Some Americans bridle at mixing religion and politics. So do some Pakistanis. But even in a country where so much lip service is paid to religion, it’s not easy for an individual’s faith to make a political difference, as Humaira Awais Shahid discovered.
Shahid, 41, is a Pakistani parliamentarian and activist — and a devout Muslim. A petite, soft-spoken, unassuming mother of three, she won a seat reserved for women in the provincial parliament of Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province, in 2002. At her father-in-law’s newspaper, Khabrain, she uncovered stories on vinni, a cultural practice in which women and girls are given away to settle family disputes, and on horrific violence against women, including disfiguring, sometimes lethal, acid attacks.
There were laws against such acts, but they were riddled with loopholes. Becoming a legislator gave Shahid the opportunity to change policy, going beyond simply highlighting such injustices in a newspaper.
In 2003, she presented a resolution against vinni. Another resolution demanded laws to ensure that acid attacks were treated as attempted murder, or murder if a victim died.
Male parliamentarians launched into tirades against her attempts to make women “wayward.” She received anonymous threats of acid attacks. Mass-circulated emails maligned her. She was shaken when another female parliamentarian, Zill-e-Huma, was murdered at a public gathering in 2007 (ex-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was also murdered that year). But Shahid stood firm, basing her arguments on the Quran.
Violence against women is “due to non-implementation of the rights given and guaranteed by Islam,” she told Latitude News. “I told my opponents, ‘This is what our religion says, what our Prophet says, are you denying it?’ I learned all the terminology and I told them,’You’re going against the scriptures.’”
In the end, the Punjab Assembly passed her resolutions unanimously.
Following Islam to a better law
These resolutions fed into Pakistan’s passage last year of the Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Act and The Prevention of Anti-Women Practices Act.
But perhaps Shahid’s biggest triumph was Punjab’s Prohibition of Private Money Lending Act, which makes it a criminal offense for private individuals to lend money or to charge interest when doing so. Until then, debtors had no recourse to redress from private moneylenders. Islam prohibits money lending with interest, but on a practical basis, major illnesses or dowry demands are two factors that drive borrowing.
“Many parliamentarians privately asked me to withdraw my bill,” she says. “It’s a lucrative practice that involves many people. They asked me, ‘What do you want? On whose behest are you doing it?’ I told them that I am only following my conscience as a Muslim, and if they followed Islam, they would support me.”
It took four years, but the bill was passed unanimously, in 2007. That was a bittersweet year for Shahid. Her husband died of a heart attack, leaving her bereft of her best friend and strongest supporter. She says her faith and her work has helped her rebuild her life.
“I am necessary to my creator”
In 2009 and 2010, she spent an academic year at Harvard as a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, working on issues in violence against Asian women. Back in Pakistan, in January 2011, Punjab’s Parliament passed her resolution on the rights of women in Islam, asserting women have basic rights guaranteed by the Quran — the right of divorce (khula) without evidence or reason; the right to choose whom (and whether) they want to marry; a widow’s right to make decisions without the consent of a guardian; a woman’s right to a fixed inheritance and control and management of her assets and property.
In May, Bowdoin College awarded Shahid an honorary doctorate. Her acceptance speech, “The Long Arm of God,” heavily references her faith. She cited the mystical Sufi strain of Islam, saying that the core of the soul is the reservoir of all knowledge, representative of the divine. She sees life as a journey through different layers of the self to find the essence within “that recognizes the intimacy of God and His love.”
“On my way,” she said, “I learned gratitude, a gratitude that makes me see God in every face and in every situation. My confidence comes from the fact that I refuse to believe that we are meaningless. I am necessary to my creator as He is to me; I am His power, His plan and His attribute.”
Faith may not move literal mountains. But in Pakistan it has helped Humaira Shahid move people from long-entrenched positions.