LONDON (WOMENSENEWS)–Shaheen Sardar Ali can tell you just how difficult it is to become a woman of influence in Pakistan. As the chair of the Women’s Commission in her Muslim homeland and a health minister of her country’s conservative Northwest Frontier province, she is one of a handful of high-ranking female officeholders in Pakistan.
“The fact that I’m here gives a whole lot of optimism for the women of Pakistan,” she told 900 female counselors, solicitors and barristers gathered in London for the recent two-day World Women Lawyers Conference organized by the International Bar Association.
The problems, goals and achievements of women in Muslim countries were discussed in a controversial, and sometimes heated, session on Women, Islam and the Law. Sardar Ali was joined by British barrister and refugee appeals adjudicator, Shazadi Beg, novelist Ahdaf Soueif and moderator Christiane Amanpour, a CNN correspondent.
Looking out on the sea of women lawyers before her, Sardar Ali told her rapt audience that she divided her religion into two categories. The first is the Islamic law found in the Quran and other Muslim holy books, she said. But the second, which she calls, the “operative Islamic law,” defines the strictures that control women’s lives and are “invariably governed by a conglomeration of factors.”
It is the latter, with its strained and selective interpretation of Islam, that oppresses women, she said.
Islam “clearly states that every Muslim–male or female–has rights” to education, health care and paid employment, Sardar Ali said. But governments either outright disagree or make the excuse that there aren’t sufficient resources to provide women those very rights, she said.
Forced Marriages, ‘Honor Killings’ Not Prescribed by Quran
Forced marriages are not prescribed by the Quran. Even inheritance rights are extended to women under the religion. Instead, it is custom that has been used to transfer property only to male heirs, she said. It is this “little soup of operative law–a dash of this and a dash of that” that subjugates women in countries such as Pakistan, Sardar Ali added. Nevertheless, she is fighting for change in her nation of 140 million people.
“How can I create spaces for women in Muslim society?” she said she asks herself. Apparently, she and others are doing so one step at a time. Every three months she and the other six women ministers meet at one of their houses and develop their agenda and strategies.
The Women’s Commission, sanctioned by Pakistan’s military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, arose out of one of these “huddles,” as Sardar Ali calls them. But the focus on women’s rights and human rights, in general, in that country also grew out of international criticism, especially regarding “honor killings.”
In Pakistan more than 1,000 women were murdered in 1999 for allegedly disgracing their families, according to international human rights groups. In the province of Punjab alone, there were 315 such crimes. The perpetrators, even if prosecuted, often are acquitted based on a defense that they were provoked into the killings by the women’s deeds.
Some progress against honor killings has been made, however. Sardar Ali pointed to three recent high-profile judgments that declared honor killings to be murder. In addition, last April, Pakistan’s ruler Musharraf announced a national rights campaign, focused on stamping out honor killings and prosecuting its perpetrators for murder.
Still, this age-old practice of killing women who have shamed the family name by committing adultery, not marrying bridegrooms chosen by their parents, having premarital sex or even talking to men their relatives don’t approve of, isn’t likely to go away in 15 months, Sardar Ali said, referring to the bloodless coup that brought Musharraf to power in 1999.
Pressing for Law Requiring Police Report on Honor Killings
“We are crawling, but it is much better than lying on your backs” and doing nothing, she said. For instance, she and others are pushing for a new law that would require disciplinary proceedings if a police officer fails to register a complaint about an honor killing, she said.
Honor killings are just one area of Pakistani women’s lives that concerns Sardar Ali. She and other women successfully urged the military ruling structure to guarantee that women will comprise 33 percent in all levels of government, federal and provincial.
“They said, you must be mad,” she recalls of the criticism she encountered for demanding better political representation of Pakistani women.
Last December, women were elected to office in 18 of the country’s 106 administrative districts. Musharraf has promised to return democratic rule to this impoverished nation by October 2002, in accord with a Supreme Court decision. Meanwhile, local elections are being held in stages throughout Pakistan. Sardar Ali said the last of these elections will be held by August. But, what thrills her is the fact that nearly 4,000 of the more than 20,000 seats available have been set aside for women–a milestone for Pakistan.
In addition, she and other progressive women are pressing for better health care for pregnant women by fighting the tradition of delivering babies in the privacy of the home. Instead, she is attempting to lobby for emergency obstetric care.
Women also don’t have collateral to obtain bank loans to open little businesses like bakeries, Sardar Ali said. While she wants banks to change their policy, however, two new women’s banks provide loans to women without collateral.
Another strategy to advance women’s rights is to press for legislation guaranteeing the rights of all children, male or female, rather than directly pressing to ensure the rights of women. “So, by the time she is 18, she has equal rights,” Sardar Ali said. The bill has not yet been adopted.
Some Hissing Participants Intolerant of Others’ Views
That’s what her grandfather did, guaranteeing her equal rights. He broke with tradition when he sent her to a British convent school 400 miles away when she was 4 years old. “It was very benign and look what it has become!” she laughed, acknowledging her political activism.
While Sardar Ali’s words were welcomed by women at the conference, Egyptian-born novelist Ahdaf Soueif encountered some heckling, especially when she spoke of the positive work in the Middle East by Jewish human rights organizations.
Soueif endured angry hissing when she insisted that there were Jewish groups that spoke out against violence against both Arabs and Jews. She was greeted with hoots of derision and disbelief when she described how some Jewish groups unsuccessfully attempted to give olive trees as peace offerings to Palestinians, only to be turned away by the Israeli military.
But when one woman stood up to object to Soueif’s observations, the author said: “I want to say something about censorship: I have said many controversial things and I have not been stopped from speaking.” She is author of “In the Eye of the Sun,” about the coming of age of a young Egyptian woman in London.
She wasn’t the only speaker denounced by some of the women lawyers. CNN’s Amanpour herself was criticized as she spoke of the situation of women in Iran. Iranian women “have really proved themselves in the last 10 years,” Amanpour said.
Next Iranian Elections a Struggle Between Reformers and Clerics
In the last year, Iran’s reformers swept the election and a record number of women were elected to Parliament, she said. “Now there is a real struggle” in the run-up to the presidential elections scheduled in June, Amanpour said. Noting the youth and good education of Iran’s population, she said that this election would be a “crucible” for the country.
She showed a report she did for 60 Minutes on CBS news on the changing face of Iran. In particular, she showed the plight of women, focusing on the child abuse murder of a little girl by her father and stepbrother. The father wasn’t convicted of murder but was sentenced to two years in prison–time he didn’t serve. After a couple of months, he was released.
The stepbrother, however, was convicted of murder. But, in order to apply the death penalty, hanging, the girl’s mother had to pay a fee. It was a price she couldn’t afford to pay. If the young man had killed a boy, instead of a girl he would have been executed automatically.
Some Muslim women lawyers were outraged. One stood up and shouted that the piece was a “misrepresentation” of Islam. “I’m surprised the film talks about Islamic law. Under Islamic law, it is murder.” She blamed such atrocities on the ultra-conservative Iranian revolution, an example of the non-Quranic operative law that Sardar Ali blames for the mistreatment of women.
Amanpour countered: “The whole point of this debate is the interpretation or the misinterpretation of Islamic law.”
Sardar Ali, the women’s commissioner from Pakistan, said: “One of the problems is women have been kept away from the job of interpreting religion. If it is applicable to us, then we jolly well will have the right to interpret it.”
Frances A. McMorris is an attorney and an assistant managing editor at The Daily Deal, a daily financial newspaper and website, in New York City.
For more information, visit:
International Bar Association:
Pakistan Women Lawyers Association (PAWLA):
Women’s Organizations in Pakistan:
All Pakistan Women’s Association (AWPA):
A special daily feature of Women’s Enews during Women’s History Month
(WOMENSENEWS)–1917. Members of the National Women’s Party, the most militant suffragists, led by Alice Paul, began a picketing campaign in January outside the White House. The goal was to pressure President Woodrow Wilson on women’s suffrage. In June, picketers were arrested and jailed in Virginia.
When the jailed women began a hunger strike, jailers attempted to force-feed them. When Paul was arrested during continuing street protests, she suffered the same force-feeding indignity.
A psychiatrist was sent to examine her. She delivered an hour-long lecture on the suffrage movement. Despite the doctor’s favorable report on her sanity, Paul was sent to a mental ward where unbalanced patients were allowed to peer into her room. The women were released from confinement in early December. –Glenda Crank Holste.