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Feminist Foes of Dishonorable Brotherhoods
by Lynette J. Dumble

Fifty three years after Pakistan gained its independence, the country is now poised for international isolation. Suspected of being complicit with Afghanistan's Taliban, Pakistan is regarded by many foreign governments as a training camp for terrorists. In addition, Pakistan's human rights record is ranked amongst the world's worst, and the heightening Indo-Pakistan tension has the subcontinent on the brink of a nuclear holocaust.

Ruled since October 12, 1999, by the military regime of General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's women contend with the extremes of feminized poverty, and almost none are safe from state, cultural, or religious violence.

Pakistan's women face a high risk of male violence both inside and outside their homes. In addition to their vulnerability to attack by strangers wherever they may walk, as many as 70 percent have been physically battered, mentally tortured, burnt, or raped in the sanctity of their homes by a spouse or a close relative.

It is less than unusual in Pakistan for a man to murder his wife because she disobeyed his whim, or because he simply suspected her of having relations with another. All too often, the police dismiss the murder of women within their own homes as a private dispute. Even when such murders are officially investigated, and then brought to court, some judges deem the killing to be justifiable homicide, or trivialize the women's deaths as "honour killings."

The women's struggle in Pakistan is led by two courageous feminist lawyers, Asma Jehangir and her sister Hina Jilani, who a decade ago founded the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). Jehangir is presently the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, and Jilani is the Secretary General of the HRCP, as well as the United Nations' first special representative for human rights defenders.

Both view the nation's culture of male violence against women from a human rights perspective. They see men's violence against women as operating in unity with the state's institutional and cultural patriarchy, which denies women such rights as access to education and employment, and therefore undermines women's basic human rights to dignity and freedom.

Jehangir and Jilani have played major roles in bringing the plight of Pakistani women to national and international attention. On a regular basis, their press releases condemn the violence which plagues virtually every aspect of women's lives, whether it be rape, beatings, disfigurement with acid, or being set on fire with kerosene.

At a practical level, the sisters provide legal aid for victims (women, men and children) of human rights violations throughout Pakistan, while they also operate a women's shelter in Lahore.*

It goes without saying that Jehangir and Jilani have made a multitude of enemies. Prejudice at the level operating in Pakistan has its own institutionalized mechanisms of revenge. Anti-Asma and anti-Hina slogans are common. Asma has been imprisoned on several occasions, and both lawyers have been subjected to countless fatwas. More recently, in December of 1999, the military authorities trumped up bank loan default accusations to impound Jehangir's passport and prevent her from attending a UN conference on extra-judicial executions in Kosova.

In April 1999, both lawyers faced the full fury of their country's feudal and religious zealots when their divorce-seeking client, 29-year-old Samia Sarwar, was assassinated by a hired gunman in broad daylight and before their very eyes in the confines of Jilani's Lahore chambers.

Samia's assassination shocked many in Pakistan, but the response to her family-orchestrated death reveals a great deal about the struggle at hand. Samia's was not the first such killing, nor are honour killings exclusive to Pakistan, but the awful facts reveal that more than 1,000 women are murdered annually within Pakistan's borders in the name of honour.

Samia's killer, himself shot dead by security guards outside Jilani's chambers as he attempted to escape, was identified as the family driver of Samia's father, the respected president of the Sarhad Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Peshawar. The Chamber of Commerce, echoed by the religious right, accused Jilani and Jehangir of killing both Samia and her assassin, while Jehangir was vilified as being an agent of the Jews and the West. The majority of political leaders in the region were silenced by reminders of their loyalties, and a mere few had the intestinal fortitude to express solidarity with the human rights lawyers.

March 8, 2000, International Women's Day, saw the heralding of a "Year of Human Rights and Human Dignity in Pakistan." A Musharraf package proposed reform on most of the burning human rights issues. Honour killings would be treated as murder; prison inmates would no longer be brutalized with fetters; a Status of Women Commission would be established and the Women in Distress Fund revived; and amongst other things, child and bonded labour would cease.

At the time, Jilani felt that the package was more fanfare than substance. In her words, "A government which thinks it can be selective about human rights and arbitrarily decide which human rights it is going to recognize and which it will violate with impunity, has not even begun to realize the meaning of human rights."

Jehangir, too, has highlighted the regime's hollow commitment to human rights, and at a July policy convention in Islamabad accused the government of both censoring the print media and pressurizing the judiciary, to the extent that judges had been frightened off giving relief to petitioners in prima facie cases.

Regrettably, the sisters' suspicions have to date proved prophetic. Eight months down the track, the fanfare has faded, but honour killings are no less prevalent and their perpetrators still stroll free. Bonded labour remains unyoked, and underage children continue to work in barbarous conditions.

The Women's Commission, though not the Women's Distress Fund, was eventually established in mid-August, but its members remain unsalaried, and without their promised judicial authority. Analysts, including Jehangir and Jilani, conclude that the Women's Commission, like others before it, is another toothless tiger, able to record the dire social practices, laws and prejudices which oppress the nation's females, but destined to watch helplessly as bureaucrats shelve or ignore their recommendations.

Pakistan's legal code gives women and men the right to choose their partners in marriage, and permits divorce. Yet, despite these provisions, women are publicly executed for exercising their constitutionalized rights. The message is clear. Women who contemplate independent choices do so at their own peril.

Similarly, an insult to the Prophet Muhammad is deemed a serious crime in Pakistan, and in some instances carries a death sentence. Blasphemy Acts enable any who feel their religious feelings have been "outraged" to lay charges, and are frequently used to exploit women and harass minorities. Musharraf's avowed modifications of the Blasphemy Acts to prevent their misuse fell by the wayside as the regime caved in to pressure from the religious right, prompting Jehangir and Jilani to again question the regime's commitment to human rights. In Jilani's words, "The government, supposedly of grand resolves, panicked. It set about making daily apologies until it announced its abject surrender from the highest level."

Just as Jehangir and Jilani have risked their lives for human/women's rights in Pakistan, they risked national vilification and accusations of treason when they embraced the Women's Peace Initiative for South Asia (WIPSA) brought to Pakistan from India in March 2000 to negotiate a resolution of Indo-Pakistan discord, including the Kashmir conflict. As Jehangir pointed out, "The policy of aggression has failed. It has only brought misery to the people of both our countries."

At their first meeting in Islamabad, the WIPSA delegates avoided the traditional mudslinging of their political leaders. Instead of hurling insults against each other with regard to cross border terrorism, genocide in Kashmir, India's imperialism, and Pakistan's military dictatorship, the delegates instead spoke of the extraordinary defense expenditures and military postures which neglected the crucial needs of the people in both countries. Avoiding the language of hate which for decades has dominated various sectors of the political landscape in the two nations, the women emphasized their common history, common language and mutual problems.

Two months later, Jehangir and Jilani led a reciprocal WIPSA delegation back to New Delhi. By then it was already obvious that, if placed in their hands, cross border violence would cease yesterday. But, as Jehangir confided, "Things are not in the hands of the common people. For the sake of the silent majority, we want the violence in the sub-continent to stop."

Indo-Pakistan relations have since plummeted to a new low. Not a day passes without fresh killings in Kashmir, but as Jehangir indicated, "Even if the Kashmir issue was resolved, the vested interests of the politicians and the media would ensure that the tension remained."

Fortunately, the strength of the WIPSA assignment is in ongoing negotiations. Rather than accepting the inevitability of war, Jehangir and Jilani, together with their sisters from Pakistan and India, declared their intention to take the peace negotiation process to the people most affected, those living in militarized Kashmir.

Delivering the valedictory address on "Engendering Security" in New Delhi on August 26, at the conclusion of a five-day symposium on "Human Security in the New Millennium," Jehangir identified nuclearisation, militarisation and terrorism as the major threats to South Asian security, each of which served to exacerbate the vulnerability of the region's women to violence at multiple levels.

She urged all associated with decision-making processes in Pakistan and India to begin by abandoning the masculine concept of honour which gets its satisfaction from waging wars. She left them to ponder her soul searching message, "A leadership that brings peace is far more courageous than the one which opens fire and goes to war".

With their WIPSA colleagues, Jehangir and Jilani have expressed a determination to first, free the peace negotiations from the clutches of the political leadership and convert it into a people's movement, and second to leave men, whose failures have inflicted so much suffering on women, on the periphery. In Jehangir's words, "Women, as mothers, want to carve a better tomorrow for their children. A tomorrow that is bloodless and bombless."

Undaunted by the daily threats to their personal security, Jehangir and Jilani are passionately committed to the evolution of an egalitarian Pakistan. Listening to General Musharraf's frequent discourses, one might imagine that he too shared dreams of a Pakistan which provided dignity for all of its people and a Pakistan at peace with neighbouring countries, notably India.

Yet, as Jehangir and Jilani have indicated, until Musharraf restores the nation's democracy, and constitutes an independent Accountability Commission, those who themselves should have been brought under the net of culpability are instead carrying out accountability. Few would argue with Jehangir's claim that corruption is global, nor with her view that the difference between less civilized and more civilized countries is shaped by liability clauses which ensure that the corrupt are brought to book.

Pakistan's self-styled chief executive Pervez Musharraf can take scant pride in his regime's achievements in the space of the past 12 months. In addition to increasing aid to armed criminals masquerading as mujahideen in Kashmir, the regime continues to prop up the Taliban by participating in its military campaigns and facilitating Afghanistan's narcotics trade.

Similarly, the regime has failed to crack down on Pakistan's radical bands who are exporting terrorism to many parts of the world, and has paid but lip service to raising the status of women and alleviating the nation's economic destitution.

In effect, with Musharraf's men increasingly taking on the appearance of mullahs in uniform, the military's reign has expanded the fertile ground of social deprivation, poverty and ignorance in which Islamic fundamentalism sets its roots.

In recent months, non-government organizations (NGOs) have faced a cowardly campaign of abuse, false allegations, and open threats to execute or force women employees into forced marriages from the Islamic extremists. Jehangir has counter attacked that the mullahs had gone too far with their militant aggression against any who dare to defy their dictates, offering the advice that "They (the mullahs) must learn to live with differences as it is they who are without the moral or political respect to force their will on society."

On October 12, 2000, the first anniversary of the military's takeover of Pakistan, Jehangir, Jilani and colleagues demanded the restoration of democracy at a conference in Lahore, asking that the military regime return to their barracks and immediately announce general elections.

Irrespective of the October 12 outcome, two things remain certain while the courageous sisters-in-arms are at the helm: Pakistan's women can live in genuine hope that someday they will witness an end to their persecution at the hands of their nation's dishonorable brotherhoods; and Kashmir's innocent may someday see an end to their torture at the hands of war-mongering men on both sides of their land.

Dr. Lynette J. Dumble is the International Co-ordinator of the Global Sisterhood Network.

*Donations for the AGHS Women's Legal Aid Cell and Shelter in Lahore, Pakistan may be sent to the Global Sisterhood Network, 14 Rix Street, Glen Iris, Vic., 3146, AUSTRALIA.

Every 9 Seconds | Feminist Foes of Dishonorable Brotherhoods
Women's First Global March


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