AT a recent art exhibition on honour killing in Karachi and that was curated by eminent art critic and editor of NuktaArt, Niilofur Farrukh, the presentations to articulate various concerns were followed by a lively dialogue.
One member of the audience raised the point that the exhibition and discussion should have been held in Nasirabad. This is a district in Balochistan where some women were allegedly buried alive in a case of honour killing in 2008 that shocked the nation. It was to the memory of these women that the exhibition was dedicated.
The idea was that a dialogue at the site of the horrendous incident would have raised awareness among followers of such obscurantist customs. No one would dispute the need to enlighten people in under-developed regions. But exercises such as the exhibition, the dialogue that was preceded by the screening of Beena Sarwar's film on Mukhtaran Mai, Attiya Dawood's poetry recital, Khadija Hussain's poignant report on her visit to Nasirabad and an inspiring talk by Amar Sindhu are designed not just for consciousness raising. They are also intended to be a political statement and designed to give a voice to people in similar circumstances.
Moreover, in the Nasirabad case the act of defiance came from the victims themselves who seemed to be fully aware of their right to choose their own life partners. They must also have been aware of the risks they took. Theirs was an act of courage. Unfortunately, the affected party was too weak to even make its voice heard — their death gave them the publicity that could have helped them.
The Nasirabad women do not need any more education. It is their killers who definitely need to be told that there is no honour in killing. But will an exhibition of this kind in the heart of the region where such crimes are committed so brazenly change the male mindset? A heated debate in the Senate did not stir the conscience of those who uphold honour killing as a 'custom'. They were not politically ostracised. On the contrary, one was appointed a minister.
So depraved is our political culture, that more than a decade ago a wealthy businessman and head of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Chamber of Commerce could arrange for the murder of his daughter in her lawyer's office in Lahore for the 'crime' of seeking release from an unhappy marriage. This heinous deed did not cast a blot on his public standing and the Senate refused to condemn his action.
Hence the need of the moment is to lobby and arrange advocacy campaigns all over the country to convince the powers-that-be that they will have to address the issues of women's rights as well as many other concerns that have a direct bearing on the lives of people.
Often the laws do not protect them and need to be changed. If the victims are weak they can't make inroads into the corridors of power. Since they are generally disadvantaged due to the discrimination they face they need help in penetrating the wall of apathy that surrounds our decision-makers. The Women's Action Forum and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan are doing this vigorously.
Many other causes call for advocacy. Be it Aasiya Bibi's death sentence under the blasphemy law or the injustices minorities suffer on account of their religious beliefs or the denial of rights to disabled people, there is much for human rights activists to take up.
In a country where social injustice is rampant, democratic traditions are weak, illiteracy rates high, intolerance is common and the rule of law virtually absent, no disadvantaged section of society can take it for granted that it will get its rights in due course and must depend on advocacy and lobbying to move its cause forward, bringing it to the attention of lawmakers, the judiciary and administration. Even when parliamentarians espouse their cause — sometimes they also become a part of the advocacy exercise — there is need to keep the pressure on.
The US which claims to be a democratic dispensation recognises lobbying as an institutional process but carries it to the extreme by reducing it to a financial transaction. This involvement of money negates the very concept of advocacy for the rights of the weak by making it dependent on financial empowerment.
Therefore, advocacy and lobbying must be accepted as a tool to promote the rights of society's weaker sections. Its aim should be to influence the thinking of people who are in a position to introduce changes in the system.
To be effective, lobbyists must do their homework well. They must spell out their demands clearly and must also give wide participation to the people whose rights are being sought. That is important to make advocacy convincing. That is why I believe advocacy groups should have strong links with organisations working at the grass-roots. Thus alone will they be able to bring out people in large numbers in protest marches whenever these have to be held as a show of strength.
Another area where advocacy groups have to improve their performance is that of the selection of the causes they espouse. It is politically incorrect if they address one issue because it has won international publicity and not another because it is too mundane to make headline news even though a blatant violation of human rights is involved in both.
In a recent News Night programme with Talat Hussain on DawnNews, five guests who spoke on the issue of the rights of people with disabilities complained that no mainstream body in Pakistan is championing their cause.
This is strange considering that these rights have entered the domain of law through the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (that Pakistan signed in 2008 but has not ratified). The number of people with disabilities is sizeable — nearly 10 million. Is it, as Zahid Abdullah, an activist in Pakistan's fledgling disability movement, says, that disability issues are not 'glamorous'?