Pakistan: An Interview with Farida Shaheed


AWID interviews Farida Shaheed – active in the women’s rights movement in Pakistan for over 25 years – about women’s rights activism in Pakistan, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, and the hopes of the women’s rights movement. (AWID)

AWID: Women in Pakistan are subject to some of the most horrendous rights violations worldwide. How are women mobilising for gender equality and women’s rights?

Farida Shaheed* (FS): Pakistan is a country of great contrasts – so it seems that we have people living in different centuries rather than just locations, with different rules and constraints as well as opportunities. Constraints, rules and opportunities also vary enormously by class background. So while we have strong articulate women’s advocates in large cities, the challenge is how to expand and link up with women in different classes and rural locations as well as in smaller towns, making sure that their voices are heard, their concerns articulated.

With Pakistan being under military rule longer than civilian rule, this increases the level of risk to activists. The severity of these risks varies with class and it has fallen to the urban middle class women with lesser risks to security and person to advance the movement. Given the numerically small number of activists, there has been a tendency to focus attention on the state: its actions and policies and laws (often trying to deny women their rights).

While state policies and laws are critical of course, women on the whole interact very little with the state, and are obliged to negotiate rights through the meso level of family, parallel adjudication and governance structures that impact their lives most immediately.

The fewer women who know about and enjoy state given rights, the more vulnerable these rights are to being overturned by dictators. Hence many organisations like Shirkat Gah have started ‘outreach’ programmes: that is, programmes to reach women in different village and urban locations. This has expanded the base of women’s rights activists and the movement as a whole.

Equally we try and ensure that international debates are shared with women in communities we work with and that their concerns and demands are articulated at the national and supra national levels. Secondly, the women’s rights movement has built strong links with human rights groups and actors within Pakistan to make common cause. This has helped to expand the movement and has also brought women’s issues onto the agenda of the general human rights movement. Thirdly, we have linked up with women’s rights groups and movements in the region and globally.

AWID: In your opinion, how closely related are women’s rights and democracy in Pakistan? How do women’s organisations influence government decisions?

FS: While democracy is not a panacea; our experience is that democracy and democratic spaces (not merely electoral processes, but inclusion in decision-making) support women’s rights while dictatorial dispensations (whether military or civilian) tend to undermine women’s rights. We believe many of the problems confronting women are common with other citizens and that there is therefore a need to link up with and support each other for a better society.

Shirkat Gah’s motto is Women’s Empowerment for Social Justice and Social Justice for Women’s Empowerment. For this, we work towards strengthening women as rights claimants and also work to ensure that duty bearers are better attuned to women’s needs and improve the delivery of state rights and services.

Organisations have different strategies that include: lobbying with policy-makers for improved laws and policies and regulations, projects etc. – often done in alliance with other women’s groups and also human rights groups in general; using opportunities tied to national decision-making such as the 5 year development plans, national policy for women; and reporting to the UN system (Beijing, ICPD, MDGs etc, and CEDAW Report) as a means to raise issues and press for change.

We have worked with parliamentarians to table and then to negotiate bills into acts by providing background materials and research, bringing in required expertise, meeting with standing committees of parliament – but we also use the mushrooming of new independent cable television networks and FM radio stations to get our opinions to a wider set of people – we also use newspaper articles (but less systematically). Finally and always there are public protests and demonstrations. Less frequently we have used street and interactive theatre to catalyse thinking and debates within communities resistant to change.

AWID: There have been some major political upheavals in Pakistan in the past 12 months, including the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and the resignation of Musharraf. How did the assassination of Bhutto impact the women’s rights movement?

FS: The assassination of Benazir was a blow to women in Pakistan as a whole, she symbolized for many the full potential of women here – that women could become the head of government.

Although Benazir was not a women’s rights activist as such, many in the women’s movement were profoundly shocked and upset. She was a defiant woman and a progressive force for democracy in very troubled times for the country. Her acceding to power had immense symbolic impact: this assumption by a woman of democratically elected power reverberated throughout society – resulting in an immediate easing of the social atmosphere, an invisible but palpable lifting of social constraints and a greater respect for women’s rights demands than otherwise. It was in this sense that her assassination was a tragedy for the women and women’s movement in Pakistan.

AWID: What are your thoughts on the recent election of her widower, Asif Ali Zardari as President? What is the potential for his appointment to impact women’s rights?

FS: With the PPP now in control of the presidency as well as the parliament, we hope that it will put women squarely on the agenda in a progressive way. However, politics in the past have shown that women’s rights are all too often sacrificed in the bargaining chip in the larger game of political manoeuvring and alliance building. The fear of such bargaining is always present and remains. Zardari is an unknown entity politically speaking, leaving many wary of backdoor arrangements – however he was democratically elected. It is too soon to say what impact it will have on women.

AWID: What are the hopes of the women’s rights movement with these recent changes and renewed hopes for democracy?

FS: We can only hope that the democratically elected government moves on with a strong decision to counter the right wing Talibanisation of the country by armed extremists using Islam. We hope that this brings peace so the government can concentrate on the very dire economic situation. We hope that the women elected in to assemblies and the national parliament will move to continue progress of women’s rights and institutionalise changes.

AWID: How do you aim to achieve your goals?

FS: Women’s rights activists continue to work with the parliamentarians, most recently in commenting on and suggesting improvements to the Domestic Violence Bill and other issues. We continue to mobilise women and public opinion to change practices harmful to women. We continue to support all democratic forces, most especially the lawyers’ community in their struggle for a free independent judiciary, and link up with diverse alliances and coalitions fighting for social justice for all.

Interview by Rochelle Jones

2 September 2008


* Farida Shaheed, based in Lahore, is a sociologist with over 25 years’ research experience on women’s issues (including rural development, women and labour and legal rights), especially in Pakistan, South Asia and Muslim contexts. More recent work has explored the forces at play in the interface of women, culture, identity, and governance/state. These are subjects she has written on extensively, using multiple research methods – from archival investigation to time-use surveys and large-scale surveys.

A consultant to UN and development agencies (e.g. ILO, UNESCO, UNRISD, UNICEF, FAO, DFID, NORAD, World Bank), she has served on numerous government bodies and committees e.g. the Punjab government’s Task Force on Women’s Development; the editorial committees for the National Plan of Action for women and the 2002 National Policy on Development and Empowerment of Women; and technical expert on Pakistan’s delegation at the international Muslim Women Parliamentarians Conference, 1995. In 2000 she led the Pakistan Beijing+5 NGO review process. On behalf of the Ministry of Women’s Development she led the work for the Ministry’s publication: On the Path of Women’s Empowerment: A Synthesis of Reports of Commissions/Committee on the Status of Women. In addition to being the editor for Shirkat Gah’s Shadow Report: Talibanisation and Poor Governance undermining CEDAW in Pakistan (2007), she provided page by page comments to the Government’s combined 1st 2nd and 3rd CEDAW report. Most recently she has been working to help facilitate effective implementation of the new Punjab guidelines for Darul Amaans (shelters), through research, capacity building and translations etc.

Active in the Pakistan women’s rights movement for the last 25 years, Farida is a founder of the Women’s Action Forum, a women’s rights platform that led the movement for women’s rights during the military dictatorship of Gen. Zia-ul-Haq. She received the Second Annual Award for Women’s Human Rights in 1997, the Prime Minister’s Award in 1989 for her book on the women’s movement in Pakistan (Women in Pakistan: Two Steps Forward One Step Back? 1987. Zed Books, London. Co-authored by Farida Shaheed & Khawar Mumtaz); and was one of the Thousand Women for Peace nominated worldwide for the Nobel Peace Prize. As Shirkat Gah Coordinator, she developed and, until January 2008, ran its (largest) legal consciousness programme that seeks to change laws and policies while building grassroots capacity through training thousands of women and male allies, and by providing legal counselling/assistance and networking.

Currently she is the Deputy Director of the DFID-supported Asia-focused research consortium: Women’s Empowerment in Muslim Contexts: gender, poverty and democratisation from the inside (WEMC) that seeks to understand obstacles to women’s empowerment and recommend ways to overcome these in 4 nodal countries (China, Indonesia, Pakistan and Iran) as well as cross-border situations. Running from July 2006 to June 2011, WEMC combines research, capacity building and communication for policy uptake in the four nodal countries. Led by City University, Hong Kong the research consortium has numerous partners that include Aga Khan University and Shirkat Gah in Pakistan, Oxford University in the UK and NGOs in Iran and Indonesia. In addition to being the Deputy Director of the WEMC as a whole, Farida is also the Lead Researcher for Shirkat Gah.

She is also the Asia Coordinator for the international solidarity network: Women Living Under Muslim Laws. It is for the network’s Feminism in the Muslim World Institutes (co-run with the Centre for Women’s Global Leadership – Rutgers University) that she developed a training module debunking the widespread myth that asserting rights is alien to Muslim societies, subsequently published as a two volume set: Great Ancestors: Women Asserting Rights in Muslim Contexts comprising of a training module and a book of narratives tracing women’s assertions for rights from the 8th century to the 1950s.