Pakistani journalist and activist Humaira Shahid in London © Jessica Abrahams
It’s impossible not to be impressed by Humaira Awais Shahid. Raised in Kuwait but a long-time resident of Lahore, this Pakistani journalist has pushed her fierce advocacy of women’s rights through the media and parliament, in a country not always welcoming of the idea. Hearing her speak on issues of inequality—both gender-based and otherwise—she is eloquent and emotive.
Shahid has spent her career working to put women’s rights issues on the agenda in Pakistan. When she took on the job of editing the women’s section of the Daily Khabrain, the independent newspaper owned by her husband’s family, she emptied the pages of celebrity gossip and fashion tips, filling them instead with stories of the daily injustices suffered by women, from acid attacks to the trading of women to resolve disputes in rural areas. Later on, as a member of the Provincial Assembly of the Punjab, she pushed her fellow politicians—mostly male, and often deeply conservative—to back legislation that supported justice for women. She now represents 200 women’s organisations advocating for the adoption of the International Violence Against Women Act in America, which would see the US addressing global violence against women through foreign policy.
When we meet in central London to talk about her new memoir, Devotion and Defiance: My Journey in Love, Faith and Politics, Shahid is wearing a long black and grey patterned skirt, a striking pink headscarf partially covering her hair. She flicks through a copy of Prospect as we discuss the western perception of Islam as oppressive of women.
“I think I’ve seen a lot of media projections of that,” she says. “Recently, for example, honour killings have been regarded as part of sharia [Islamic law], which is absolutely wrong because honour killings in Islam are first degree murder. It has cultural roots, it comes from customary practices. A lot of violence that happens in Pakistan has cultural roots.” Forced marriages, too, contradict Islamic law, she says. “Islam is categorical about the fact that you are free to choose who you marry, and you are free to divorce if you do not like being with that man… This is part of the scriptures…
“In Pakistan, I think the influential and the rich and the powerful use religious discourse and religious texts against the powerless. It…