Q&A with Baroness Warsi

Published August 26, 2010

In an interview with Arshad Sharif of "Reporter" on DawnNews, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi spoke on numerous topics including the floods, the war in Afghanistan, trust deficit of the Pakistani government and her stance on the veil for Muslim women. Following is an English transcript of an Urdu interview with Baroness Warsi on “Reporter” in August 2010.

Q: You have come to Pakistan at a time when the floods have ravaged the country, and have visited some of the areas. What is the situation onground?

A: I think I could never have been prepared to witness what I saw yesterday. I had come here after the 2005 earthquake and visited Muzzafarabad. In many ways, that was the first disaster that I had seen. But the scenes that I witnessed yesterday, it seemed as if someone had bombed the place or flattened the entire villages and towns using a bulldozer. Some exterior walls were still standing, but once you saw beyond those walls, you could see that entire neighborhoods had been destroyed. And it was very disturbing and very emotional talking to people over there. It was very difficult for me because on the one hand I had gone there to learn, to listen to their stories, to see their situation and to share their grief, but on the other hand the British government has given a commitment of over $50 million and the British public has also given over  £15 million …

Q: Baroness, now that you have witnessed the situation firsthand, will you raise a voice for Pakistan at the international level? It is being said that the international community is not responding according to the scale of this catastrophe.

A: I was here yesterday with Andrew Mitchell, who is the international secretary of state for the Department for International Development (DFID) in the UK, and he has already left for New York this morning to attend the UN conference where he is going to ask the world to do more. Along with this when I go back to the UK, I’ll be asking the public, the diaspora community, the business community to do more. Do we have to do more because you are a frontline state? I don’t think that’s the key reason. We must do more because there is a need, there is a humanitarian need here, and I think that’s the first and foremost thing we must bear in mind. You know I talked to a woman over there and she was standing there telling me that she has lost everything and all that she has are these clothes over her body. And I think our first response is due to humanitarian reasons, after that we look at the reasons for all other responses.

Q: There is talk of a trust deficit that maybe the Pakistan government is not trusted enough and even the British government is giving most of the money through NGOs. In case of United States we are also seeing the same thing, the European Commission has also said yesterday that they’ll give most of their money through NGO’s or through the United Nations. Do you think there is a trust deficit?

Q: I think getting the NGOs involved is not necessarily due to trust deficit. I think the reason for using the NGOs is because they are more flexible, they are on the ground and are already working there. The smaller charities, the different organisations which are currently involved there, they can move very quickly. And if you look at organisations like the Islamic Relief, within hours and days they were there, and they were setting up and [were] able to operate. I think the issue of trust deficit is there, there’s no doubt about that, it’s not as if we can deny that. Even your own politicians are not denying it and I think that’s a good thing that you can only deal with a problem if you acknowledge that there is a problem in the first place.

Is that the reason the world isn’t responding? Maybe, but it could also be that the flood disaster is not an issue where thousands or millions of people have lost their lives in an instant. Thankfully, it’s not one of those disasters where a lot of lives are lost. [That being said] it’s one of those disasters which unfolds. It first started in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa, then came down to Punjab and then Sindh, the disaster is unfolding day-by-day and its consequences are also unfolding day-by-day. So because of that it is much difficult to sell to the world, to say this is a huge disaster and you need to respond, which is why it was necessary that I and Andrew come here and look at things ourselves.

But I think the issue of trust deficit is also being discussed, is also being dealt with. I spoke to Mian Nawaz Sharif, Prime Minister Gilani, General Nadeem, had a meeting with the finance minister, and all of them are pulling in the right direction. One of the things I suggested was that the overseas Pakistanis who are involved in their country’s society and institutions, you should call upon them as well. I was speaking yesterday to the Norwegian ambassador who told me  about a politician of Pakistani origin who is very successful. Such people in the diasporic community [are vital] who know that they don’t just only give money but are also involved in the transparency and delivery process.

Q: Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, you are the most powerful woman in Britain and are also a Muslim woman. In it there are some identity issues which might haunt you especially when people like Anjem Chaudhry of Al-Muhajiroun say that people like you are like coconuts, brown on the outside and white on the inside. How do you deal with the identity crisis? When you come to Pakistan expectations from you are different, while when you are in Britain the expectations are different, at the same time being of Pakistani descent and having a Muslim identity. How do you balance all of this?

A: I think the accolade I got of being the most powerful Muslim woman [in Britain] is very flattering. But my daughter said to me, yes mother you are the most powerful Muslim woman but it is still you who makes daal paratha in the house at sehri time, not anyone else. So I think that there are roles that women still have to adopt and I think that I’m very comfortable with those very different roles. I think the Pakistani origin identity I have, I’m proud of it. Being a Muslim, I’m proud of it. Being born in Britain, being raised there, being a cabinet minister in that society I’m very privileged and I’m proud of it. And I don’t feel that in all those there should be inconsistencies. It is not necessary that if you’re a Muslim you can’t be a British, or if you’re a British you can’t be a Muslim or from a Pakistani origin. I think it’s about how comfortable you are in your identity and how openly and with pride you can say that’s fine this is what I am. And I think saying in front of the Downing Street, I’m proud to be a cabinet Minister and wearing shalwar kameez saying I’m also proud to be a Pakistani and openly saying I’m of the Muslim faith and proud to do that, I don’t think that that’s an identity crisis. Yeah there are idiots in Britain, you’ve named some of them, who have an issue of identity crisis themselves, who think that they are the only ones who can raise the voice of Islam or it is only they who can promote their culture, but in reality those people are a blotch on the name of Islam. They bring to my religion, to my beautiful religion, a bad name and bring a bad name to my culture and they represent all those characteristics which I think are not part of our religion or our culture.

Q: How would you define Britishness? What is Britishness?

A: Britishness is a feeling of tolerance, it is a feeling of allowing people to live their lives the way they wish to live their lives. It’s about fairness, it’s about meritocracy, it’s about a dream where somebody like me a laborer’s daughter can be born in that country whose parents went there with 200 rupees in their pockets and they set up multi million businesses there. It’s people like me whose families have no political history, no political background.

Q: Equal opportunity, merit, tolerance, you mentioned all these things. But in Europe and also Britain there is currently a move going on about burqa, that it should be banned and the all-encompassing face niqab should also be banned. What are your views on this? Do you think this should take place? Do you feel it is restrictive, and all the things you mentioned about Britishness, do you think this merges with those things or not?

A: My statements about burqa have been very very clear right from the outset that no country has the right to tell a woman what she should wear and what she should not wear. This is a woman’s choice that what dress she adopts for herself. If she wants to wear shalwar kameez or she wants to wear trouser suit or she wants to wear a burqa this is her individual choice and that’s Britishness, about allowing people to choose what they want to wear. I think, and I also said this before, that it is not the right of some middle-aged British man to stand up and tell a Muslim woman, or any woman, that your skirt is too short, your kameez is too tight, your dupatta is too long or your niqab is too dark. That is none of their business, that is a choice for women to make and it is an instinctively British right that women have these rights to make these choices and it is an instinctively Islamic choice that women make choices in their life.

Q: America has announced a time frame for the war in Afghanistan. Would there be talk on the withdrawal of British troops also? What is the thinking of the Conservative Party in this regard as you are also the Chairperson of the Conservative Party.

A: I think our Prime Minister has said very clearly that there has to be an exit strategy with regards to Afghanistan. He has already given some indication time lines like 2015. And I think there is an acceptance that Britain and other foreign powers are not there to stay permanently in Afghanistan and I’m very delighted that there’s a very clear indication that slowly the military operation there would cease.

Q: And can there be talks with the Taliban also as part of an exit strategy?

A: I think we’ve always said that there are some sections of Taliban with whom discussions can be held.

Q: Do you think that if Tony Blair had not supported America in Iraq and Afghanistan, than the situation which we face today, the threat that Britain, Europe and Pakistan are facing, things would have been different.

A: I don’t know whether I can predict that, but what I can say for sure is that, that war was wrong. I was against the war in Iraq. I, like millions of other people, demonstrated in the streets that we should not go to this war. By profession I’m a lawyer and I had real concerns regarding the legality of the basis of this war according to international law. I was against the war then, and I still feel that we shouldn’t have gone to Iraq at that time.

Q: Do you think with the coming of Conservative Party with people like you part of it, the image of Britain as a lackey of the Americans in the war on terror would change in the Muslim countries? Do you think with these policies of Conservative Party, as you mentioned that you were against the war and being the Chairperson that’s a very strong message, the image of Britain among Muslim countries and especially Pakistan would improve?

A: I think that ... I can only comment on my government and my coalition government and our approach to international relations. I can say this for sure that the role that I have is that if there’s a misunderstanding between Pakistan and Britain then that misunderstanding should be removed and the understanding should be improved, and the many years of friendship we have should be made more entrenched.

Q: How can that friendship be made more entrenched when David Cameron goes to India and gives a statement that Pakistan is pursuing a double policy on the war on terror?

A: I think if you’re good friends with a country, then I think and even you would know that, that good friends sometimes tell each other things which they don’t like. But the real test of friendship is that when you are undergoing the most difficult times, who stands shoulder to shoulder with you. And I think when sadly recently Pakistan faced this difficult time of floods, Britain was the first one to respond. We were the first ones to give a response and also the ones to give the biggest response. Not only have we responded ourselves but have also asked the world to stand by Pakistan. And I think if someone has any doubt in his mind about the friendship between Pakistan and Britain, he should look at our response and have confidence that this friendship is strong, it is much stronger than any individual statement.

Arshad Sharif is the Islamabad Bureau Chief of DawnNews. He tweets at http://twitter.com/dawntvreporter and can be found on Facebook.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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