I first heard of the Pakistani women’s rights activist, Qamar Naseem, via BBC’s Outlook program, which interviewed him in July this year. A recipient of the “No Peace Without Justice Human Rights Award” (this year) and part of a human rights (primarily women’s rights) non-profit, Blue Veins, in Peshawar, Pakistan, Naseem spoke with me about working with communities at the grass-roots level, threats faced, and the trouble with human rights activism in Pakistan today.
How did Blue Veins come into being?
I co-founded Blue Veins in 1999. At the time the members of our team were working in different organizations but somehow we all came together as people who had loved ones affected by breast cancer. At the time we thought there was a severe lack of knowledge about breast cancer, and after all these years breast cancer is still one of our main programs, educating communities about symptoms, self-examination and treatment. But initially when we started to work with communities in Khyber Pakthtunkhwa (KPK) and FATA, we discovered issues of violence and abuse and found that the issues went beyond health. Women are not empowered to make decisions about their own bodies. They have no say when it comes to decisions about the treatment of their cancer! Awareness was much better in ‘99 compared to today. People are not ready to listen; the tolerance and acceptance level is very low.
What are some of the current activities and programs at Blue Veins?
We execute community organizing/mobilizing; we form multi-purpose committees, citizens groups, support groups, men’s support groups, men working with men to help women, and the sensitization of religious leaders, forming community action groups who will lead community action themselves and not always depend on us to be there. We were the first organization in Pakistan to combine all pro-women laws in one publication. We have a legislator group in the KPK assembly; we’ve formed a support group of women legislators. Another area of focus is child marriages – we work to prevent child marriages. We are also soon to start a project for transgenders and inter-sexuals in KPK – we want to establish an organization called “Trans Action” that would be represented by transgenders and inter-sexual individuals.
You know, there is so much focus on women’s rights and women’s education in Pakistan but there are no protective structures available throughout KPK for example. All the women mobilized by NGOs and women’s rights groups face a very bad fate. They make a very bad example for those wanting to come forward to speak about their rights.
You work with men at the grass-roots level as well; please elaborate a little on that.
Today we have more than 300 men’s support groups throughout KPK. They are men who are ready to be trained and changed. We do interactive community theater on issues related to sexual and gender-based violence; we try to enhance their critical thinking capacities. Since all of us come from the grass-roots level ourselves, none of us are elite activists. So we believe that the conceptualization of issues is very, very important. In Pakistan no one has ever worked with men; we make them out to be this evil force. We look for men with violent behaviors who are willing to give up their old ways and who are ready to unlearn their violent behavior. I find that all these issues are inter-connected, from malnutrition to honor killing to forced marriages, our country runs blindly on religious interpretations, values, etc. because they lack critical thinking. Having worked with these communities for the last ten years, I believe that they know what their issues are and they also are aware of the solutions
What challenges do you encounter working in the regions of KPK and FATA?
We face challenges due to tribal norms, cultural values, and the interpretation of religion. You work in a community for 10 months and just one statement by an imam in a mosque can destroy your hard work within minutes.
What about threats?
Not only us, but other organizations here continuously receive threats as well. Since we work with issues related to sexuality – bodily integrity and sexual autonomy – it’s very sensitive in this culture. You talk about women’s sexual health, hygiene, and reproductive rights and the rejection comes from not only males but from females as well. It’s beyond their educational level and their culture to talk about these things openly.
Aren’t you worried about launching Trans Action? It seems like a very risky project for Pakistan.
There’s always a backlash. One of our colleagues in 2010 was beheaded in FATA. We received several threats. My home was attacked on August 12, 2013 by militants. My brother was abducted by the Taliban; he remained in captivity for 59 days. So of course we’re worried but we handle our programs carefully.
I read an interview of yours where you stated that your grandfather was against your mother going to school…
The rights my sisters enjoy today, my mother in her wildest dreams would’ve never thought possible. My mother always wanted to go to school but she was severely beaten and tortured by my grandfather. She wasn’t allowed to marry who she wanted to as well. I believe if change could take place in my own home it could happen anywhere. I became an activist primarily because of this, I not only saw my mother suffer but have seen how my male family members suffered as well because of their ego and power trips. Today my sisters go to university without asking, they come and go as they like, they make their own decisions: who to marry, who to not marry…it makes me very happy. It motivates me every day. I wasn’t like this initially; I used to be of the same male stereotypical mindset.
What was the defining moment for you, how did you finally break free from this rigid, chauvinistic mindset?
I had good teachers who always encouraged me and my classmates to read beyond the text, to think critically about issues, to think outside the box, to make up our minds about issues ourselves. The internet helped greatly too, I was able to read up on topics, understand other cultures, etc. Deep in my heart I was always looking for solutions to issues in my own house. I remember, years ago, no female family member in my house was even allowed to pick up the phone, just in case a male on the other end of the line heard her voice. Today the women in my family have more than one mobile phone. Coming out of this cocoon, this male chauvinistic approach, has freed us.
What’s your definition of female empowerment?
Women living here have very different challenges compared to those living in the West. They should be provided the same level of rights, but for me as a women’s rights activist, it is impossible for me to go to a community here and demand those very rights. In my opinion women’s empowerment means that a woman is free to make her choices, she’s given equal chances, and is free to make her own decisions. Also what is female empowerment? Say I meet someone doing her PhD at Peshawar University and she cannot choose her own life partner, she can’t go abroad for a job, or to another city. I ask my friends this, who is really empowered? And how would we define empowerment?
What are the issues prevalent in KPK and FATA today regarding the rights of women?
The issue of pornography and gang rape is currently a big problem in KPK. Access to pornographic material created a lot of pressure in a vacuum – the society has double standards you know, we try to be very pure and clean, but we’re actually not. When a woman is gang-raped, I see fathers and brothers and even husbands coming in and supporting their women, not killing them for honor or beating them up. They come out to police stations and take their women to court!
What brought about this change?
Two things: media and education. Access to information and communications technology and the increase in education towards this change. In the Pashtun culture, as you’re aware, usually marriages take place inter-family and inter-tribe. There was so much emphasis on education for boys that every family wanted to send their boys to the best schools and colleges, but then what started happening was that the boys during/after education would refuse to marry their cousins, etc. – girls who would generally be uneducated. So in turn, families started sending their girls to schools and colleges because they wanted to find a good match. This was a blessing in disguise; so what took place was a silent education revolution. It’s very promising because a number of the girls at these colleges and universities are by and large Pashtun girls and girls from the tribal areas. I see a lot of youngsters these days who are challenging the norms of their society. For example, an aunt lived under the physical abuse of her husband for a long time but then her son stepped in and put a stop to it.
Where do we fall short vis-à-vis human rights in Pakistan today?
In our society people who champion the rights of women and children, who haven’t experienced those very problems themselves, cannot understand. The strategies they chalk out do not suit the communities because there’s no acceptance in the communities. You can’t go to a village and ask the people there if they have experienced sexual and gender-based violence, they are uneducated people; they hear the heavy terminology and shy away immediately. Also as a nation, we’re complete hypocrites. We don’t speak our hearts. I attended a seminar in Peshawar regarding women marrying of their choice and a villager – who was present in the audience – said to the trainer; after listening to your lecture I feel so burdened and pained because I got my sisters married off to men not of their own choice. My heart feels so heavy. So the trainer turned around and said: don’t take it seriously, we’re Pathan! This is just a workshop, don’t worry, just take your certificate and you can leave.
So see, what we’re propagating, we’re not willing to implement – this is our biggest dilemma in Pakistan. That’s why change doesn’t come.
Sonya Rehman is a journalist based in Lahore, Pakistan. She can be reached at: sonjarehman [at] gmail.com