Humaira Shahid is a woman accustomed to facing danger in her fight for democratic rights and justice.
“I received warnings about an acid attack on me,” says Shahid, a parliamentarian for PML-Q, elected on a reserved seat in the Punjab Assembly. “I was even maligned through anonymous emails sent to the media about affairs with many men. I was scared that I might end up dead like my fellow parliamentarian Zill-e-Huma.”
Among her notable achievements is a bill against private lending which was made a law in 2007. During her campaign Shahid received several threats. However, she continued her fight against an ‘informal economic mafia’ intent on continuing its exploitation of the poor.
Shahid received further intimidation after she moved resolutions in the assembly on acid crimes and vanni, a practice in which women are given away to settle a dispute.
Her bill on private lending faced resistance for four years, but was eventually passed. Despite this achievement, the year was a heavy one for Shahid after her husband died of a heart attack. Furthermore, her friend Zill-e-Huma, also a member of the Punjab Assembly, was killed at a public meeting in Gujuranwala. The man arrested for the murder later confessed that he killed Huma because she was ‘immorally dressed’.
Grieving for her husband and her friend, and disillusioned with politics during a military dictatorship, Shahid did not pursue her nomination in the 2008 election.
“It took me so long to get one law passed, so I decided that before joining the assembly again, I needed to learn more to be a better legislator.”
She enrolled at Harvard University, focusing on violence against women as well as Islamic politics in South Asia. As a former legislator, she had firsthand experience in these issues. “At Harvard, I gained confidence and realised the only way to do more was to be part of the legislative process. And it does not matter which party you belong to as long as you can lobby for a cause.” Shahid came back last year and was offered a vacant reserved seat. “This time I am not as naïve as I was in my first tenure,” she says. “I am working on bringing human rights.”
But Shahid is disappointed that the law she helped pass has not been sufficiently enforced.
“Recently I was visited by a number of women who are still being exploited by private money lenders,” she says, adding that rural women feel ignored by the police. Shahid visits villages in Punjab and helps women register cases against money lenders.
“The irony of democracy is everyone says it is good but no one supports it and that’s why it fails in this country,” she remarks with a laugh.
“We still live in a patriarchal democracy where being a woman and a politician is not acceptable. Most reserved seats for women belong to ‘begums’ of feudal who believe in the status quo.”
According to a recent report by Pakistan’s National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW), all the major political parties did not sufficiently address the needs of women while writing party manifestoes in 2008. It states that there are no clear policies for women’s political empowerment, and women parliamentarians are not treated as equal members.
NCSW research reflects that funds for women legislators are mostly spent on the recommendations of male leaders in their parties.
But despite the odds, Shahid is currently pursuing more economic empowerment for villagers and is working on legislation to develop a system of Islamic financing for farmers.
“Every time a farmer lands in financial problems, it’s their women who are used as property to settle matters,” she says. Recently, she also introduced a resolution in the Punjab Assembly about bringing the panchayat system into a legal framework, which will help protect women.
Shahid says her struggle of nine years in the assembly has made her realise that for women, political empowerment through contesting general elections is a far-fetched idea. “Reserved seats may be the only way now but it’s not a permanent solution. Political parties need to bring a democratic change within them. Otherwise women cannot succeed in politics.”
Published in The Express Tribune, September 18th, 2011.