a Hindu on the other. The smile on her face speaks of tolerance, diversity, pluralism, acceptance. Ah, how it makes me long for the good old days, when Muhammed was just a name for your baby, and not the name of every other character on “Homeland”.

The use of the phrase “moderate Muslim” is troublesome to begin with – as Nathan Lean so eloquently writes in the New Republic, it comes attendant with its burdens of expectation.  Lean calls the idea of the “moderate Muslim” intellectually lazy because the “moderate Muslim” is shorthand for “the Good Muslim” (his words) or, “the Muslim who doesn’t want to kill us” (mine). And Muslims strive hard to fit the profile of what non-Muslims think a moderate Muslim looks like: someone who lives in America, perhaps, as opposed to Pakistan. Someone who espouses Western thinking on women’s empowerment, LGBT rights, who maybe likes to drink a little (or a lot), someone who definitely doesn’t wear the veil or grows a beard un-ironically. They have to work this hard to efface every aspect of their Muslimness that might scare non-Muslims, because their jobs, their social acceptance, and their security depends on it.

I asked Twitter, my informal pollster, what exactly the moderate Muslim is. “Spiritually ignorant, religiously apologetic, guilt-ridden, conservative about pork, liberal about vodka, confused, ambiguous” Shahjehan Chaudhry told me. “No such thing,” came another from Dream Big. “It’s just supposed to be common sense, none of the added stupidness on top.” Someone calling himself Enlightened Muslim wrote back, “Ordinary Muslims like you and me.” And Maida Sheikh, who sports a lovely grey scarf on her head in her Twitter display photo, wrote, “Me. I’m a moderate Muslim, oh wait, so are you. Isn’t ‘moderate’ a relative term?”

So in other words, everyone knows that the moderate Muslim exists, but nobody seems to really agree on what he or she looks like, how he or she acts, behaves, what she believes in, how he or she practices. Is a moderate Muslim someone who wears a face veil or a full length beard but hates everything ISIS is doing and wants nothing more than to live in peace? Is a moderate Muslim someone who goes clubbing and drinking but hates the United States for its policies vis a vis Israel and Palestine? Is a moderate Muslim a man with two wives who sends his daughters to school?

Let me say it right here: the “moderate” Muslim has always been a myth, or perhaps more of a mirage, a destination just ahead in the distance, and when you think you’ve gotten there, it recedes from your grasp only to appear further ahead down the road.

Before the Heritage Foundation invites me to become its latest scholar, let me explain. I don’t mean the usual tired argument that all moderate Muslims are terrorists in vitro, ready to give up their moderate disguise at the first opportunity to commit violence, as Pamela Geller attempts to assert with her crude attempts at mixed-media artwork on the buses of New York City. Nor do I mean that moderate Muslims are a silent and voiceless majority, useless in the face of Islamist extremism, and therefore their existence as the nearly 99% of Muslims worldwide doesn’t count on the world stage, as Bill Maher has explained countless times to anyone who will listen.

These gross oversimplifications of the status of the moderate Muslim aside, there is an even deeper attempt to drive the moderate Muslim out of existence – by simply denying that the moderate Muslim exists at all. “I think, therefore I am,” said Descartes. In today’s world where the intellect rules all, the “moderate Muslim” corollary is “You think, therefore you are not.” The argument goes like this: nobody would be a (practicing) Muslim if they thought hard enough about their religion. After all, that little black book, the Quran, tells them to kill non-Muslims, to enslave women, to be violent as a matter of ideology. Muslims define themselves by faith – which is, in today’s times, the opposite of thinking – and so faith and thought are incompatible. Think hard enough about what you are, and you’ll find you don’t actually exist at all.  To be a moderate Muslim is to not think about what your religion asks you to do.

Of course, this is an illogical argument, because it ignores what the Quran overwhelmingly requires Muslims to do: be kind and compassionate, practice charity, non-violence. The Quran asks Muslims to read the Quran and reflect on the signs around them as markers to the existence of God and the truth of the message. The Prophet instructs Muslims to tread the “middle path” – the path of moderation. There’s no need to call up chapter and verse to illustrate this – it’s all been done before by Islamic scholars and interpreters from every sect, race, gender, and geographical location. Anyone who denies that this is the greater tenor of the Quran is doing the equivalent of sticking his fingers in his ears and saying “LA LA LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU.”

What the Quran doesn’t do is tell Muslims how to define that path other than to “avoid extremes”.  And further compounding the problem is that the goalposts of what defines “moderation” change as our world changes. One year – say in the year 2000 — a moderate Muslim is a person who has a miniature copy of the Quran in her Volvo. The next, in 2001, it’s a Muslim who doesn’t kill people.

Islam doesn’t deny that violence or warfare exists in the world. The Quran tells Muslims they are restricted to fighting only defensive wars, and how to behave themselves during those times.  This instruction, in the 7th century, was seen as an extremely moderate, if not downright progressive, stance. That there could be limits on warfare, on how to behave with prisoners, on not killing captives and on insisting that widows and orphans be protected in the enemy camp was revolutionary. Today, with our ideas of humanitarian treatment of prisoners, legal rights and Geneva Conventions (and who listens to those anyway), it seems inadequate. In the Middle Ages, with their penchant for slaughtering everyone in the most gruesome ways possible, it would have been seen as downright cowardly.

(The demand on the “moderate Muslim” is to renounce any kind of warfare whatsoever — “give up armed jihad!” is the common refrain. I find this laughable, as nobody else in the world is told to get rid of their armies, weapons, expansionist, colonialist, imperialist, and other designs with quite the same conviction as the moderate Muslim. The “extremist” Muslims are presumably not listening, or too busy posing for jihad selfies)

So, in short, it isn’t whether or not the moderate Muslim actually exists. It is that our perception of what a moderate Muslim is is never a fixed point, because the definition of moderation is always evolving. And when it is imposed upon you by an outside force, rather than your own internal convictions, who could blame you for being “confused and ambiguous” or even, like a character in a Kafka novel, beginning to doubt if you even exist?

*This organization, too, is sadly mythological