Pakistani women are oppressed and exploited every day, whether violently punished for the crimes of their families or simply denied their basic rights by the government, activist Humaira Awais Shahid said in a lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Tuesday night.
But, Shahid said she has found a way for Pakistani women to finally make legislative headway.
Shahid, a journalist and former member of the Punjab Parliament, spoke to a crowd of about 50 people. She was one of several speakers this year for the Technology and Culture Forum at MIT, which currently features a series on violence against women.
TAC Coordinator Amy McCreath said the purpose of the program was to highlight ethical issues that TAC feels MIT students should be aware of and “to encourage students at MIT to take action.”
The program was also co-sponsored by the MIT Program on Human Rights and Justice and the MIT Program in Women’s and Gender Studies, McCreath said.
Shahid enumerated the basic rights that women in Pakistan are often denied, including the right to choose who they marry, the right to get a divorce without reason or evidence, the right to inherit property and the right to financial control and management of their assets.
“The irony is there has been a criminal silence on the rights of women,” she said. “They are used and exploited for all their lives.”
Shahid said the difficulties in passing legislation to protect women’s rights lie with her Parliamentary opponents, including fundamentalist political leaders, feudal leaders and tribal chiefs. Her resolutions were opposed in the past because of an unwillingness to change tradition, she said.
“The Pakistani mindset is much more complex than the West understands it,” she said. “My experience was swimming against the current, against the flow.
Shahid said she had to constantly work to persuade Parliament members to vote for her resolutions, despite the degrading attitudes of some of the male members.
“I don’t mind being your eye-candy if you give me a vote,” Shahid said of Parliament members.
Shahid moved several resolutions during her time in Parliament, including the recognition of acid attacks against women as murder attempts, which passed in August of 2003. Shahid also moved a resolution to abolish “vani,” the practice of bartering women to compensate for familial crimes, which passed earlier the same year.
“I held the hands of so many women who were victims of acid attacks, stove burnings and domestic violence,” she said. “It’s been a very long struggle.”
She said her most challenging piece of legislation, passed in June 2007, was the Private Money Lending Act, which she put forward to abolish the mistreatment of the poor. Before the act was passed, daughters of impoverished families who couldn’t pay off debts were sold into prostitution as compensation, she said.
Shahid’s economic resolution was the first made by a private member in the Punjab Parliament, she said.
“My journey has not been easy,” she said. “It taught me strength and courage.”
Shahid said that although her resolutions were passed, executing the laws has proved to be much more difficult. She often received death threats after she instructed law enforcement to carry out the regulations.
“It’s another big trial to get them implemented,” she said.
Shahid said she became an activist not because she wanted success, but because she thought it was her responsibility.
“You become what you believe in,” she said. “You focus, strategize, persevere and you conquer. With this faith, I carry on with my work.”
MIT junior Sreeja Nag, a student from India, said she is interested in Shahid’s accomplishments because many women in India face the same problems as Pakistani women.
“It seems [Shahid’s] work is brilliant,” Nag said.
Anahita Maghami, an MIT junior and member of activist groups such as Amnesty International, said Shahid’s speech was touching, especially the stories of her struggles in Parliament.
“I really admire her,” Maghami said.