A toxic patriarchy
“As far as the situation of human rights and women rights in Pakistan are concerned, the human rights violations, including the right to life and liberty, freedom of expression, the right to work in education, and the right to gender equality, are rising alarmingly.”
On 28th October 2020, Ismat Raza Shahjahan, President of Women Democratic Front in Pakistan was a guest speaker at an online conference of the European Parliament. Ms Shahjahan gave a harrowing account of life as a women in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan to both the Subcommittee on Human Rights and to the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality of the European Parliament.
The invitation for Ms Shahjahan’s participation had been extended by Member of the European Parliament (MEP) and Chair of the Subcommittee on Human Rights, Maria Arena, as part of European Gender Equality Week: Exchange of views with prominent women in human rights.
Ms Shahjahan pointed to a “toxic patriarchy” that allowed for human rights violations which were “rooted in systemic inequality and injustice along class, nation, culture, religious and gender lines”, highlighting that “the marginalised sections of the oppressed society have no access to resources, wealth nor state power”.
“The contradictions between the human rights narrative and foreign policy, as well as trade policies, add to the miseries” shared the human rights and political activist. “On the one hand the western democracies claim to be the champions of human rights whilst on the other hand they support military regimes and despotic rulers like Pakistan.”
Ms Shahjahan spoke with poise and elegance whilst sharing the horrors that those in political opposition in Pakistan battle against. “We are faced with a ferrous security state which crushes the voices of dissent with full force – a state which has launched a fifth generation war on its own citizens.”
Giving a short history, Ms Shahjahan was able to explain that historically Pakistan had been used by imperialist powers for proxy wars. “As a result Pakistan has now become a strong garrison security state where the military establishment has been controlling the economy, society and state institutions, overthrowing the elected governments and crushing social and resistance movements through the use of naked gun power.”
It was obvious that Ms Shajahan was not just speaking for herself as she clarified that “Rights defenders, journalists and political workers frequently follow involuntary disappearances, torture and targeted killings by the security apparatus with impunity. Tradition and anti-terrorism laws are used against political workers leaders of the socialist party and the peasant party. The Awami Party and Pashtun Tahafuz Movement have been killed and jailed.” She added that her personal comrade Baba Jan, a climate activist and activist for the disputed territory of Gilgit Baltistan, currently occupied by Pakistan, had been jailed under a life sentence.
Not only representing the Women’s Democratic Front in Pakistan, Ms Shajahan pointed out that “National oppression has increased – several individuals belonging to Baloch, Pashtun, and Sindhi ethnic nations have been abducted and held in interment centres for years without any charge or trial. Women relatives of the victims families have been seeking justice. Pashtun and Baloch women are also faced with targeted killings by proxy death squads.”
Giving her personal testimony Ismat Raza Shahjahan, also shared how she too had been “abducted, interrogated and kept in a cells many times.” – Feminist movements were also under attack in Pakistan.
“More than 20 million people are jobless including 9 millions women, 110 million are below the poverty line, 25 million children are out of school, child marriage and statutory rape is common. 25% of girls are forced into early and forced marriages before their 18th birthday. Women are faced with the widespread endemic of honour killing, femicide, sexual barbarism and other forms of patriarchal violence, even children and sexual minorities are not safe.” Painting this desperate picture Ms Shajahan also added that “systemic sexual harassment in educational institutions, on the streets, in the fields and in the houses, is on the rise.”
Endorsing recent press reports that have appeared in European media, Ms Shahjahan went on to say that “forced marriages after the conversion of Hindu and Christian girls is common in the province of Sindh and the killing of Ahmadi and Shia minorities has increased.”
The President of Women Democratic Front is fully aware that “as part of the jihad project the low socio-economic status of women has been systematically further reduced by the state, to the degree that they cannot even access their rights guaranteed in the law and the constitution, particularly by women of working class oppressed nations and religious minorities.”
The Women Democratic Front as a political organisation and not an NGO, comprehends the geo-political implications of Pakistan’s tyranny; “there has been patriarchal violence in Pakistan during the last 40 years of Afghan war. Hundreds of girl’s schools were bombed, health workers killed and millions were displaced due to military operations in the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Our tragedy is that the growth of graveyards in Pakistan is bigger than our economic growth.”
Ismat Raza Shahjahan concluded her presentation with a reality check in that “The sliding towards chaos in Pakistan can be transformed only after dismantling the intertwined nexus of patriarchy, security state, capitalism and religious extremism.”
“We reject aid – What we need the most is your solidarity with our struggle”. Calling on the European Parliament members, Ms Shahjahan asked for more support for the “democratic movements and not right wing dictatorial regimes in Pakistan”. She also called for the withdrawal of all foreign forces and proxies from Afghanistan stating that Afghanistan should be the sole domain for the Afghan people.
As a closing remark, Ms Shahjahan impressed on the European parliamentarians that “The recent regrouping of militant groups inside Afghanistan and in Pakistan is a matter of grave concern as it will have detrimental consequences for women in the region.” In that sense, she leaves a warning for those in Europe also, that terrorism and extremism now pose a risk for everyone.