In Pakistan, Salman Taseer’s assassination in early January has blown the lid off the seething cauldron that has been bubbling in Pakistan for the last several years: the divide between Pakistan’s extremist forces and its minority liberal community is now so wide that it seems nothing can bridge the gap anymore. Worse, the extremists greatly outnumber the liberals, endangering whatever advances have been made in the Pakistani society.
But the women intelligentsia of Pakistan is determined not to let the religious right gain any more ground in the struggle for Pakistan’s soul. They have responded to the onslaught of the right wing with such ferocity that a Pakistani man said on Twitter: “I definitely see more women out on the streets after Salman Taseer’s killing. Does this mean that it is the women that have the guts in this country?”
It all started with a woman: Aasia Bibi, the hapless Pakistani-Christian mother of five who made the mistake of getting on the wrong side of a group of malicious village women. One moment Aasia Bibi was offering her coworkers a cup of water; the next, she was facing the death penalty for having supposedly committed “blasphemy”.
Activists and women’s rights groups, aghast at the blatant abuse of human rights that Aasia Bibi’s case represented, agitated for the country’s leaders to have her acquitted. Pakistan’s progressives, especially women, got in touch with the Governor of Punjab Salman Taseer through his Twitter account – one which he used mostly to tweak rival politicians’ noses, share his favorite Urdu poetry, and communicate with his daughters. They besieged him with 140-character-long appeals to save Aasia Bibi’s life, hoping against hope that he would listen.
Taseer not only took Aasia Bibi under his protection, but he widened his scope to take aim at the blasphemy law itself. But Taseer’s strong voice was silenced on January 4, when his own bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri, shot him 27 times with his state-issued Kalashnikov.
After the initial shock of the assassination, women activists vowed to use it as a rallying point: not just because they feel for Aasia Bibi, the first woman in Pakistan to face the death penalty for blasphemy, but because they know that women are the first to lose their freedoms when extremism takes over a nation. They are organising candlelight vigils, rallies, and media campaigns to defend their hard-won rights, despite knowing they are outnumbered by the other side.
One of the bravest women in today’s Pakistan is Shehrbano Taseer, daughter of the slain Governor, who wrote several pieces for the newspapers protesting the death of her father and the way in which his killer was showered with rose petals by lawyers who vowed to defend him in court. For this, she received threats from extremists: “She should remember the fate of her father and refrain from issuing statements.”
Taseer, a graduate of Smith College in the US, draws inspiration from other brave women in Pakistan who came up against the same forces: Asma Jehangir, Benazir Bhutto, Jugnu Mohsin, Sherry Rehman (who is now living under virtual house arrest in Karachi because of death threats she has received for her stance against the blasphemy law), Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, Beena Sarwar, and Marvi Sirmed are some of the women whose struggles against injustice in Pakistani society have inspired her.
And of course, there is her father’s legacy: “My father’s fire has come inside me ... I don’t wish for any other family to have suffered what mine has had to.” Her father’s violent death has illustrated most vividly to her how both men and women in Pakistan have worked together for generations in the name of social activism. “Men and women have marched on the streets together and sacrificed a lot, so I don’t feel one sex is more dominant than the other in this regard.”
But it is not enough. The men in Pakistan need to step it up greatly when it comes to supporting women in social activism. Nuzhat Kidvai, a human rights activist in Karachi, says, “In general, men are more active in the left and labour movements – they will march for economic or political reasons. But when it comes to supporting women’s issues, they just aren’t there.” Her husband, Zaheer Kidvai, a long-time proponent of social activism in Pakistan, agrees that “women are certainly more engaged in this battle and despite bad attacks – lathis, jail, beating, and even rapes by the police! – they have moved this forward against all these odds. If there is any way for this society to evolve further, it'll have to have even more women come out.”
So, back to the original question: is it really the women in Pakistan who have the guts? When it comes to fighting for their rights, definitely. Life in Pakistan is hard for women, but they don’t give up easily. Perhaps this is why they haven’t yet suffered the fates of their compatriots in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and other supremely conservative Muslim countries in the region.