My interview with Mukhtaran Mai: Pakistani women rights’ activist, gang rape victim

This post was originally published by PBS Need To Know.

Mukhtar Mai, Pakistan’s iconic survivor, sees bleak future for women there
By Rabia Mehmood
May 5, 2011

“I am fine by the grace of Allah,” said Mukhtar Mai in response to my question about her feelings regarding the Supreme Court of Pakistan’s recent decision to acquit five of the six men convicted of raping her in 2002 — an incident that would eventually propel her onto the global stage as powerful advocate of women’s rights.

Mai, who was raped at the behest of her tribal elders (in retaliation for her younger brother’s alleged relationship with a woman of another clan), became a cause célèbre in the West when she pressed charges against her rapists, thereby setting an important precedent for victims of sexual assault in her country. Rape victims in Pakistan are stigmatized by their communities and are often expected to commit suicide to spare their families the lingering shame of association. As a result, cases of sexual violence often go underreported.

Mai’s decision to take her case to the “panchayat,” a council of tribal elders that traditionally decides many such cases in the rural settings across Pakistan, was almost unheard of at the time. Her efforts soon grabbed the attention of many Western journalists, including The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof, who wrote about Mai at length in his columns. She was also named a Glamour magazine Woman of the Year in 2005. With the financial support from a number of outside sources, Mai began to open schools for girls in her village Meerwala, in the eastern province Punjab in Pakistan.

Despite Mai’s global prominence, it has taken six years for her case to reach the Supreme Court, and the acquittals in April have been widely perceived as a setback for women’s rights in Pakistan. Rights organizations, including the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, have condemned the verdict and are calling for it to be overturned.

Hina Jilani, a leading Pakistani lawyer and women rights activist, says that judiciary needs to be cognizant of the ways in which evidence in sexual assault and rape cases can be compromised at every stage of the investigation. “Regardless of whether the case is high profile or not … greater awareness is needed. … We need to see how the judiciary is looking at the evidence in rape cases,” Jilani said.

Since the verdict was announced late last month, influential feudal leaders of the region have redoubled their threats against Mai and her family, and she has come under enormous pressure to reach some kind of settlement with her accused rapists. A climate of fear has also taken hold at some of Mai’s schools: Student attendance has been halved, and several teachers have stopped showing up for their classes.

Mai remains stoic in the face of such intimidation tactics. “Yes, I do feel that there is a looming threat to my life. Anything can happen; I am aware of this possibility,” she said, speaking in Urdu over the phone from Meerwala. When asked about the larger implications of the acquittals, however, she sounded a note of dejection. “I feel like there is no hope for women or poor people in Pakistan,” Mai said.

Despite Mai’s lack of faith in Pakistan’s justice system, she does not see emigration in her future. “I get strength from the knowledge that the people are with me, in fact the entire world is with me. And, no, I have never even thought about leaving my village, let alone Pakistan. No, this would never be.”

Mai and her lawyer recently announced that they will challenge the Supreme Court verdict.


May 9, 2011 at 9:56 pm Leave a comment

Documenting documentary film

This post was originally published by PBS Need To Know.

Documenting documentary film
By Rabia Mehmood
April 14, 2011

“I hate it because I know my future is ruined.” These are the words of the 14-year-old Haitian earthquake survivor-turned-prostitute, Lauretta, in the documentary, “Little Girls Lost,” by Lisa Armstrong and Andre Lambertston. This gripping film about a young girl’s descent into prostitution and poverty was one of the highlights of the City University of New York’s first annual “Global Documentary Film Series.”

The two-day event showcased projects from Nigeria, Liberia, Nepal, the DRC, Brazil and Afghanistan, with the common theme revolving around international women’s human rights. “The idea for the film festival came to us when we were trying to inspire students to explore ways of storytelling when the business end of journalism lets you down,” said Lonnie Isabel, director of International Reporting Project at CUNY and the chairman of the film festival. And why women in conflict? “Well, women in war is the most important under-reported story of the world,” said Isabel.

In addition to screenings, the first day of the event featured three panels: “The Documentarian as a Journalist,” “Women in Islam” and “Women in Conflict.” Panelists discussed strategies for reporting in hostile situations and the importance of debunking stereotypes set by the mainstream media with students, activists and journalists.

On Day 2, there were screenings for documentaries shot in Haiti, the DRC, Nepal, Liberia and Nigeria that explored disparate issues like maternal mortality, child soldiers and sex trafficking. Panelists focused on the nitty-gritty details of getting a documentary made, with an emphasis on securing funding, submitting works to film festivals and finding a distributor.

One film that that I found particularly compelling was “The Edge of Joy” by Dawn Sinclair Shapiro. Shapiro documents hospital staff, midwives and families battling maternal mortality in Nigeria. The filmmaker’s full access to a pregnant woman’s family, evident in a delivery scene, is remarkable: Winning this degree of trust in a conservative Muslim society that abides by Islamic Sharia law is no easy feat.

“More families said ‘no’, and the family who said ‘yes’ took a risk by doing so, but now the same film is being used as a tool for community mobilization,” said Shapiro.

Other screened projects that have been used for community mobilization and advocacy included a film by VII photographer Marcus Bleasdale on the Lord’s Resistance Army and children sex slaves in the Congo in “Dear Obama” which was produced in collaboration with Human Rights Watch.

Bleasdale, who has steadily collaborated with Human Rights Watch for more than a decade, discussed his efforts to balance advocacy and objective journalism. “While filming, I approach the victims and survivors in the same way, but in post-production the message changes.”

Other collaborative productions with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and International Reporting Project were also part of the mix at this event. The screenings, along with the panel discussions on critical issues faced by independent journalists working overseas, were particularly helpful in pointing a new generation of filmmakers toward alternative platforms for showcasing their work.

May 9, 2011 at 9:40 pm Leave a comment

Conclusion of the Raymond Davis Case

This post was originally published by PBS Need to Know

Freeing of CIA contractor ends standoff with Pakistan but fuels protests

By Rabia Mehmood
March 16, 2011

Ending a diplomatic standoff between the U.S. and Pakistan, an American CIA contractor accused of murdering two Pakistanis was freed Wednesday, apparently in exchange for a payment of more than $2 million to the victims’ families.

The payments that freed the contractor, Raymond Davis, were “blood money” sanctioned under Islamic law, according to a U.S. official who spoke to the Associated Press. Under the sharia laws Qisas and Diyat, if victims’ families agree to take money as compensation, a defendant can be pardoned.

In a press conference, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton denied that the U.S. had paid any compensation to the victims’ families, and reports from the Associated Press and other news outlets said the payment was made by the Pakistan government after lengthy negotiations with U.S. officials.

Davis confessed to shooting the two men, Faizan Haider, 22, and Muhammad Faheem, 20, on January 27 but said he did so in self-defense. The incident was followed by right-wing protests in Pakistan, a diplomatic stand-off, debate about whether Davis enjoyed diplomatic immunity, revelations about his status as a CIA operative, public comments by President Obama, and a visit to Pakistan by Senator John Kerry. The wife of one of the victims committed suicide, demanding “justice.”

Despite being allies in the “war on terror,” Pakistan and the U.S. have not had what one would call a stable and healthy strategic partnership, and this case further complicated the countries’ relationship. With Davis’ acquittal, however, strategic relations are expected to improve. In a press release, the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad thanked the victims’ families for their “generosity” and confirmed that the “U.S. Department of Justice will investigate the incident.”

The Pakistani government, faced with protests by deeply anti-American masses, struggled to address the Davis situation without appearing to give into U.S. demands, and officials had repeatedly said that the court of Pakistan would be handling the case. “Basically, the situation has been dealt with according to what was the consensus of the main political parties of the country, including the religious groups,” said Farahnaz Ispahani, a spokesperson for President Asif Ali Zardari, in a phone interview. “The situation was tried and settled in Pakistan’s court of law.”

Many experts believed that this was how the situation would eventually be resolved. Cyril Almeida, a leading columnist from Pakistan told Need to Know, “I am not surprised. This was expected, but not so soon maybe. It is apparent that there is a manipulation of the judicial process, it is a choreographed move, the Lahore courts, the Punjab government and the rest of the story, it just proves that Pakistan is a coercive state.”

For now the gridlock among the Pakistan intelligence agency ISI, the Pakistan military, the Pakistan government and the U.S. government has been eased, but reaction on the streets has begun. Protests have broken out across the country, including in the federal capital Islamabad.

Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a charity organization linked to Lashkar-e-Taiba, a U.N.-banned terrorist group, has protested against Davis’ release in the past two months. The group’s spokesperson, Yahya Mujhaid, told Need to Know in a phone interview, “We will keep protesting, the matter of Davis was not just about murders of two Pakistanis but of the security of the country.”

Before Davis’ release, another terrorist group, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, which was responsible for a string of suicide bombings and Fidayeen attacks, warned the Pakistan government that there would be consequences if Davis were acquitted. “If (Pakistani) rulers hand him over to America then we will target these rulers,” the group’s spokesman said.

March 17, 2011 at 7:11 pm Leave a comment

Assassination of Pakistan’s Minority Affairs Minister

This post was originally published by PBS Need to Know

Killing of anti-blasphemy minister heightens fear for Pakistan’s religious minorities
By Rabia Mehmood
March 2, 2011

The sole Christian member of Pakistan’s cabinet, and a vocal opponent of the country’s controversial blasphemy laws, was assassinated in the state capital of Islamabad Wednesday. Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti was shot dead by three men while on his way to work from his mother’s home. The assassins pulled his driver out of his vehicle before spraying the minister and his car with bullets.

Pamphlets reportedly dropped by the assassins were found at the attack site, containing anti-blasphemy material, including the statements, “The only fate of blasphemers is death” and “How dare the government make a Christian infidel the head of a committee reforming blasphemy laws.”

The pamphlet was signed by al-Qaeda and Tehreek-e-Taliban Punjab, a banned terrorist group also known as Punjabi Taliban that is behind a string of suicide bombings and terrorist attacks.

This is the second political assassination in Pakistan in two months, targeting the opponents of the country’s controversial blasphemy laws, which impose the death penalty for insults to Islam. On January 4, Provincial Governor Salman Taseer was gunned down by his own security guard for stating his opposition to the blasphemy laws after Aasia Bibi, a 45-year-old Christian woman, was sentenced to death for committing blasphemy. The minorities minister received several death threats during the Aasia Bibi case and after Taseer’s assassination. He told AFP he feared he was the “highest target.” His colleague, lawmaker Dr. Nelson Azeem, told Need to Know that Bhatti had repeatedly asked the president and the prime minister for a bulletproof vehicle

Many experts have observed that the government’s lack of political will to deal with extremism has brought the country to this point. Bhatti’s assassination exemplifies the increasing affinity of extremist forces to implement their agenda of radicalization by high-profile killings.

The religious minorities of Pakistan are ever more fearful of their lives after this attack, according to numerous individuals and members of human rights organizations interviewed there. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s council member Nadeem Anthony, said that “in the current circumstances, anything can happen to any minority member in Pakistan at any point in time.”

The general sentiment among the religious minorities is that of growing insecurity. Khalid Yaqoob, a 48-year-old daily wager in a government office is one such fearful man. A member of the Christian community, Khalid said, “If given the opportunity I think every Christian will leave Pakistan, it is our country but I don’t see a safe future for my four kids here.”

March 14, 2011 at 7:34 pm Leave a comment

Blasphemy Laws of Pakistan

This post was originally published by PBS Need to Know

Pakistan blasphemy laws retake center stage
By Rabia Mehmood
February 22, 2011

A hydra-esque monster has reared its head again in Pakistan, as the country’s controversial blasphemy laws retake center stage.

A prominent Pakistani director, Syed Noor, is about to release a film in which the hero kills a man for blasphemously proclaiming himself a prophet. The central theme of the movie, called “Aik Aur Ghazi” (One More Holy Warrior), is that anyone who dares to commit blasphemy should be killed.

Noor’s film comes in the wake of the assassination of Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab and an outspoken critic of the blasphemy laws. The governor’s killer, Mumtaz Qadri, said Taseer deserved to die for speaking out against the laws. In return for his brutality, Qadri has been met with overwhelming support from the public — he was showered with rose petals on his way to the antiterrorist court in Rawalpindi days after committing the murder, and just last week received Valentine’s Day cards from his supporters. Many of these supporters will undoubtedly flock to see Noor’s film.

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws criminalize any insult to Islam and its last prophet, and any attempt to alter them is met with life-threatening opposition. Parliamentarian Sherry Rehman, who was spearheading a move to reform the laws, was practically confined to her home because of death threats; recently, the government asked Rehman to withdraw a bill proposing amendments to these laws fearing a massive public backlash. This latest subjugation of the antiradical voice in a society fighting a war on extremism has been a major setback.

While Muslims have been charged under the blasphemy laws, it is the marginalized religious minorities who have suffered the most. The persecution of minorities in the name of religion dates back to the founding of Pakistan in 1947, created after a bitter struggle for independence by the Muslims of India — who were a minority themselves. Following the country’s creation, the notion of Pakistan as a land solely for Muslims began to dominate the public narrative and translated into massive political, economic and social biases against religious minorities.

This discrimination was legally institutionalized through section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code, commonly referred to as the blasphemy laws, which were made part of Pakistan’s constitution in the 1980s by the dictator General Zia-ul-Haq. The rest of the damage was done during the democratic rule of Nawaz Sharif, now the head of Pakistan’s leading opposition party, when life imprisonment was excluded from Section 295-C and the death penalty became the sole fate for anyone who insults Islam, the prophet Muhammad or the Holy Koran.

To obtain legal conviction for blasphemy, it is not mandatory to prove intent. In the southern city of Karachi, a man from the minority Ismaili sect of Islam was accused of blasphemy after throwing the business card of a man named Muhammad, also the name of the prophet.

Among the minorities of Pakistan, the Ahmadiyya community has had it the worst. Ahmadi Muslims, widely believed to be heretics of Islam, were constitutionally deemed non-Muslims in the early ’70s, and have since been subjected to violent attacks, the most recent of which was a 2010 assault on Ahmadi mosques, which killed 98 people. In Pakistan, just being an Ahmadi is synonymous with being blasphemous to Islam. In 2009, four Ahmadi boys between the age of 14 and 16 were arrested on charges of blasphemy.

The Christian community also comes under attack from these laws again and again. Two major incidents include the Shanti Nagar massacre in 1997 in which 2,500 Christians had to flee their village, and the Gojra Riots of 2010, when eight Christians were buried alive. In both cases, blasphemy was cited as the reason for the attacks.

The most high-profile contemporary blasphemy case in Pakistan is that of Aasia Noreen Bibi, a Christian laborer from a small village in Punjab. A 46-year-old mother of three, Aasia Bibi was sentenced to death by a district court on November 8, 2010, after more than a year of imprisonment. Although blasphemy cases against women are not unheard of, Bibi is the first woman to have been sentenced to death for this crime. The dispute that lead to Bibi’s death sentence began in June 2009, when her fellow Muslim workers reportedly told her that they would not drink water from the same glass she had touched because it was not allowed in Islam. Research by Jinnah Institute, an Islamabad-based think tank, shows that Bibi did not have a lawyer through her trial and did not even understand the blasphemy law or the nature of charges against her.

Supporters of the blasphemy laws belong to all sects of Islam — Sunni, Shia, Barelvi, Deobandi and Wahabi. Despite their intersect hatred for each other, extremists from each group have been united in discriminating against Pakistan’s religious minorities. Some liberal factions have stood to oppose them, including human rights activists and people from the educated middle-class.

The late governor Taseer was one such liberal voice. Taseer had promised Bibi that a mercy petition on her behalf would be submitted to the president and assured her relief. Soon after, he was shot dead. His assassination reduced the remaining hopes for Bibi’s release.

Today Pakistan is a battlefield between two forces. One clings to religion for the justification of its identity. On the other side is a small group of vocal liberals. Meanwhile, the majority of the country fends off poverty and starvation, and is too busy making ends meet to bother with candle-lit vigils to protest against discriminatory legislation. If there is to be any end to such persecution, the Pakistani state and its society will need a Herculean effort to put this hydra down.

March 14, 2011 at 7:29 pm Leave a comment

The Raymond Davis Case

Pakistan and US have not had what you would call a stable and healthy strategic partnership, despite being allies in the so called ‘war on terror’. It is believed to be inherently based in paranoia and uncertainty. But the fact remains that it is a relationship which is crucial to the stability of the region, considering that the US is in the middle of a war in Afghanistan and needs Pakistan for as long as it plans to have its troops stationed in Afghanistan… well geography demands it.

However a recent incident involving a US citizen and an employee of the US Consulate in the eastern city of Lahore, Pakistan has further complicated the relations between the two countries. Raymond Davis, reportedly from the technical staff of the Consulate has confessed to shooting dead two Pakistani men as an act of self defense, alleging that they were attempting to rob him on January 27. Two men were shot at by him and the third lost his life when the US consulate staff in a consulate SUV were rescuing Davis.

Initial reports showed that the two men killed by Davis were robbers and cell phones of loot were found from them. Also the post mortem reports said that one of the alleged robbers was fired at from behind.

The Pakistani media had a field day with this story. Pakistani news network DAWN reported that Davis did not have the diplomatic immunity as his was not a diplomatic visa.

As the diplomatic situation between the two countries got tense, the US government announcing via a press release that Davis is entitled to diplomatic immunity contrary to what is believed by the Pakistani public. And wife of one of the gunned down men attempted to end her life and eventually died. Before her death, while in a hospital ICU she spoke to the TV news crew and said that she demands justice. The attempt at suicide does say a lot about the lack of Pakistani public’s faith in the criminal justice system. Belonging to a small village in central Punjab, the woman who ate poisonous pills said that she wants the killer to be dead but feared that this would not happen. Next twist in the story came when the Pakistani intelligence agencies said that the two young men following Davis were their informers and were assigned to follow Davis who is a spy.

Adding fuel to the fire of this diplomatic stand off, news of the US government warning their Pakistani counterparts of aid suspension started to surface and also that Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US Husain Haqqani will be sent back to Pakistan. This ABC story has been denied by the US embassy in Islamabad.

However the Raymond Davis saga is nowhere near an end. The Chief of Lahore Police addressing the media has said that the Davis incident is a clear case of murder. As of February 15, US Senator John Kerry has arrived in Lahore to help thaw the layer of frost over the US-Pakistan diplomatic relations. President Obama has now spoken for the first time about the Davis case, urging Pakistan to cooperate.

While the Pakistani government faced by a deeply anti-American masses, struggles to deal with the Davis situation by not appearing like it is giving in to the US demands; the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is making matters worse. The spokesperson of the terrorist network, behind a string of suicide bombings and Fidayeen attacks across Pakistan, spoke to Reuters and warned the Pakistan government of consequences if Davis is released.

Kim Sengupta of the Independent and Najmuddin A. Shaikh, Pakistan’s former Ambassador to the US and Iran give interesting perspectives on the diplomatic immunity in the context of this Davis situation.

February 15, 2011 at 8:54 pm Leave a comment

Journalist shot dead in Karachi, Pakistan

A young journalist of Pashtun ethnicity has been shot dead in Karachi. Wali Khan Babar’s colleagues say that his was a voice of ‘balance’ for journalism in Karachi. Reason being the deadly wave of ethnic violence that has engulfed the city also known as the financial capital of Pakistan. Two rival ethnicities and political parties are the Urdu speaking community mainly belonging from the MQM and the Pashto speaking Pashtun community from ANP respectively. MQM is a party which is reported to have an immense influence in Karachi. Therefore a journalist from the alternative background brought the alternative perspective. Reports say that this was a case of target killing. Hundreds lost their lives in Karachi target killings last year.

Pakistan has been declared the deadliest country of the year 2010 for journalists by the Committee to Protect Journalists .

Tweets of Babar’s former colleagues’, on his assassination:

“Karachi has lost a great reporter.”
“no place for truth. reporters being killed in balochistan, in hangu, in karachi by the intelligence, the militants, ethno-fascist politics”.

January 13, 2011 at 9:11 pm Leave a comment

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The IWMF Elizabeth Neuffer Fellowship is partially funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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