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A woman lights a candle next to an image of the governor of Punjab Salman Taseer during a candlelight vigil in commemoration of Taseer. - Photo by Reuters (File Photo)

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.

Comments (63) Closed

Kaal Feb 17, 2011 01:03pm
Yes, Bina. Pakistani women are far better fighters than are Pakistani men. But even in this fight, your men will fail you. Two reasons: (1) They simply are not the liberals you think they are. And (2) No matter what kind of Islam prevails, Muslim men don't stand to lose nearly half as much as Muslim women (like you).
Jalil Yousaf Feb 17, 2011 01:14pm
This country men are Shameless. They cant come forward.
zeya Feb 17, 2011 01:33pm
You see only those women who are on streets of major cities and have background in NGOs type of organizations. Have you tried to listen to 70% of the population of rural areas (especially women) regarding their views on issues outlined by you. Kindly try to understand who is doing what and why?
Ateeq Feb 17, 2011 01:34pm
So...Jalil, which country's Men u represent ? 'Walking' the 'Talk' is difficult. No offence... ;) Cheeroo
Abdullah Feb 17, 2011 02:12pm
Is this some Gender cause being put up in this article ?
syed Feb 17, 2011 02:15pm
Men in Pakistan take everything for granted but women have to work for everything. So they understand how hard it is to get something done. This is common every where in the world but in Pakistan its more important. The whole notion of women going to school and then work its a big thing.
Mohammed Thanveer Feb 17, 2011 03:21pm
Great artcile. Indeed in any country women are treated as inferior to men. But the audacity displayed by pakisthani women is awsome. This is a tribute from an Indian. I hope pakisthan becomes truly peaceful and democractic.
MUHAMMAD JAMSHED Feb 17, 2011 04:53pm
a good efort but not the whole truth. men are also there in social activism. don,t forget that it was salman taseer who stood for aasia bibi and against blasphemy law. why sherry rehman withdrew herself from her appeal to ammend the blasphemy law?
Usman Malik Feb 17, 2011 06:29pm
Not sure if I agree to praise bestowed upon the "twitter" activist, but yes - one thing is for sure this nation will not get to any respectable position without enlightened and empowered women. And let me be clear when I say enlightened and empowered I do not mean daughters, wives and sisters of political leaders coming into Parliament uncontested.
Dev Saha Feb 17, 2011 07:31pm
This is a great shame to see how Pakistani men have taken a back seat to fight extremism from the right. When minorities are gone, women' rights will be on the line. If men still stay on the sideline, extremists will rule Pakistan. Can these extremists do better for Pakistan? I doubt very much.
Zeeshan Feb 17, 2011 08:10pm
It seems flaunting skin and bashing religion is a pre-requisite for being a liberal. I'm afraid you have misunderstood liberalism.
Ercelan Feb 17, 2011 08:42pm
Bina Shah has been disappointing in her fiction. her political commentary is shallower.
Shaukat Feb 17, 2011 08:51pm
I admire Pakistani women for standing up to religious bigots in Pakistan. Please keep Pakistan secular otherwise get ready to join ranks of countries like Somalia.
Ammar Feb 17, 2011 09:19pm
Muslim Women are going to play a great part in renaissance of our people.The fate of our Muslim lies in the hands of our Muslim mothers.
Deep Feb 17, 2011 09:44pm
You did not mention my all-time favourite Mukhtaran Mai - I dont think courage comes with education - sometimes the educated react in ways that can most kindly be described as meek. What Mukhtaran Mai did was far from ordinary and I hope she gets Pakistan's highest honour.
Asad Feb 17, 2011 10:53pm
Article written to develop further divide in all ready fragmented society,by placing women as more rational,now women are being exploited,someone is playing with their innocence to exploit them to advantage of male.This enlightened moderation is likely the team to use them,as in past other mens have been used.
Saad Feb 17, 2011 11:33pm
Just wanna make a correction in this article... Qadri killed Taseer with a SMG (Sub-machinegun) and NOT Kalashinkov..
Abbu Feb 18, 2011 12:18am
Not sure if this article is anti-religion or anti-terrorism/extremism or if it is pro women or anti men?
Mohan Kapur Feb 18, 2011 12:26am
Bina, My observation in US is that Pakistani men are more religious conservatives than Pakistani women. In other societies it is other way around. On Fridays, all the men go to mosque and women work in the offices. It, probably, is the maine reason.
Ejaz Feb 18, 2011 04:40am
Need education,Education and education for both sex.
Muna Feb 18, 2011 10:08am
The power of women in Pakistan is underrated, even by women themselves. I see among them incredible intelligence, power, fearlessness and resilience locked up waiting to be unleashed, but I shudder to think of what critical mass will be needed in order for us to reach the tipping point of egalitarianism, justice and unity.
Harsh Agarwala Feb 18, 2011 10:35am
Its true for most societies! Men get so involved in power games that they leave the dimension of conscience at the door of the negotiating room.
man Feb 18, 2011 11:11am
wow wow wow . most of you are depressed some are jealous and some are cowrd. now the time has changed you cant convince People by just stating false statement. now the Pakistani's are educated, and religious community Allhumdullilah. it is just one's own perception and on the basis of that he/she pointed on us. but never mind our roads can be broken but not our wills. Inshallah you will see by your eyes that how much Pakistan will religious , honest , loving and peaceful country . May Allah Bless you all.
NASAH Feb 18, 2011 02:20pm
very nice article.
Ishaq Feb 18, 2011 03:02pm
Very Nice. Contribution is needed from both men and women. Eduction is the only solution for these ills.
Afzal_Indian Feb 18, 2011 03:53pm
LOL!! A fact that we knew for so long!!
Vijay Feb 18, 2011 04:43pm
Women have shown guts and women have been the worst sufferers of Social, Politcal and religious excesses over the ages. Women are treated as commodity to be used and rejected even in the social bonding of marriage. Man can reject a woman out of marriage contract at will and take up another woman and repeat this cycle.
vj Feb 18, 2011 06:41pm
education in right manner for all is solution to all problem
Tahir Feb 18, 2011 09:04pm
Patriotism has no gender.
goodgenie4u Feb 18, 2011 10:24pm
There are thousands of Pakistanis who believe that God allows them to kill in his name. Sounds like this is the greatest blasphemy; claiming to know what is in God's mind. Since Pakistani lawyers in great numbers believe in this, they should be prosecuted for breach of their oath to uphold the laws of the country, their licences to practice revoked and they should be charged with blasphemy; playing the role of God by approving who should die in His name. Sadly their association has done nothing about it. That speaks volumes for the state of the institution of law an order.
shaukat Feb 18, 2011 10:32pm
What are you smoking. Honest and Pakistan the two are in absolute contradiction with each other. Pakistan is no. 119 on the corruption list. We are even worst than Bangladesh which is 109. Loving, that is why we blow people up even in religious places. Educated, we in Pakistan are least educated people in South Asia with a literacy rate of 55% as compared to Srilanka which has a literacy rate of 92%. Please be a patriotic Pakistani and do some reading. Let us all work together on making Pakistan a better country.
Sohaib Feb 19, 2011 01:01am
Very true indeed! tolerance in general and towards women in particular is fast disappearing from our society. Unfortunately, this attitude will not change unless extremism is rooted out, which looks not more than a wishful thinking
HUMAYUN BAKHSH Feb 19, 2011 01:18am
faraz Feb 19, 2011 01:23am
"they haven’t yet suffered the fates of their compatriots in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan" I can safely say for Saudi Arabia ther aint many women suffering!! That country is a true representation of Islam.i know it sounds really strict,women cant go out in public places without a male accompanying them and they have to cover themselves etc but after all this is a divine cant really argue with that ms shah.its jus that wev seen the "other life" so much tht we feel tht our religion is stangling women jus bcz it does nt allow women to wash cars naked to raise money for charity
Aslam Feb 19, 2011 01:38am
women and minorities should stand up for thier equal rights now. Men in Pakistan should also stand up now and fight for equal rights because if there is no equality in society or law, there is no justice. Islam believes in justice.
Zedo Feb 19, 2011 02:28am
I'm sorry that someone as innately sensitive as Bina Shah saw fit to reduce an exceedingly complex debate to a men vs women situation. Sad. Puerile.
Jahangir Choudhry Feb 19, 2011 03:21am
Bless you for your article. Pakistani women indded are courageous. I hope our Mullahs do not read your article. They would love to have you. Pakistani men have become lost in a mixture of chuvanism and ignorance. They take the convenient road because it is easy.
Majid Feb 19, 2011 05:14am
We should not forget the woman of the lal masjid. Woman, like men, are capable of being fanatics.
Suhaib Feb 19, 2011 05:25am
The blasphemy law is there for a reason and funnily enough maybe should be used against the so-called religious right who usually defame the noble personality of the Seal of Prophets. Both former President Musharaf and present Prime Ministers have said basically what is right. Pakistan is a Muslim majority country and there should be no question of doing away with the law but what is important, that the law should not be misused. I would actually like to know what the particular judge was smoking, but I digress. I think people are getting way to emotional and not using there God given intellect in this debate - the fact is men and women are different and both have there honour and should be honoured. People must think before bending over backwards just to appease evil forces that wish to sever our links to heavenly guidance. I also take issue with the perception that women are downtrodden in Pakistan - They are not they just don't realise their power and quite often let their men get away with a lot of nonsense. Women should hold there men to the standards of old to uphold and do their responsibilities and only then reciprocate! one last note - If you keep hacking away at the moral base of Pakistan the darn tree will most surely fall...
Amrit Feb 19, 2011 09:37am
All women have a good fight but love is near far off
Sohail Feb 19, 2011 09:43am
I like the article, Pakistanis should learn the art of tolerance and should go thru the seerah of our beloved messanger(pbuh), especially the people who belong to all the religious groups. Pls remember; applied knowledge is power! We are given 1 life n if we do right, 1 is more than enough. Pls think n reflect.
Rehan Feb 19, 2011 10:02am
Awesome article. Some of the great feminists in history were men, such as John Stuart Mills. If a woman's right is denied, every single man is diminished.
Zaman Pathan Feb 19, 2011 03:16pm
Yes, there are a lot of bionic women in Pakistan.
MK Feb 19, 2011 07:44pm
The difference is, women in Pakistan are struggling to gain freedom while men in Pakistan have given away their freedom.Women are trying to gain control and men have lost control.
atheist Feb 19, 2011 08:09pm
That which is embraced would bring upon the wrath. To have any level of sanity in Pakistan society, Pakistan must first cleanse itself. Such a cleansing would only be triggered by an apocalyptic event triggered due to religion. This is what we have observed in history.
ch Humayun Feb 19, 2011 08:19pm
The core issue is that firstly our system should provide equal opportunities to both men and women and then we should compare and contrast their roles,competence and utility to the national cause in an emerging raucous Muslim democratic pakistan.
marvi Feb 19, 2011 09:02pm
As i take it, it was women who accused aasia of blasphemy and refused to drink her water.
Khalid Feb 19, 2011 11:16pm
The hope of Pakistan is with its brave women and the young generation.
raju Feb 19, 2011 11:45pm
if we look the countries around us, those have moblised women, are haveing far better life, system, rule.
Tamza Feb 20, 2011 04:06am
when you compare in a valid way, the men are in fact FAR more liberal than women in Pakistan. The women you talk of are from the 'cream of the crop', and the men you compare to are the 'average'. Compare average to average and you will find the women to be much more conservative and set in their ways than men. Such articles/ reports do a disservice to honest dialogue.
GOURAV Feb 20, 2011 02:07pm
Buddy i am an indian, but i really feel bad as a human being when i see the incidents happening in pakistan. religion is a spiritual journey that leads to self growth but it should not be a made a reason to kill somebody. we should spread the humanity and make this world a better place for living
Aziz Feb 20, 2011 03:54pm
The PM, Interior minister, Law & Parliamentary affairs minister and Religious Affairs minister all chickened out. The PM on floor of the house announced withdrawal of the bill to which Sherry Rehman had to accede as a member of the Peoples Party.
Bina Shah Feb 20, 2011 10:33pm
Thanks for the clarification...
Muhammad ON - CA Feb 21, 2011 04:01am
It is a fact that when it comes to rights, equity, justice and fair play, our women have shown outstanding courage and fortitude and even excelled their male counterparts. It is a matter calling urgent attention of Pakistan men. Kudos for Bina Shah for this important article. -A Pakistani man-
Abdul-Mughis Rana Feb 22, 2011 12:22am
Women allover the world are gutsy not alone in Pakistan. Remember Indra Gandhi who took bullets from a Sikh knowing Khalistan theory going on.
NAILA Feb 24, 2011 11:17pm
Mandy Feb 26, 2011 03:42am
After reading this article, Indian muslim women must be feeling happy to be part of India, instead of Pakistan... ~Indian Man~
Mandy Feb 26, 2011 03:46am
excellent observation... as long as those women who accused poor lady does not feel ashamed and sorry... nothing is going to change... ~Indian man~
Pakistani Woman Feb 28, 2011 02:25pm
Indian Man, I am proud of being a Pakistani woman. I am glad to be part of a movement which will eradicate the forces of darkness. Our names will go down in history books for the change we are about to bring. ~A Proud Pakistani Woman~
Ali Pasha Feb 28, 2011 11:20pm
Suhaib, what you have written, is wonderful. Completely agree with it.
Indusvally Mar 02, 2011 05:46am
It is sad to see women in countries like Pakistan and other Arab countries, being suppressed to the hilt, by the religious fanatics. Only way is that they have to fight their way to be recognized as equals !! Let the sane men become bold to support, women rights !!
NASIR Mar 02, 2011 12:31pm
Iftikhar Husain Jul 05, 2012 11:22am
I quite agree that womem can play a positive role in changing the society.