An Interview With: Shahnaz Bokhari: Pakistani Activist Against Violence Against Women

An Interview With: Shahnaz Bokhari: Pakistani Activist Against Violence Against Women

Mantilla, Karla

Shahnaz Bokhari is the founder of the Progressive Women’s Association (PWA) in Pakistan and has been helping women victims of social and domestic violence who have been subjected to rape, incest, burning by fire or acid, battering and karo kari (honor killings) since 1986. She has done this mostly out of her own home in Islamabad. In 1999 she converted her family home in Rawalpindi into Pakistan’s first shelter home.

Bokhari was arrested and charged with “abetting adultery” in 2000 by the former husband of a female victim who left the shelter unaccompanied by a male relative. She was acquitted of the charges in February 2003. Following are excerpts from an interview that off our backs collective member Karla Mantilla and intern Corie Osborn conducted with Bokhari this past October.

oob: How did you get started doing this kind of work?

Bokhari: I started working on women’s rights in 1986, after observing how 90 percent of the female population is deprived of even the most basic human rights. I met women who had been thrown out of their house by their husbands or families and deprived of basic livelihood and survival. Often their children were snatched away, and in the cases where the women retained their children, the children were also deprived of food and shelter. In Pakistan, 95 percent of women are illiterate and unskilled, so when these things happen, they are in danger of starving to death.

Working on a case-by-case basis, we have followed 15,000 cases since 1987. We work at the grassroots level, individually guiding those women in desperate need of assistance, by providing practical assistance in police stations, the court system and medical intervention to victims of violence.

oob: When did you become more involved with issues of violence against women?

Bokhari: In March of 1994, I started taking on cases where women’s noses or hands were chopped off, bones were broken, or they were burnt by acid or kerosene oil. The first case of critical physical violence in which I became involved was that of a woman named Zainab. Her husband-who was a religious priest and preached in the mosque five times a day-inserted an iron rod in her private parts and passed an electrical current through it. The current left her almost dead.

We went to the hospital and saw her, and I fainted when I saw her for the first time. We followed it through all the courts of Pakistan and got her husband convicted for thirty-one years. But-there is a very big but to it: the highest court slashed his punishment so that he was to serve only ten years. Then he was pardoned by the thenpresident of Pakistan so that last year he got out of jail! We stood on the streets demanding and demonstrating but he was still released.

Over the years I have begged my friends and philanthropists for help. I have begged my doctor friends to take care of certain cases and my lawyer friends to follow these cases in the courts and the justice system. Thanks to all of them and the media for addressing the issue, today violence against women is one of the major issues of the country.

oob: And your organization is all volunteer?

Bokhari: It is all volunteer.

oob: How do people respond to you in Pakistan?

Bokhari: Twenty years back it was very difficult. People always wanted to know: Why am I interested? Am I related to the woman? Why am I bothered?

There were different reactions to my commitment to the women in our society. Some thought I was washing the dirty linens in public, first in the national media and now in front of the international media. They said, “She’s bringing all of our bad issues out internationally and she’s bringing shame to Pakistan. She’s saying that the men are beasts in this country.”

I replied, “Yes, I’m highlighting the violence men have committed. I’m showing the women whom you have struck and the women whom you have burnt with acid in front of the media! But tell me, what have you done? Have you passed some sort of legislation? Have you made some sort of burn center? No, there are no burn centers, there are no women’s support centers! There is no legal status for women!”

Then there is the class of fundamentalists who say I am destroying the family and cultural traditions-that we are just westernized women and that we have vested interests. I keep asking them what my vested interests would be! After 18 years, I am still working at my own dining room table!

oob: Have you received any recognition for your work?

Bokhari: I have been well-honored in the international community. I have been featured in documentaries by National Geographic and the BBC, MBC, Al-jazeera TV, CNN, and on Australian and Dutch TV.

I have been lucky to receive so much attention from the media. They have accompanied me on visits to burned women in the hospitals. We have always been in the press, highlighting the issues of violence-how the women were burned and what happened to them afterwards. There is persistent follow-up for each case, because if one day the case is in the media and the second day it’s not, you lose the interest of the people. We’ve been keeping up political pressure through the help of the media and the readers, but to keep their interest alive in violence cases, this constant follow up is desperately required.

oob: What kinds of things do you do in individual cases?

Bokhari: Our overarching aim is bring the criminals who commit violence on women to accountability. To help reach that aim we help individual women with legal assistance in the court system. We also provide medical and psychological help, especially since some of the women have only a few hours or days left to live due to the extent of their injuries.

I have a team of volunteers who clip the newspaper articles for any case, anywhere, in any police station, in any hospital. We do not wait for the victims to come to us-we read the case and we’re the first to contact them. I think during the last 18 years there isn’t a single case that we’ve read of in the newspapers in which we haven’t gotten involved.

oob: How many cases of burned women have you followed?

Bokhari: We have followed about 6,750 cases of women burned by their husbands, in-laws or relatives. I remember almost 5,000 of the women. I remember all those times, crying with those who want to live and want to be there for their children. But the fire and the acid burns them down to their bones.

I cannot forget the smell when I enter the hospital gates. The smell is so horrible that you know from the moment you enter the hospital that there are burned women there. The conditions are so unhygienic and ugly-the rooms are not even sanitized, cleaned, or air-conditioned. The caregivers don’t use disinfectants or wear gloves.

You would be amazed to see one of the burned girls now. I worked hard with her, to raise the money for her to have many surgeries. She stayed in my house with me and my children for three years. She has been transformed from a timid, shy and submissive woman into a confident, independent human being. She has given numerous interviews to the international magazines and television. I wish she could be sent to your country for reconstructive and cosmetic surgery-she wishes that she could look like any other ordinary girl, instead of dreading that people will be scared of her face.

oob: So some of the women become supporters of your cause?

Bokhari: Yes, now she’s taking care of the PWA’s women’s crisis center in Jehlum.

oob: So where do you get your courage?

Bokhari: I have four children and I am a single parent, and I know how it feels to have gone through thick and thin myself. There were the threats and the harassment of living alone. My four children are all very supportive of the work I am doing, and are a great source of inspiration and motivation.

These cases have really affected my health. While visiting the victims of fire, I cry my heart out, and my blood pressure shoots up. In one case where the mother of a burned woman wanted her daughter’s body to be exhumed from the graveyard for an autopsy, I fought like mad, and we spent a handsome amount of money to coordinate the judiciary, senior government officials, and designated doctors. It took three and a half months. By then, the body was almost completely decomposed. I had my first heart attack when I saw her and was in the hospital for ten days.

I don’t know how I’ve had the courage to do what I have done but I’ve done it and been able to collect data and highlight cases all over the country.

oob: Would you say that things in Pakistan are getting better or worse for women?

Bokhari: In terms of awareness, things are getting better. But with the awareness, we also need to give women an adequate support system and an adequate judicial system. Because now the awareness is there-they know that getting beaten up day and night is not good-but where should they go? What should they do?

oob: Has there been an increase in religious fundamentalism in Pakistan?

Bokhari: We have a religious assembly in the northwestern province. They are all religious conservatives, all fundamentalist. We are very scared of them. There is fundamentalism penetrating into the rest of the country. It is very dangerous for the rest of the country.

oob: Do you think it is a real threat?

Bokhari: Yes, yes, yes!-it is a very threatening position. We need to live in the present world and cannot survive under prehistoric conditions. General Musharraf [the current president of Pakistan] is a very progressive man, and we admire him. Because of him, we have the largest number of women policy-makers in the national assembly and senate today. We are sure he will take necessary measures to control the situation.

oob: Did he put a quota on how many women can be in the assembly?

Bokhari: Yes, we demanded 43%, and he gave 30%.

oob: I wish we had that here!

Bokhari: Your country does not have that. The one thing I find very disturbing about the United States is that it is not a signatory of CEDAW [the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, an international agreement that the United States has not signed]. I think that is a thing of shame for a country talking about women’s rights-a country that is pointing to other countries, saying, “You have trafficking, you have burned women, you have honor killings.” Well, what the hell are you doing? Why are your women suffering? A lot of my people back home object to my activities, saying, “Shahnaz, you are trying to follow the West. Do you think they don’t have crime, do you think they don’t have domestic violence?” But my reasoning is that you do have a support system in the U.S. and you have laid out a judicial system that has created a lot of backup systems for women in your country.

But what have we done? We have no education, no money, no political empowerment and we have objectified women to a level that is very degrading. In my religion, Islam, it is humiliating to abuse or mistreat women, but still the religious fundamentalists continue to condone this kind of treatment towards women in denial of their own religion.

oob: Have you seen changes from the women in the legislature?

Bokhari: For the past year and a half, they have been there, they have been fighting for their political parties’ issues. We have demonstrated on the streets to bring the legal situation of women to the attention of the women in the legislature.

In the last four months there were 18 cases highlighted in international media. Eighteen is a very large number but only the most critical cases-where a woman’s nose or hands are chopped off or she’s burned over most of her body-are picked up by international media. And the sad thing is that not a single woman in the legislature spoke up or even mentioned a single word in national assembly or the senate about these cases.

oob: Do you think they are afraid? Do you think they don’t have the courage?

Bokhari: I think it’s because they are unaware of women’s rights issues and they are there just because their party elected them to be there. But they should take initiative for the rights of women. I always want to give them the message that they should stand up and talk about these issues, and stop thinking only about their political parties.

The lip service is great, but there is no political will. When it comes to delivering services, they are very bad.

oob: Do you have a problem with your own personal safety?

Bokhari: I have been threatened quite a lot of times. They say I am a very brave woman, but you know there are times when we also get very scared.

There were many times when the support center in Aasra was raided by police. Then, my house was raided. The first time it was a small raid. But the second time, it was a very big raid. Twenty-six people raided my house, looking for two women who had run away from another city. Because of the fundamentalist pressure, they raided my house in Islamabad.

When I came home, the house was topsy-turvy: cupboards open, files snatched out, the rooms all a mess, and my son just standing there. I called the media. They came and took photos so it was in the press. I called one or two ministers of government, but nobody came. That day I felt very insecure and decided to move my family out of the country.

Since I have received several international human rights awards, I feel somewhat safer. In 1995, I received the Human Rights Award from France, and in 1996, the Sitara-Imtiaz from the Pakistan government for public service. I received the Weimar Award from the German government in 2001. Most recently, I received the Civil Courage award in New York in October 2003. The awards provide much encouragement for human rights activists like me, but they are also very protective. Because of these awards, we feel very safe at home since the world knows about us and our work. That helps a lot.

oob: What do you think needs to be done in Pakistan to help?

Bokhari: I would like to request some women’s rights organizations in the United States to have an exchange program with us. We need people who are working in our crisis intervention centers in Pakistan to come and work in U.S. domestic violence centers. I’m really looking forward to some sort of exchange program that might be done.

And I have three goals. First, we need to have a support system for women. We need to expand the women’s center in Rawalpindi and we need another one in Islamabad, so women can get psychological assistance, social protection, and legal help.

Second, we want to establish a rolling fund for crisis intervention. We need a rolling fund because I cannot go to donors and tell them an estimated budget for each burned woman. It always depends on the woman: if she’s forty percent burned, it’s 1,500 rupees a day; but if she is ninety percent burned it is 3,000 rupees a day. She may live for ten days or for ten hours. Donors don’t understand that. Our work is not sustainable-we are not trying to make some sustainable commodity with the help of those women. They are all on their deathbeds, or they have such terrible problems. A rolling fund would allow us to help them according to their individual situations.

The third goal is to construct a modern burn center for the victims of fire.

To donate to the Progressive Women’s Association, send checks in US dollars to:

Ms. Shahnaz Bukhari

Progressive Women’s Association

7204 Fair Way Drive, #1-21

Hialeah, FL 33014-6915

Or to:

Habib American Bank

99 Madison Avenue

New York, NY00016-7419

Favoring Union Bank Limited A/c No. 2072-9508 for onward credit to Progressive Women’s Association Maintaining A/c No. 5801.501472.073

With Union Bank Ltd, Union Arcade, F-7 markaz Islamabad, Pakistan

Copyright Off Our Backs, Inc. Mar/Apr 2004

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