Women Heralding Winds of Change in Pakistan

By Farahnaz Zahidi Moazzam

From a country where terrorism, extremism, inner strife and polarisation continue to eat at its roots, good news is reaching out globally from a perhaps unexpected source – its women. Pakistani women are fighting for more than just the empowerment of women. They are taking centre-stage in Pakistan’s fight against oppression, social tyranny and extremism. They are the emblems of change, and Shad Begum is one such woman.

Photographs of Shad Begum standing alongside United States’ first lady Michelle Obama and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, her face resplendent with satisfaction, are a piece of much needed good news coming out of Pakistan. She is a recipient of the 2012 International Women of Courage Award, which is presented annually by the US Department of State to women around the world who demonstrate leadership, courage and sacrifice for others.

Shad Begum belongs to the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province where the social system is strongly patriarchal and tribal sensibilities reign; unlike other provinces, Pakistan women there are not even allowed to work in the fields.

At the occasion of the 2012 International Women of Courage Awards, the US Department of State described Shad as “a courageous human rights activist and leader who has changed the political context for women in the extremely conservative district of Dir.”

The Association for Women’s Welfare (which later changed its name to Association for Behavior and Knowledge Transformation, or ABKT), set up by Shad in 1994, took up pioneering welfare work for women in the Dir district. Initially, ABKT focused on welfare, but increasing support from civil society and donors helped it focus on development and empowering individuals rather than only providing charity. Now, Shad mobilises and sensitises local women by helping them acquire primary education, political training and micro-credits to work towards empowerment and build their capacity. Providing health facilities, constructing bridges, installing hand pumps, creating wells and paving streets are all examples of ABKT’s development work.

Shad Begum decided to enter politics in 2001, only to face a head-on collision with local conservative leaders who strongly opposed the participation of women in leadership and the mixing of sexes. In an area with a population of one million, but only 150,000 women registered as voters, this was not easy. Shad stood as an independent candidate because no political party would support her.

She was the victim of character assassination and was called a “funded foreign agent,” in addition to receiving threats from the Taliban. Yet she carried on with her mission and people believed in her: she received the most votes of any female candidate. Four years later, as a result of her efforts, including an effective campaign that got the attention of authorities, 127 women were elected at the local level in the same area. “Men voted for women in the election. This is a big change,” said Begum.

Shad moved the organisation’s office to Peshawar when the Taliban became prominent, and she has been threatened by unidentified militants.

With women like Shad stepping up at the grassroots level, there have been major leaps in the present government’s tenure when it comes to legislation promoting women’s interests. Pressure from civil society and advocacy from women’s groups have forced policymakers to address women’s concerns. Legislation has been passed criminalising sexual harassment at the workplace, as well combating gender discrimination. In addition, legislation regarding women’s rights to inherit and forced marriage have been promulgated.

In January 2012, the National Assembly of Pakistan unanimously passed a bill to create a powerful and influential National Commission on the Status of Women, a huge step in the right direction and one that is being lauded by human rights activists as a salient pro-women move. This bill came after years of struggle by women’s committees, consultations, relentless advocacy and 22 consensus amendments.

The impact of women like Shad Begum cannot be over-emphasised in this progress – these women are heralding the winds of change in Pakistan.

Farahnaz Zahidi Moazzam is a freelance writer and journalist with a focus on human rights, gender and Islam.

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