Interview on consent on the internet


In Pakistani justice by local councils, women punished for wrongdoing by male family members

Quote in Japan Times:

“It’s an honor-based system, and there’s nothing more dishonorable than the rape of a woman within your family,” explained women’s rights activist Aisha Sarwari.

The men of the aggressor’s family must be shamed through the loss of their women’s dignity, Sarwari explained. “That’s the balance of power in these communities, which makes sure that women are some kind of collateral.”

A feminist moves to Peshawar and nothing happens

I got a job in Peshawar and moved here from Islamabad. As a workingwoman, I’ve scaled it all across Pakistan – Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad. When headhunters used to suggest a job in Peshawar though, I’d say, no way in hell. Peshawar was an hour away from the house US Special forces found Osama Bin Laden. It was the city with the finest hash and the most unlicensed weapons. It was the city with roadside bombs, almost at the front line on the war on terror.

I’d rather read about it in the paper over breakfast tea far away than have to live it.

I liked living in Islamabad where there were avenues to repair me out of the tiresome misogyny I’d face in Pakistan. Islamabad is where my favorite coffee shop sucked out of me the bitterness of living here. Close enough to Lahore, where I could hear my favorite authors at literature festivals. I was in my comfortable bubble.

Until, I said yes to Peshawar.

I dusted off my old long shirts and lose trousers to go with the segregated anti women environment I’d be in. Having started off family feuds for asking me to cover my head, I resigned that in Peshawar, I would cover my head as custom demands it. I would put my feminism aside, like a forgotten coat.

I also decided that I would talk less, smile more and defer to the judgment to the men I reported to. In short, I would do everything I campaigned for 10 years as a feminist in Pakistan to not do. I swallowed my pride, signed the contract and arrived in Peshawar.

The first thing I learned was that the headscarf was optional in the work context. In my first visit to the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa secretariat, I saw women officials, some of them, walking around with an air of authority I’d not seen before even in Islamabad, with their scarfs dangling on their shoulders like an afterthought. I did the same to mine. Other women had it on their head, and more power to them, I understand that this is no symbol of oppression, provided it is a choice by women.

My first meeting with key government officials, the conversation was polite and respectful. There was an air of approachability that I was given command to regulate – turn up or down.

A few weeks later, in a stock take meeting, where I was the only woman among a few dozen men, I walked into the boardroom and took the last seat in the room, as far back as I could. I heard the men at the conference table whisper. Then the lead official gestured me to sit at the head table. I pointed to myself and gestured back. Me? He nodded and pointed to the chair next to him.

I walked up and sat at the table.

What I find fascinating was that I have picked some serious fights for my right to self-express elsewhere but I was so willing to assume I had none at all in Peshawar. Why?

I assumed the context was utterly hostile and unforgiving for the kind of woman I was.

Don’t get me wrong, it is not like I am having a women’s rights con here in Peshawar, sometimes I do feel like furniture here.

Perhaps it is the status that protects me from the extreme misogyny other women face. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa police force advertised with pride last week that they blurred out women’s cleavages on trial art and billboards. So it is true that men determine what the honour code dictates and the government partakes in that judgement which is both dangerous and backward.

Peshawar is different from the bigger cities of Pakistan. Different in a good way. I am at the heart of Pushtoon culture, known for its honor code, patriarchy and rigidity and I am not exactly feeling oppressed.

In fact, the professional environment is comfortable and accommodating of my pro women values.

My barriers to my move to Peshawar were my stereotypes, my preconceived ideas and my privilege. When my privilege was checked, I started to see Peshawar for what it is – just another part of my multilayered homeland.

I have worked in other provincial governments and the harassment was endemic. It took me a while to feel whole as a person again after working there.

Pashtoon slurs, pathan jokes, a general disregard of the people of this province is endemic in Pakistan.

Sadly, without realizing it, I had type casted the people of this province without knowing them. As an avid reader of motive, this is clearly not what they are doing to me. That makes me feel terrible on both counts.

I got not just a seat at the table, I have been involved in almost everything my role demands I stretch into professionally and socially. I earned that seat at the table in Peshawar. My feminism made me earn it, yes, here too.

Peshawar is challenging me in ways that I never expected. I’d encourage others outside looking in, to check their stereotypes about Pakistan too.


This is what sisterhood looks like

In a BBC interview Pakistan’s favorite actress, Mahira Khan made a profound statement when she was asked what type of conduct on her part led her to not be harassed in the film industry in Pakistan and elsewhere. She said that her conduct had nothing to do with it. Luck did.

Be it an actress, a professional woman or a woman from the top achievers like Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, the fact that you escape harassment just means you didn’t step on a land mine that very day. Your path is weaved by them. By angry men waiting to avenge a grievance of their power being diminished.

My last piece in Tribune about Sarmeen’s sister’s harassment awarded me the highest number of hate mail of my writing career, it was in the hundreds – filled with the one single accusation that settles the oldest feud – that I am a fallen woman, a prostitute.

In a village near Dera Ismail Khan, a girl had her clothes cut up deliberately by a gang of men as she went to fetch water with her cousins. She was stripped naked and paraded naked in a village where men took pictures of her vulnerable state. She was punished for an alleged misconduct of her brother.

Her brother had apparently had an affair with a young girl and once the local Jirga had wind of it they prescribed a fine. Even after the fine was paid, turned out that it wasn’t enough.

In our country, enough is when you have shamed a woman. Enough is when you have stripped her of all dignity. Enough is when there is ample evidence of that stripping. Enough is when you are absolutely sure that there will be no new day without the victim waking up in remembrance of her indignity and most importantly her lack of honor.

There is nothing we can fix in this country, albeit it’s economy or its currency devaluation without first throwing out this ghastly honor code. It ultimately leaves the men of this region with so much hate that there is no way they can be productive, contributing members of society.

As a reaction to the high profile case, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa police arrested the culprits, but this is so prevalent and insidious that arresting these men will not cut it. It needs to be addressed at the leadership level. It wasn’t.

We need to be asked why women are fair game. Why they need luck to escape patriarchy. Why they need a man to step up and then protect them from the patriarchy itself. It’s a circular system, created to harm women, simply to harm other men, as a means of male warfare.

The biggest threat to this faulty system is the sisterhood. As is the case of the Harvey Weinstein debacle in Hollywood where multiple women have come forward to confess that he had assaulted or harassed them, the #MeToo campaign takes the power from toxic masculinity and gives it to women – restoring some balance.

If you look at the #MeToo campaign, it is built on the principle that women cannot let other women being shamed alone. They need to step in and validate not just their truth, but their feelings also.

This is why I spoke up against the online and media trolling that Sharmeen faced. Not necessarily because we agree on everything, but because no woman should be put down for using whatever leverage she has to protect another woman. This eventually is what that one antidote to misogyny that no one can undo.

So Mahira Khan is spot on when she says luck saved her. Let that sink in. It means two obvious things. One that even her lifestyle and status and fame can’t save her from it. Two, that it doesn’t mean if it hasn’t happened yet it wouldn’t happen at all. Mahira could have taken that question from BBC to prop herself up and say, indeed it was her conduct that protected her. She didn’t. She said instead that women’s ability to speak up somewhat protects them.

That ladies and gentlemen is feminism. Be very afraid of it. It’s going to change things around here. Starting with denial.






Sharmeen Obaid’s sister deserves support not take downs

I have two reasons to believe Aga Khan Hospital is our nation’s foremost hospital in terms of quality of service and standards. First reason being that my husband got his brain tumor removed last week from there and is on his way to recovery. The second is that a doctor in the emergency room was fired by AKU because his conduct was unbecoming of a doctor that treats vulnerable women coming to him in dire times of need.

Many have claimed that the decision to fire the doctor was one that reeks of classism and elitism because the woman he harassed was the sister of our country’s two time Oscar winner Sarmeen Obaid Chinoy.

The only thing this reeks off is misogyny and sexism. When Sharmeen’s sister walked into the emergency of the hospital, she expected protection, from both her ailment and from the sense of insecurity of being both a patient and a woman. This doctor treating Sharmeen’s sister used her medical record to look her up and send her a Facebook friend request.

This is falls squarely in the category of sexual harassment because if anyone should have sent a request, it ought to be the one in the weaker power equation, in this case, the patient. It is also harassment because it was clearly unwanted. It is also harassment because it is creepy. In the digital ethics world it is like showing at someone’s house without a prior invitation and knocking at the door. Which is legally ok, but only if someone has allowed you onto their front porch in the first place.

I, for instance, don’t want anyone who’s not in my first degree of friends to show up. I would first not open the door and secondly even call the cops. It would be a signal to me the power equation and the lack of my personal agency.

Sharmeen was well within her rights to report this and call it out – to the hospital administration and to the Twittersphere. She did this for her sister, for the sisterhood. So the doctor cannot make other women uncomfortable.

This is the reason why much of our women are not allowed by the honor code and their male guardians to get treatment because most doctors are male. This doctor has made a disservice to his profession. In places like FATA, women die at home during childbirth precisely because sexual attention tends to become the fault of the victim when the story is rewritten.

What saddens me profoundly is the urbanized misogyny of our educated males who have commented on this issue as if their fraternity is and has always reminded untarnished, except for this one unwarranted accusation by Sharmeen. Ali Moen Nawazish, our star student, has called Sharmeen out for destroying the life of a doctor who fends for his family. Humanizing the doctor and in the process deliberately dehumanizing the anguish Sharmeen’s sister has felt. Other men, also stars at one thing or the other, leap to this doctor’s defense, and for good reason too, they’ve all done it. Pushed their luck to see if a girl will bite, and if she won’t at least they’d get a kick.

This entire problem, which has shown up even in our country’s most elite corridors of propriety has happened because we do not discuss the idea of consent. Imagine the ghastliness of its absence in our villages and in our rural edges of civilization?

Girl walks into a shop to buy soap and her consent is violated. Women go to education institutions after battling their families for individual rights and they get hit on by their male instructors. Young girls go to vocational school and get groped on the bus there by conductors. Everywhere power is being used for women to be violated and reminded of their puny status. What is unforgiveable is when someone does it after they know it’s wrong. When they have the cultural understanding on the impropriety.

Every time the rape culture blames women for asking for it, how very unfortunate that when a man crosses the line, he’s not asking for it, he is the victim.

If that story works for you, fine. It’s not the truth by any measure. That is why AKU is a premier institution. They understand that an ethical boundary was crossed. They maintain those boundaries and save lives. So we have hope for this country.





Women in Politics – A long road home

When a woman in Pakistan gets into politics it is like she’s consciously decided to walk onto a bloody battlefield. There are only two outcomes. She will either be marred to oblivion or have to live with the ensuing media riot aimed to defame her for violation of some code or the other. Pakistani women parliamentarians have had their cleavages spattered across media screens; they have been body-shamed, name-called and character-assassinated routinely. They have also been ousted from their seats by jirgas because they were estranged with their husbands whose social clout got them elected in the first place.

Despite this, women in Parliament have made strides and passed pro-women legislation. In a less hostile environment, the women in this country would have many more safeguards and that too far earlier. The last decade has seen not just legislation but on-ground impact. More violence against women cases are being reported, more women are seeking out justice, there are more women’s centers to go to, the labor policies for women are better and there is certainly more recourse to law for professional discrimination thanks to the work of women legislators. We’re not going to get the celebratory drums out yet, however these strides were no small feat considering.


Those women lawmakers that step up and take on a media war for sexual harassment, for instance, face within their parties and externally a vitriolic witch-hunt. There is a backlash against women parliamentarians that call out harassment, across party and gender lines even when any allegations have yet to be proven either way. The only acceptable position women must take when entering politics is silence, it seems. Only then, perhaps is it most honorable and worthy of respect.


There are far too few women with a voice in the political amphitheater of the country. Only a meager 17 per cent of national and provincial assembly members are women.


Last elections, a party went as far as excluding women to cast their vote in Lower Dir. Equality of women in politics is not on any party’s agenda, let along the religious right’s. However no party has an issue electing women on reserved seats, which are now at 60. Also, there is no issue with this because these women are often mere proxy to male politicians and securely belong to the elite.


For those working class women who break through the glass ceiling as well as the epic harassment and ridicule in order to actually legislate face severe sexism. It impacts these women the worst, because no man has any interest to hurt those who hurt them. Middle class women are on their own.


The way women in politics are treated is a deterrent enough for new women lawmakers to enter the field. Women are routinely undermined by men as if women are wearing an invisibility cloak. If women speak up against it, men in politics use their privilege to frighten them into silent corners.

Sadly, women also face harassment by other women parliamentarians who themselves have been routinely slut-shamed. The irony. Women across party have been known to accuse women who come out with an accusation of blind ambition. Women who stick their necks out have also been accused of doling out sexual favors to powerful men, even on live television – that too by women parliamentarians. Internalized misogyny, not just plain old patriarchy, is the bane of women’s limited involvement in politics.


It doesn’t end there. Another form of sexism women in politics face is that they get stonewalled when pushing ahead for changes they want to see in laws. Fellow male lawmakers do this. Men in politics block their legislative lobbying and they take away their decision-making mechanisms. This is why laws on maternity benefit; anti-acid-throwing; anti-violence and anti-harassment laws have stalled as much as they have – each step as difficult as trying to feed pine nuts to a hamster on a wheel. The system, a men’s club in reality, pushes women far away from where the sphere of influence. In some zanana corner. What happens to women in parliament is what happens to them in their homes – they are handed thankless caregiving tasks.


The role political parties should play in eliminating this horrific culture depends largely on how severe the consequences are of violating a woman’s dignity. Male parliamentarians have repeated used grossly derogatory language against women parliamentarians and get emboldened enough after every abuse to be more insulting to women the next time around. Within the party, leadership reacts by giving such men more political accolades.


In the first general elections of 1970 in what is now present-day Pakistan, 77.8 voters were women compared with 100 men. In 2013 their ratio of participation in elections held almost half a century later slipped to 77.4. Whereas this is a shock in terms of numbers, it is only reflective of deep-rooted male privilege that proliferates in Pakistan – city to tehsil – it never diminishes. To men in power, nothing is more comfortable than status quo. Equality of women in politics is a slogan, not a belief. Women are at best an extension of male politicians, and when they show will, the moral police across political parties whip them back into line and into their version of submissiveness.


The debate on women’s participation in politics in Pakistan has largely remained confined to reserving women’s seats, but the real issue remains that there needs to be a level playing field where intersectional women can step out and compete on their own terms and on their own credentials on general seats – Ideally, credentials that are not necessarily linked to a male guardian, nor propped up with campaign wealth. That is when real change will happen.


This cannot take place until the women who have gone off the beaten track and landed on the parliamentary seats, by whichever route, are first treated with the respect and authority they deserve. That these women’s decisions carry weight, that their voice travels and that when they are wronged that there is swift action against proven perpetrators. This will pave the way for others. This is what will ultimately bring solidarity among women themselves.


Taliban launches a woman’s magazine and it is time to panic

I’ve been writing about the inclusion of women for over a decade with some of my fellow activists and now it seems like we have to pause, because we’ve perhaps preached to an unwanted foe – the Taliban.

In producing a glossy glamouresque magazine called Sunnat E Khaula for women, the Pakistan Taliban have awoken to gender equality and want women to be part of their campaign to kill innocent men, women and children of this country. Just like they did in 2014 at APS school where 144 children were murdered so brutally there was a gorge of blood. The magazine calls women to “get together” in their homes and congregate to join jihadist forces. It implores them to be brave and learn to “use grenades.”

The magazine, perhaps designed by someone who reads the Cosmopolitan, invites reader interest with a special interview with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leader’s wife who makes a passionate pitch for child marriages. There is an article by a young jihadist boy who helps his mother run a mujahideen camp and an intriguing enough cover of a woman cloaked in a burkah. Everything about the magazine is so normal, so everyday and yet so eerie.

In this country, if you want to port your phone sim, fix an incorrect gas meter reading, escape a false blasphemy accusation as an impoverished person, publish religious literature as a minority citizen or inhabit public space as a woman, the forces of the system are stacked against you. Yet strangely, it is ever so easy for a group that our government has vowed to extinguish to distribute its women’s magazine through print and social media. Openly. Daringly. It is just as easy for this group to glorify war and desensitize people from life’s dignity and artistry. The impunity and sanction with which Taliban operates tell a different story from the narrative that comes out of toothless National Action Plans and such. Banned groups form political parties. The airwaves are full of challenges to the writ of the state.

In the incident that happened in San Bernardino, California the co-conspirator was a woman and squarely a product of this new wave of terrorist group’s interest in women joining radical forces. They have an interest in not just women who are destitute and without social structure, but in fact women who are deeply within the framework – working class women including doctors and engineers.

They target women who embrace patriarchy because they realize that they cannot out-fight patriarchy. They target women who give in to the doctrine of radicalism because women have been fed the dogma diet right from the hands of the Ulema, who they’ve revered and now, armed with an alive and kicking Stockholm Syndrome, women get to be important, they get to be part of something seemingly divine.

The objective of the magazine is not to merely preach a rigid sense of morality, but to grab attention and to send a message – we’re here, unmarred and unmoved. It’s a taunt to the state, but the state remains immune to such taunts. So then, may security rest in peace. We continue to dishonour those 144 children, those 50,000 and so victims of terrorism since 2012 and the rest of the lost.

There is no control over the context of learning that is established at the 2,000 and more all female madrassas across the country. Women are going to be a very formidable force in the violence industry if we let this go unchecked.

Women are constantly pushed into dark corners, physically and metaphorically precisely because we remain the second worst place the in world to be a woman in Pakistan according to the gender gap index 2016. An open society with just laws would not permit TTP the audacity to call on women so blatantly. The TTP is picking up on the despondency of being a woman in this country. They are also feeding off of women’s loss of self, on lack of consent and of agency. A society that empowers woman does not allow 1,000 honor killings a year according to the Human Rights Watch, does not shame women who come out with harassment accusations, does deprive women of command over their own uterus and certainly does not create hostile cultures around professional and political women.

The war against this Taliban woman magazine is not just to merely shut it down, but to also turn up the volume of women’s voices and their demands for equality, regardless of how they define equality. This is a long game, one that I only wonder if the state is willing to trek far enough for.






Aisha Sarwari on BBC World on Maternity Leave in Pakistan


Aisha Sarwari, Co-founder of Women’s Advancement Hub (WAH) talks to BBC World about women in Pakistan balancing family and work.

The challenge remains for working women that as they feel financially strained, they have few safeguards from employers. Whereas the law mandates 3 months of paid maternity leave, the private sector is at discretion to do as it pleases and often women are fired after they fall pregnant.

Despite a safety net of social links that help raise children, women find they have a crisis balancing work and family. The men however do not participate or help in the caregiving industry.


Aisha Sarwari quoted in Daily Mail on Jirgas

“It’s an honour-based system and there’s nothing more dishonourable than the rape of a woman within your family,” explained women’s rights activist Aisha Sarwari.

The men of the aggressor’s family must be shamed through the loss of their women’s dignity, Sarwari explained.

“That’s the balance of power in these communities, which makes sure that women are some kind of collateral.”

Read more: