Being a girl in any patriarchal society is tough. But living in a place where girls are married off as teenagers, are expected to have 7+ kids, and are regularly beaten and expected to keep mum about it? That’s damn hard. In the northwestern region of Pakistan, this is women’s daily bread. The worst thing? They don’t even know that they have rights. In this revealing interview, two human rights activists from The Awakening, Erfaan Hussein Babak and Neelum Rahim, share their experiences of breaking taboos and empowering women in a strictly patriarchal society.
Why did you decide to advocate for the rights of girls and women?
Erfaan: I was born into a conservative and strongly male-dominated family where I was expected to be a fearless tribal Pashtun who never cries or shows feelings. From childhood, I saw my mother being beaten by my father, every now and then on minor issues. I also saw how all three of my sisters were married at 12, 13 and 14 years, denied opportunities, bearing children at such a young age and being beaten by their in-laws. My eldest sister got divorced after 15 years of an abusive relationship and started the first Pakistani (Women Jirga) council of elders led entirely by women. All these experiences have led me to take up the cause of protecting the rights of girls and women and founding The Awakening.
What about you Neelum, what is your story?
Neelum: I grew up in a family with two sisters and we were constantly being told that we couldn’t do anything. People mocked us because we didn’t have a brother. My parents were repeatedly asked why they educate us and told that we couldn‘t do anything. During the era of Taliban when girl’s education was banned and women couldn’t go outside I decided to get involved in the women’s empowerment movement.
Many traditions in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the northwestern region of Pakistan, not only validate violence against women, but also barter women’s lives for the sake of honor. Could you explain how stringent religious, family and tribal customs influence women’s daily lives in the Swat Valley?
Erfaan: As per our data in District Swat, 67% of girls get married at an early age, such as 14 or 15, and have to bear children, which often leads to health complications and infant deaths. In our culture, women are considered child-bearing machines. In semi-urban areas, an average fertility rate is 6-7 children and 9-11 children in rural areas, which leads to severe reproductive health complications. In one of our studies, we found that between 35–50 women and girls are killed each year in the name of honor, while around 60 commit suicide due to various reasons. Women are brutally beaten, sometimes their body parts are cut off, they’re not properly fed, educated and are harrassed in the street.
That’s horrible. How do women feel about it, Neelum? Do they complain or are they afraid to speak up?
Neelum: We’re the victims of the worst terrorism and worst patriarchy. In Pashtun culture, everything is in control of men. Women don’t even realize that this is a problem, they are not aware of their rights. They accept the patriarchy and promote it. Early marriage and honor killings have become so normal that nobody talks about it. There are no measures taken to prevent this from happening. The state isn’t interested either.
Erfaan: The problem is that women and girls have internalized all these discriminations. In fact, they are even admired in the village if they keep quiet about the violence. When a girl goes against traditional practices she has a bad name attached to her.
So when you go to women and tell them they have rights, how do they react?
Neelum: They are not ready to accept it. They justify gender discrimination by saying: „This is our culture, our tradition, our religion.“ How can we prevent these things from happening when people deny them? First, you need to accept that something is a problem in order to prevent it. That’s why we raise awareness about gender discrimination with women, girls, men, elders, religious leaders and government departments.
It’s so important to involve men in these discussions. I think a lot of people forget about that.
Erfaan: Yes, in the very beginning, we worked with women, telling them about their rights, and empowering them. Every now and then we got reports of women being beaten by their husbands or fathers or other male members of their family. We quickly realized that we should focus on men because they are the controllers of the power in the society. We started talking to men and working with like-minded men who were open to empowering women in their homes. That idea worked very well. Now we have various groups of young boys, men and elders who talk about women’s empowerment. This was a great learning for us.
Are younger generations of boys and girls more open to women’s empowerment?
Neelum: Yes, unlike the old generation, they show a little flexibility, they are more open to questioning traditional values, including attitudes to women and gender roles. But it will take time to convince them and mobilize them. Behavioral change doesn’t come easily.
What needs to happen so that women are more liberated?
Erfaan: I believe that through a combination of education, awareness, intergenerational dialogue and advocacy gradual shifts of attitudes can occur even among older generations. The feminist movement in Pakistan started 35 years ago and we started seeing it bear fruit in the last decade where many pro-women legislations have been passed and we’re seeing women movements like Aurat March. Many people tell us that we‘re working on a Western agenda and our answer is very simple: „Our agenda is human rights.“
I thought that you could be accused of promoting the Western agenda. It’s the easiest argument that anyone can make to put you down. There are so aspects of human rights that The Awakening works on but for the sake of this interview, I’d like to focus on family planning and reproductive health. How do you fight patriarchal values; for example, the opposition of men to family planning?
Neelum: People don’t openly talk about family planning, it’s a taboo subject. Some say that it’s right, some believe it’s a sin. We have a Population Welfare Department and they have a family planning program in our country but they are facing a lot of issues. Even we can’t speak about family planning openly. If we do a session about family planning in our community especially elder women don’t like that we talk about it, they think it’s against Islam.
And is it? What’s the official position of Islam on family planning?
Neelum: There’s no clear position. Some imams believe family planning existed at the time of prophet (PBUH) but some believe that this is a weak hadiz.
Erfaan: There’s a whole chapter in Holy Quran about women’s rights but no one actually follows it. When we talk about women‘s empowerment and give references from the Holy Quran people jump to cultural norms. They say: „Okay, it’s what the religion says but our cultural norms do not allow that, especially when it comes to inheritance rights. And when you talk with them about culture, they jump on another subject. They are cherry-picking things from the Holy Scripture or the culture or the customs they follow, which is very unfortunate but it exists in our society.
I noticed that a big part of your work is engaging religious leaders. I can imagine that this must be super challenging! How do you work with them on issues of family planning, abortion and in general women’s bodily autonomy?
Erfaan: The majority of muslims in Pakistan don’t know the exact meaning of the Holy Quran and are not aware of its teachings. The main source of learning for these people are imams who they blindly follow. There are many imams that are fundamentalists but there are also those who are progressive. We engage with liberal imams who frame family planning within the context of religious teachings and principles. They highlight Quranic verses that support the concept of responsible parenthood, moderation and the well-being of individuals and families. We visit them and their students in their madrasas to support their advocacy.
It makes sense to cooperate with liberal religious leaders and their students since they have such an impact on the lives of ordinary people. Before we wrap up the interview, do you have any final thoughts?
Neelum: Right now, we’re fighting against patriarchy, extremism and terrorism. Our economy is bad. Women are totally dependent on men and the burden on men is huge. That’s why there’s a lot of domestic violence. We need to empower women economically.
Erfaan: Yes, that’s true. When women have access to education and economic opportunities, they are better able to support themselves and their families and invest in well-being and education of their children. Breaking the cycle of poverty benefits not only individuals and communities but also contributes to global poverty reduction efforts. I strongly believe that empowering women is vital for countering extremism and promoting societal stability.