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 is a tool and an instrument of exploitation and violence. The people who sanction punishments in the name of religion haven’t even read the Koran… Islam is used to cover up a lot of things.”
In fact, says Shahid, Islam has strong protections for women’s rights, and is rooted in a much more liberal culture than exists in many Islamic countries today. “I moved a resolution [in the Provincial Assembly of the Punjab] in 2011—I proposed to the house that there are five primary rights given to women by Islam. Number one is that she is free to choose who she marries; number two is that she is free to divorce; third is that a widow does not need the consent of the [husband’s] family to remarry; four is that you have a fixed inheritance from multiple sources—from your son, from your husband, from your father—and fifth is that you have the absolute control and management of your finances and assets. And these are not superficial things, these are five rights that categorically change your life.
“When I proposed this in the Punjab Assembly, there was uproar, and people said: ‘What are you saying, do you want women to become rebellious?’ But I said: “Are you trying to tell me that you’re going against the words of the Prophet?’ You see, because anything you say against the words of the Prophet becomes blasphemous in Pakistan,” she explains with a wry smile, “so I played them at their own game.” The resolution passed.
Still, “a lot of violence in my country revolves around these five issues,” says Shahid. “The [women] get their inheritance but not the control—the brothers and the fathers and the husbands are the ones who are controlling them. That is absolutely forbidden in Islam. The Prophet’s wife Khadija was a businesswoman. They were partners in business, and that’s how they came together and they got married. And she was the one who proposed to him. This is against all the conventional norms we have in Pakistan today. It was a liberal society. Muslims have been sensuous and sensual and open-minded. The regression that Pakistan has seen in the past three decades is because of the empowerment of the clergy… Islamisation was a military strategy that suited both the Americans and the Pakistanis [during the Soviet war in Afghanistan], so they empowered the clergy over the people. That was the beginning of the judgemental society that we have today, and unfortunately it cannot be reversed…
“My land is the land of Sufis [a mystical branch of Islam],” says Shahid. “Come and see my culture, our folklore, the dances, the music and the poetry of love. This [Islamisation] is not what my grandfathers saw [in Pakistan]… We celebrated the relationship between the creator and the creation. It was not the kind of dogmatic, ideologically conservative, misogynistic culture that we have in the Middle East now.”
In Devotion and Defiance, Shahid describes her upbringing in the relatively liberal and safe environment of Kuwait, before moving back to Pakistan with her family when the international school there ran out of places. “Though I had nothing to compare it to at the time,” she writes, “hindsight tells me how fortunate I was to have been raised in such an open society. Kuwait was safe, secure and secular… That we spent many afternoons walking unsupervised the two kilometres to the nearest beach illustrates a freedom that I didn’t even know I had until I was a teenager, living in Lahore, and as a girl not allowed to go anywhere on my own.”
But even Lahore was liberal compared with the attitudes she encountered later in rural Pakistan, while working for the newspaper run by her father-in-law. She recounts the story of a 15-year-old girl, Parveen, who was raped and then forced to marry her rapist by the village council, in agreement with her father, ostensibly for her own protection since nobody else would marry her after she had been violated.
“When I started working for the newspaper, it was eye-opening. I had not realised that there was a dangerous world outside, I had not realised how difficult it is to get justice if you are not well-connected… And I realised that it runs through all the classes—the women have the same issues, such as domestic abuse, and not being given their rights, such as divorce and inheritance. It just made me realise… how much pain and misery is out there, how much poverty there is, how much people are deprived.”
One of the key problems, she says, is the lack of accountability. “You get away with the biggest scandals [in Pakistan], you get away with the biggest financial embezzlements, and because these rich people go unpunished it creates a precedent, an acceptance of the crime… I remember there was a case of a nine-year-old girl, she was a small child, a very poor child, who was raped by four men, and according to my news correspondent one of the culprits was actually hiding out in the house of the local MP… and was being protected by the influential political people in that area… So what can you do there? The incapacity of the government to have accountability and to provide justice is the biggest failure and the biggest disappointment, and it doesn’t happen only in Pakistan… The law-making agency, which is the parliament, the law-enforcing agency, which is the police, and the law-providing agency, which is the judiciary, all come together, and they are all a source of structural violence against women.”
Although she agrees that a basic standard of modesty is required by Islam, she disapproves of the niqab, the face-covering worn by some Muslim women that obscures everything but the eyes, which she describes as a symbol of patriarchy. “I do not see that kind of commandment coming from our scriptures,” she says. “The west has seen the time of Puritanism, and this is a kind of Islamic Puritanism; it has nothing to do with the real Islam. The whole obsession with the female body, with women’s appearance and how they dress, is so abnormal. They’ve reduced the religion to sexual morality… Islam is about much more than my ankles and ears…
“I think what has happened is that the man tries to prove his piety by putting his woman under veils. So if she’s under six veils, the more pious he is. It’s very convenient for this patriarchal mindset to display his piety through his woman, and not through himself.
“I would like to ask him: how ethical are you in your business? How kind are you to your servants? Seventy per cent of sharia is not about how you dress, it’s about business transactions, business ethics. And all these Islamic groups, do you think they actually worry about that aspect of sharia? Allah in the Koran condemns these things: usury, extortion, unfair trading, lying, deceit, and we have serious condemnations and punishments for these things. But nobody’s talking about them.”
The problem, she says, is that many in rural Pakistan are illiterate and therefore unable to read the scriptures for themselves. “So the clergy becomes a mouthpiece of what Islam is and honestly a lot of clergy have a very, very political way of looking at things, and a lot of them are misogynists, a lot of them are conservatives.”
On the other hand, Shahid sees the west’s obsession with the niqab, and discussions about banning it, as equally oppressive. “What kind of freedom would it be if I have to abide by your criteria of how to dress? In this respect, I believe the streets of Las Vegas and the primitive villages of Pakistan are the same, there is the same kind of enforcement—in one the woman is forced to take off her clothes and in the other she is forced to wear the clothes. Freedom lies in what I want to do… I seriously ask both the west and the east to leave us alone. Let us wear what we want to wear, let us look how we want to look.”
I ask her about the case of Parveen, the village girl who was forced to marry her rapist. That happened 12 years ago—has she seen any progress since then, I wonder? “I think the media has changed, so now these cases are more easily exposed, because we have so many local news channels and every day the stories are coming out more quickly. If the police are involved in the crime, it is exposed. But if you’re asking me if the people are less callous today? No.”
She points out that it is not a problem restricted to Pakistan, or to Islamic cultures. “If Islam was an issue… then India wouldn’t have that much violence. Look at the exploitation [of women] that happens in India, and that is not done in the name of religion.” She points also to the high level of sexual violence in the west. “Thirty per cent of women in America have been through a violent sexual experience. Now this is a country where the police are not as corrupt as in mine, with a better judicial system, where you don’t have that cultural conservativism that we have in the rural villages, and you don’t even have Islam [as the main religion] over there, so what is the problem? Why do American women have to go through this, in a country that is at the forefront of human rights? What is wrong with this world?”
Shahid has three solutions to the widespread violations of justice for women. The first is judicial reform, in Pakistan particularly. “I don’t see any justice coming to women without judicial reform. The average woman falsely accused of adultery stays in prison for eight years until she’s proven not guilty, but what about those eight years of trial? What could be more unjust than that?”
The second is the representation of women in positions of power, where they can effect change. Pakistan has a 17 per cent quota for the representation of women in parliament and this, she says, has been crucial to bringing about legislation that supports justice for women. Although male politicians often back legislation that supports it, they never initiate it themselves, she says—”they’re too busy with their own local politics.” But when female politicians started proposing motions such as better protection for victims of acid attacks, “the men stood up. I remember that even the most conservative religious group stood up in support of these motions. But women are the only ones who will prioritise them.”
And the most important solution, she says, is the economic empowerment of women, which she believes is actually regressing as global inequality grows. “When the woman puts the bread and butter on the table, she automatically becomes the decision-maker in the family, and I believe we need to push women into decision-making positions.” She plans to work on this in Pakistan over the next few years by supporting small, local enterprises that help women to provide for themselves.
“I want to create open free markets for women, to create small enterprises… Local people, local communities, selling their own things,” she says. “The [most important] thing is that the woman is able to provide for herself, that she’s able to economically survive, she and her children. That is the beginning of the change. Changes in social norms, in cultural norms, in literacy and health, will follow. But the first thing is economic empowerment… You will see me working towards [that] over the next few years.”
Humaira Shahid’s memoir, Devotion and Defiance: My Journey in Love, Faith and Politics, is out now, published by WW Norton