09.17.134:45 AM ET

A Tale of Two Pakistans

Journalist and activist Humaira Awais Shahid sheds light on how dysfunction in Pakistan hurts women and how the International Violence Against Women Act can reverse that. As told to Adrienne Vogt.

Pakistan is a very complicated place to understand. And it’s even more complicated for women.

For women, the country is essentially divided into two. One Pakistan is made up of women who are journalists, parliamentary members, artists, and teachers—women who have a strong voice in shaping the country and are at times more educated than their male counterparts. These are women who would not be out of place in any major city, like London or New York. The other Pakistan, however, is full of poverty and judgmental attitudes toward women. The idea of a tribal code of honor still permeates these outlying, poorer areas. The divide between urban and rural women is quite striking.

I first became interested in human rights stories when I edited Pakistan’s English-language daily newspaper The Post. I kept hearing about violations against women in particular—especially as victims of acid abuse—and I fought for better editorial treatment and more space for these types of articles. In 2002, after Pakistan was mandated to have a proportional number of women in its Parliament, I was nominated by political leaders to represent the Provincial Assembly of the Punjab, where I served until 2007. During my tenure, I passed resolutions against acid crimes, forced marriages, and supporting the rights of Islamic women. I was the first private member of the assembly to pass a law. Facing stiff opposition, it took 4 years, but the Prohibition of Private Money Lending in Punjab act ensured that girls are not forced into marriage or sold to brothels when money-lending mafias exploit them as “property.”

I can confidently say that when women are represented proportionally in government, we deliver. For Pakistan, women must make up 17 percent of constitutional representation under the law. We’ve passed laws against sexual harassment, domestic violence, and acid crimes. Of course, being in the public eye can also make you a target. Recently, two female politicians were shot to death: In August, Awami National Party (ANP) leader Najma Hanif was killed by thieves in her Peshawar home, while Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) party vice president Zahra Shahid Hussain died after being robbed and shot in the neck. The latter is being investigated as a target killing in light of poll recounts after May’s general elections. Both of these stories are examples of political intimidations and threats against security that women face every day. And it’s also a “failure of the state to protect its citizens,” according to an article about Hussain.

As a legislator and activist, I think the biggest problem in Pakistan is enforcement of laws. Every level of government, the Parliament, the judiciary, and the police, gets away with things because there’s no accountability. Violations against women are because of the structural violence within the system. A lot of violence against women goes unreported. Victims and their families are not willing to step forward. No one wants to pursue a report with police. If the mechanism of implementation—judiciary and police—is corrupt, then what’s the use of passing laws in Pakistan?

This is why I’m a lead advocate for the International Violence Against Women Act. This legislation provides a comprehensive approach for countries all over the world—including Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Congo—to fight violence against women. At its core, IVAWA addresses these main pivotal issues: It would enforce long-term policies (no shortcuts allowed); it would focus on pre-emption of violence; and it would ensure security, health, education, and reform are discussed within the three levels of government. The amount of money given in aid doesn’t bring violence down. But when the tools of implementation (again, the judiciary and police) are forced to abide by the rules, then violence against women will most surely decrease.

Violence does not occur in isolation. It’s everywhere. People expect it in poorer, rural areas, of course, because of the poverty, lack of education, and lack of health. Women depend on men, and men depend on land. The power dynamic is in the hands of certain people. And if you go to cities like Karachi and see women dressed in fancy clothes and speaking impeccable English, you’d never believe women are oppressed in Pakistan.

And the United States is not so utterly different. Honestly, when I read about statistics in the United States—like how one in five women experience rape or attempted rape—I’m shocked and confused. Why is there such prevalent violence in the U.S.? When I see how ineffective Congress is in America concerning violence against women, I can’t believe it. The sectionalism in the U.S. is astounding. People say America is so liberal, yet the U.S. has never had a female president. But so-called “primitive” countries like Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh have all had female presidents or prime ministers. It’s an interesting paradox.

I will say, however, that the unity among women in American media and organizations is something to be proud of. I don’t see it in a lot of other countries.

We all want substantial change. And substantial change can only happen when you improve the condition of women.


Humaira Awais Shahid is a working journalist, human rights activist and a two-term legislator in Pakistan. She has campaigned and advocated for issues such as acid attack crimes, honor killings, street and child prostitution, police reforms, and budget development. In 2012, Bowdoin College awarded her with an honorary doctorate in recognition of her work for women and the downtrodden in both Pakistan and the United States. Her upcoming memoir, “Devotion and Defiance” is set to be published in March 2014.