Farida Shaheed – Pakistan

Linked with Women living under Muslim laws,
and with The Shirkat Gah Women’s Resource Centre.

She is one of the 1000 women proposed for the Nobel Peace Price 2005.

She says: “I am touched by the number of women and people who tell me I touched them through my work”.

Read: Scoping Study on Social Exclusion.

She says also: “Women Living under Muslim Laws (an NGO) views ‘Fundamentalism’, above all, as a political project. All forms of what is called ‘fundamentalism’ are ultimately political projects of appropriation of the public, social and personal spaces in which we exist – with the goal of gaining political and economic power. Sometimes such projects aim to maintain power and sometimes to challenge power. The critical element, however, in understanding these forces that are lumped together under the banner of ‘Fundamentalism’, is to analyze them from the perspective of power”. (full text).

Read: Asian Women in Muslim Societies, Perspectives & Struggles.

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Farida Shaheed – Pakistan

She works for the Shirkat Gah Women’s Resource Centre, and for the Women Living under Muslim Laws WLUML.

The Women Action Forum (WAF) worker Farida Shaheed alleged that the government was fanning Talibanisation. She said General Musharraf was furthering the agenda of General Ziaul Huq. She said the government was depriving the masses of their basic human rights. “As lawyers and the masses struggle for the restoration of the basic human rights and democracy in the country,” She said. “Extremists take violent steps to undermine those rights.” Commenting on the assault on Dr Amina Butter, she said, it was condemnable. (full text).

Read: Militarization & Global Conflict – A Different Perspective.

And she says: “Further, many “fundamentalist” projects would not be able to exist if they did not have linkages and were not supported by other groups that you would not normally consider to be “fundamentalist.” These forces exist at the national and local level. At home, for example, we can see that the bankruptcy of the political parties has helped to bring about and give force to extremist elements by creating a void – a space filled by extremist elements.

There is also the opportunism of other political actors. Even though the fundamentalist groups represent small numbers and have little popular support, because the major political parties will not take a stand against them, because they feel they can use them for their own agenda from time to time, they are given further legitimacy. I also think that these forces could not exist if it were not for international linkages and international political power games that are played out. We need to ask what are the political and economic conditions out of which fundamentalist movements emerge”. (full text).

One of Pakistan’s foremost women activists, Farida Shaheed leads the Women, Law, and Status program at the Shirkat Gah Women’s Resource Centre. Farida was one of the first in Pakistan to promote the need for 33 percent reserved seats for women in direct elections, a measure that has been implemented at the district and other levels. Since 1986, she has been part of the core of the international network, Women Living under Muslim Laws (WLUML), and has helped many women whose rights and/or lives are endangered by discriminatory laws. One of Farida Shaheed’s happiest memories from her professional life was the reaction of men from Pakistan’s conservative North West Frontier Province to a legal awareness session on women’s rights in the family. Immediately after attending the session, they urged Farida and her colleagues from Shirkat Gah, a collective that works for women’s empowerment, to conduct a similar session for women as soon as possible. When she and her colleagues later returned to do so, they found the men cooking and serving women food – for the first but hopefully not the last time in their lives – to ensure that women could participate in the session without distractions. Later, the men told Farida that they recognized that women “too were human beings”. It was sad that this realization came after interacting with the activists, but it was heartening, too – at least, the realization had come.

Over the past three decades, Farida’s life has often been enlivened by such moments. At other times, she has been monitored and questioned by intelligence agencies and followed. She was even summarily tossed into lock-up once, though not for long. Much of this happened in the 1980s, when Farida was a part of a band of intrepid women who came together through the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) to resist the retrogressive policies and laws introduced in the name of Islam by the military dictator, Zia-ul-Haq, who held power from 1977 to 1988.
These included the Hudood Ordinances, which attempted to quantify human life and reduce the worth of women and non-Muslims to half of that of a Muslim man. Laws were put into place that rescinded women’s right to participate in sports, to move about freely, to be appointed to state banks and to foreign postings. There were also laws that allowed for stoning to death and 100 lashes for offenders, and confused the issues of consensual sex and rape. Farida and her colleagues protested almost daily against the inhuman punishments.

In relatively more liberal times, Farida and her colleagues have faced pressure from hostile local elites, and the team has been threatened with death at least once (although, on the whole, skillful strategizing in the field has allowed Farida and her colleagues to operate even when other groups have had to cease operations in an area). Farida has also been attacked on numerous occasions in the conservative press by the Jamaat-i-Islami and other politico-religious parties.

It also took courage to be present at contentious trials where open threats of violence were baldly delivered, and sometimes made good: in one case, the judge was subsequently murdered. Farida has appeared regularly at blasphemy trials and at those of women married against the wishes of their parents. “This is part of the game here, and we take the risk,” says Farida.

Although Shirkat Gah is now a ‘respectable’ organization in the eyes of the authorities – in sharp contrast to its image in the 1970s and 1980s – and collaborates fairly often on policy interventions with the government, the work Farida leads in Shirkat Gah under the Women Law and Status program led the government to make concerted efforts to close down the collective as recently as 1998-99.
Overcoming these roadblocks, Farida has helped bring about changes in laws on women’s political representation as a key non-state advocate in the debate. She was the first to evolve ideas in this area and promote the need for 33 per cent reserved seats for women in direct elections, which has now been implemented at the lower-level council elections in Pakistan (fewer seats are reserved in parliament and the provincial assemblies). Farida also wrote the Women and Power and Decision-Making Chapter for the government’s National Plan of Action for Women, which contains the same measures.

In 2002, the Women Law and Status team Farida heads made concrete inputs into amending the law on Muslim marriages. She and her colleagues have lobbied the government into reconsidering laws pertaining to “honor killings”. But they are not satisfied with the 2005 law, and promise to work for further amendments. Their efforts to get the Hudood Ordinances repealed have finally led to their being reviewed.

On the ground, her greatest success, she feels, has been to ensure that more and more women know of their rights in marriage, and can, therefore, negotiate more space and rights within the bond, step out of abusive marriages, register their marriages, and insert rights within the marriage contract. She and her colleagues work with 36 mostly rural groups countrywide, of which a little more than 50 per cent are women’s groups, the rest being general groups that they try and reorient to a human rights perspective.

Since 1986, Farida has been part of the core of Women Living under Muslim Laws (WLUML), an international Network that provides information, solidarity, and support to all women whose lives are shaped, conditioned, or governed by laws and customs said to derive from Islam. The network aims to increase the autonomy of women by supporting their local struggles from within Muslim countries and dispensations and linking them with feminist and progressive groups; facilitating interaction, exchanges, and contacts, and providing information as well as a channel of communication.

For almost two decades, she has run the WLUML Asia Regional Coordination Office, which has helped many individual women whose rights or lives have been endangered. Farida has personally helped two women leave Pakistan to avoid death threats by well-connected families.

Farida has a gift for connecting easily with people and putting them at ease. She can convert difficult concepts into simple language, and is very serious about her research and writing, which, she says, reaches far more women than she does personally. “I am touched by the number of women and people who tell me I touched them through my work,” she says. Farida and her colleague, Khawar Mumtaz, wrote Women in Pakistan: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back?, a book that documents the path of the Muslim women’s movement from the turn of the 20th century to its contemporary existence. It was greatly acclaimed and received the Prime Minister’s Award in 1989.

Farida, who is in her early 50s, lives in Lahore with her husband, an educationist and journalist, and two sons aged 20 and 17. She has a License en Sociologie from Geneva University and a Masters from Leeds University. She describes herself as “a sociologist by training and an activist by choice”.

Farida recently gave a keynote address to the Asia Pacific NGO Forum on Beijing +10, the key address of the event which was carried on a plethora of Websites. Few women have accomplished so much so variedly. (1000PeaceWomen).

And finally she says: “We must firstly re-appropriate for ourselves, individually and collectively, the right to design our personal and collective identities. We cannot let others do this on our behalf. We need to refuse to be straight-jacketed into definitions of two-dimensional identities which say, for example, that you can only be a Muslim woman – or other identity – if you are X, Y and Z.

For this we must provide support systems and alternative reference points for women and all people. There is also a need to respond to fundamentalist projects at an immediate level. But, I think that long-term, sustainable responses will be low-profile and development-oriented, and involve slowing re-appropriating institutions for ourselves and changing them.

To conclude, I would like to share with you one of WLUML network’s very fundamental positions. It is that of all the different oppressions we suffer as women living under Muslim laws, one of the worst is that we are denied the right to even dream of a different and alternative world. We have always fought for the right to dream our dreams, to link hands, to challenge those who would isolate us, and to have the courage to reach out for those dreams. Finally, we must continue to honor and to seek justice for those who lose their lives in reaching out for their dreams”. (full text).

Farida Shaheed is a sociologist and women’s rights activist. She oversees the Women, Law, and Status Program at Shirkat Gah, a woman’s resource center in Lahore, Pakistan, where she works to integrate research, social development and advocacy. She is a founding member of the national women’s lobbying organization Women’s Action Forum and member of the Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML) International Solidarity Network. She is a member of the Global Fund for Women’s Advisory Council. Dr. Shaheed has authored numerous books including Two Steps Forward, One Step Back’ Women of Pakistan; The Other Side of the Discourse: Women’s Experiences of Identity, Religion and Activism in Pakistan; Purdah and Poverty in Pakistan; and Identity and the Experience of the Network, Women Living Under Muslim Laws. (full text).

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