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“Women’s share in politics will continue to grow”

Interview with Anita M. Weiss

“Women’s share in politics will continue  to grow”

Anita M. Weiss, a sociologist and a professor of International Studies at the University of Oregon, USA, has extensively researched and written on Pakistan. Her last book Interpreting Islam, Modernity and Women’s rights in Pakistan, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2014. Her current book project is Countering Violent Extremism in Pakistan: Local Actions, Local Voices. This book seeks to analyse the various ways people are responding, taking stands, recapturing their culture, and saying ‘stop’ to violent extremism. In Lahore recently, Dr. Weiss shared her observations and insights with The News on Sunday.

The News on Sunday: What do you say about the recent dharnas [sit-ins], particularly the one in Faizabad?

Dr Anita M. Weiss: In the forty years that I have been coming to Pakistan, I have seen many social changes. I have also seen Pakistan grapple with crisis after crisis. So the current crisis is not particularly new, it does seem more serious now because it’s hard to see if any entity is actually in charge. People used to believe in the army, but what happened in Faizabad was problematic because the army didn’t do anything for three weeks. The government allowed the dharna to keep going on. The army also allowed it to continue, so here we had, frankly, extremists taking over the capital city of this country. Where is the writ of law? Where is the respect for the idea of a state?

Pakistan has never had a viable population planning programme that has been successful. It’s an arena where the state has not interfered so much.

Nobody intervened, and yet, if civil society activists raise their voice for peace, for justice, for communal harmony like for Raza Khan, they get stopped and their voices are gagged.

There appear to be many contradictions happening right now in Pakistan. Why do we see so many civil society activists being picked up and ‘disappeared’ without charges being put against them, while people like Khadim Hussain Rizvi are allowed to stop life in the capital city for three weeks and then provoke dharnas all over the country? I was traveling from Multan to Lahore on that Saturday when everything broke loose.

I see a critical need for social scientists in this country to look at their society themselves, analyse the myriad social changes taking place, and seek to understand all that is happening. As a sociologist coming here to learn about the society, I have always sought and listened to people in Pakistan. In the many years I have been coming here, I have interviewed a very wide variety of people, both with interviews and with what we term ‘participant observation’ — like when I was researching women’s lives in the Walled City of Lahore. But it’s vitally important for more and more Pakistanis to do this as well.

We need to interrogate the changes that are taking place in women’s lives and how men and women are now interacting because of those changes. We need to understand the rise of extremism, why it manifests into violence, and how Pakistanis can respond to this effectively. Importantly, too, social scientists can analyse how to move the country forward and finally achieve good governance, and how to get Pakistan to finally pass laws against corruption. Just look at Malaysia, which had far fewer resources at independence than Pakistan did. But the Malaysian government invested in its human resource, and passed strong laws against corruption. Pakistan needs those laws too, and we need social scientists to analyse why they don’t exist and forward studied opinions on how they can be adopted and implemented.

TNS: Tell us about your last book Interpreting Islam, Modernity and Women’s Rights in Pakistan.

AMW: On this visit to Pakistan, I have talked about this book in Sargodha, in Multan and many other places. The book starts with a one-word sentence, Ijtihad — interpretation. In the many years that I have been coming to Pakistan, people have said to me we have to do this because of Islam, we can’t do this because of Islam. Many people think they know exactly what Islam says about women and their rights, but there are actually numerous differences of opinion prevailing in Pakistan today. It is these various views of opinions on women’s rights that I explore in the book, and the impact of the ‘culture wars’ occurring in Pakistan because of these differing views.

In the book, after a review of the history of Pakistani state policy towards women and the reasons behind some of the major shifts in these policies, I turn to views on women’s rights in three case studies: progressive women’s NGOs, orthodox Islamist groups, and the third is the biggest outlier of them all, the views of the Swat Taliban.

I interviewed over 120 women in Swat over a course of 3-4 years to find out what happened to them in Swat. The Taliban were stopping women from working, and forcibly putting women into shuttlecock burqas which they don’t commonly wear in those areas. Women in those areas instead wear chaadars. For them it was an act of modernity to stand there with their mobile phones and listen to the FM radio, hear Maulana Fazlullah speak about what Islam says that women should be doing. But in the words of a woman who I interviewed in Swat, they stopped listening when the messages turned to killing the police.

After I wrote that book, my seventh, I thought I was done with writing books. I sent it off to my publisher, Palgrave Macmillan, in March 2014; the South Asia version was published by Orient BlackSwan in Hyderabad, India in 2015 and is imported by Saeed Book Bank into Pakistan. But that was not to be.

I was in Pakistan on December 16, 2014, and saw coverage of the APS attack on television. This was the breaking point for me. The rest of the world only sees this face of Pakistan, but I feel I have a unique perspective, knowing Pakistan from ‘inside out.’ In my current book project, I am setting out all over the country, documenting how people are standing up and saying “we want our culture back, we want our lives back.”

At the Lahore conference, I had been talking about the resistance poetry by Hasina Gul in Mardan. I am also looking at the wonderful work that Olomopolo, Ajoka, Interactive Resource Centre, Tehrik-e-Niwan (Karachi), and the Pushkalavati Theatre Company (Charsadda) are doing to ‘take back cultural spaces’ through theatre, how the Laal Band is singing about building a peaceful future for Pakistan at schools all over the country, what Creative Frontiers is doing with their Pasbaan comic books series that they distribute to children at schools and then they return to talk with the students who come to see themselves as actors who can make their own choices and that they can build a peaceful future in Pakistan. And this is how I met Raza Khan.

Raza Khan, through Aghaaz-e-Dosti, ‘The Beginning of Friendship,’ was facilitating children in Pakistan and in India to write pen pal letters to each other, “as yet unknown pen pals,” not to particular people. I observed a teleconference that he helped organise between a Beaconhouse School in Gulberg and a school in Delhi. This was with two fourth grade classrooms, and the children were so excited they could talk with each other, communicate that they all loved biryani and cricket, and it broke down stereotypes on both sides about the other. Aghaaz-e-Dosti also produces a wonderful calendar every year with pictures drawn by children — six from India, six from Pakistan — and quotes by Indians and Pakistanis each month. Isn’t this a wonderful thing, to build bridges of peace? Why has this man been ‘disappeared’?

TNS: Will access to education benefit more than access to money for people to enter politics?

AMW: Absolutely. Money only has closed the possibility for people from poor backgrounds to enter politics. There has been more movement in the economic arena. Many more people from working backgrounds now play greater roles, at least in local politics.

I did my doctoral dissertation research on economic development and sociopolitical change in the Punjab in 1979-80. At that time, few people from lower class backgrounds were in managerial roles. But we see them today, and it’s not surprising. Is it access to education or is it access to money that is powering this movement? It is clearly access to education.

Everybody wants to get good education, especially for their children. When I was doing research in the Walled City in Lahore thirty years ago, I questioned a poor widow who had three daughters about her survival strategies for her children. She worked non-stop stitching painchas (the hem at the bottom of shalwars) for middlemen to earn enough for her daughters’ school fees and said to me, “gold and land can always be taken away, but nobody can take away a good education.” Her survival strategy for her daughters was to get them educated, so they could always survive on their own. I hope all three of her daughters have been able to keep their heads above water and can support themselves.

TNS: Will women’s share in politics shrink?

AMW: Women’s share in politics will absolutely continue to grow. Whether there is progress or no progress, there is a huge transformation going on, due in large part to growth in the sheer numbers of educated women. These educated women are just not going to sit by silently anymore. Look at these girls coming out of Lahore College for Women University, Kinnaird College, F.C College — this is just in Lahore but all over Pakistan, I have been meeting such exciting, great female students breaking down barriers, in Gilgit, Multan, and Swat. You see young women everywhere. They are no longer willing to be shunted aside and agree to just sit at home. They are entering industry, politics, journalism. And they are, importantly, making a positive difference in helping to build Pakistan’s future.

TNS: Do you have any observation on the National Commission on the Status of Women in Pakistan since you were once a part of it?

AMW: I was a member of the Research Advisory Board of the National Commission on the Status of Women for about ten years. Now they have restructured the commission and they don’t have same type of committee, so I am no longer on that. Provinces also have their commissions on the status of women, and they are also very active.

I think it is unfortunate that there is no central ministry anymore in Pakistan that can look into what’s happening in all the provinces and help coordinate regarding state policy. The National Commission on the Status of Women in Islamabad is trying to fill that role and works with the parliament to provide them with research backup for ideas they may have, and for laws they want to introduce. The National Commission on the Status of Women works closely with the national bureaucratic apparatus.

TNS: A lot of girls are going abroad for studies, often on student and people-to-people exchange programmes. How do you view this?

AMW: People-to-people exchange is the greatest way to promote understanding between countries. There is no question about that. This is why I recommend anyone in Pakistan who can study abroad or can find the means to study abroad should do so because they will see the world they cannot see sitting in Pakistan. Because the news is skewed everywhere: we often only hear the big headline news, sensationalist news, not about people’s everyday lives. A number of students have contacted me who are interested in studying in my university, the University of Oregon. I met a student at the Karachi Literature Festival where I was speaking last February, and his parents’ biggest worry was ‘will he be safe in America? Will he be harassed because he is a Muslim?’ He will be absolutely safe. The heart of most Americans are like the heart of most Pakistanis. They reach out, they want to understand, they want to befriend you.

So many students of mine from Pakistan in Oregon have said to me how impressed they are that Amercian neighbours and people they meet at work and in school have reached out to them, have invited them to dinner. In most places, there are very close desi communities as well which provide a good support structure to students.

What is unfortunate is that there are very few foreigners who are coming to Pakistan now. The tourist industry is mostly expatriate Pakistanis. It’s not just a place where people from a variety of national backgrounds come for vacations, but it should be. Let’s show off Pakistan’s national heritage to the world — and bring in those tourist dollars! Today, more and more Pakistanis than ever come to me and say, ‘aapko kaisay Urdu aati hai?’ (How do you know Urdu?) They don’t meet foreigners who know their language, which I think is unfortunate. It’s a beautiful language with an amazing history, and its cultural heritage that’s tied up with Urdu is so rich. If you have any interest in South Asia you must know Urdu. Even I know some poetry of Mirza Ghalib and Bahadur Shah Zafar.

TNS: How do you think Pakistan can lower the population growth rate?

AMW: Pakistan has never had a viable population planning programme that has been successful. It’s an arena where the state has not interfered so much. I remember thirty years ago, it was very hard to have any type of population planning advertisements in newspapers or television. Perhaps it has become a little easier now but it’s a modest society. People don’t want to talk about what you have to do to have population planning. India has been far more aggressive about this.

Pakistan’s best hope for population planning and control is to educate girls. An educated girl puts off having children until she is older. Instead of starting to have children at the age of 17, she starts having children at the age of 24. This would make a huge dent in Pakistan’s population. I have never been convinced that Pakistan has ever had an accurate count. The last census was badly delayed; the census held this year was badly delayed. It’s important, too, to highlight the value of having daughters as well as sons.

In 1993, I was part of an international delegation to observe election in Pakistan. I was sent to Pishin, in Balochistan, to observe the electoral process there. I wondered why they were sending me to Pishin because I knew Urdu and Punjabi, but they said it’s easy to observe elections in Punjab but they needed someone with some local knowledge who can understand social dynamics happening in Balochistan, and that’s why I was sent there. When I went to Pishin district, I found there weren’t any women polling stations anywhere except in Pishin City. Then we went to the girls’ college in the city where they had set up a women’s polling station. There were long lines of women who had come from far and wide on buses and trucks. They had been sent there to vote at that one polling station. That was the only polling station for women in Pishin. Every woman had a chit in her hand with the symbol of her party, but was quite unaware of what she was doing there. Education is a crying need for any democracy, and I observed that firsthand in Pishin.

TNS: Have you seen any effort to create opportunities for employment in rural areas of Pakistan?

AMW: I have a great deal of experience in rural areas where women tend to work either in fields or they work as midwives. Aside from this employment, there are few other opportunities, if any. I was in Multan and Bahawalpur in mid-November and in Sargodha last week. I saw more women on the roadside in most areas than I had seen in the past, but less in Jhang. I hardly saw any woman at all in the bazaars in Jhang. It seems women there are not participating in the economy, perhaps because the economy itself in Jhang is so limited. In sub-Saharan Africa, you will see women selling vegetables by the roadside. In India, you see women selling samosas by the roadside. In Pakistan women make samosas in their homes, and then the men in their families will sell them in bazaars. A common phenomenon too is for women to do home-based work in rural areas.

I went to two wonderful Zoya schools in the Kot Addu region outside Multan. These Kot Addu schools emphasize STEM subjects (science, technology and math) and peace. They encourage students to work to build a better future for Pakistan, and also a peaceful Pakistan. The Zoya schools are co-educational, and built right next to poor bastis. Students can walk to the school from their basti as do their teachers. I asked students in all the classes I attended what job they would want to do when they grow up. As common in other schools, they said they want to become doctors, engineers, computer scientists, and a few said teachers.

But unique to other responses I’ve heard in regular schools in Pakistan, when I asked why they gave this response, they said it is to make their contribution for a better, peaceful Pakistan.

I found a similar sentiment in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa where I went to Baacha Khan Schools in Mingora, Dargai, Charsadda, and Mardan. Baacha Khan Schools are also co-educational. These wonderful schools are all free, and in addition to the usual subjects also teach culture, calligraphy, environmental responsibility and peace. Here too I asked children in the older classes what they wanted to do when they grew up, and they also wanted to do something for their country. Someone said he wanted to go to the army. I asked why and he said he wanted to help bring peace to Pakistan.

The more people become involved in their society, the more people analyse this involvement in society and contribute to a better future for all.

Saadia Salahuddin

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The author is a staff member. She may be reached at saadiasalahuddin@gmail.com

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