Fouzia Saeed, director of Mehergarh, a human rights and democracy institute based in Islamabad, Pakistan, spoke to students about her role in securing pro-women legislation in Pakistan and the challenges facing Pakistani women Tuesday afternoon.
The talk was part of the Walsh School of Foreign Service’s Global Human Development program.
Saeed began by speaking about the considerable diversity of women in Pakistan, noting that although many live and work in rural areas, some have succeeded in politics, business, sports and entertainment.
“We have huge rock stars with huge followings … and we have women who experience acid attacks because they weren’t complying with the patriarchal rules,” Saeed said. “I want to establish that when I talk about Pakistani women, I don’t want you all in the room to think about one blob.”
For Saeed, however, the expanded role of women in Pakistani politics in recent years is an important indicator of growth.
“Every step that we take is a big step for us,” Saeed said.
But though there have been improvements in the lifestyles of many Pakistani women, Saeed said that widespread discrimination toward women continues, largely because of patriarchal culture.
“The issues range from crimes against women like rape, honor killing [and the] exchange of women for conflict [resolution] to discrimination in health, facilities [and] education,” Saeed said. “But most of them are rooted in patriarchal culture.”
As an example, Saeed said that she faced sexual harassment while working for the United Nations. After many years, she filed a complaint against her perpetrator and discovered that 11 of the 16 women in her office also felt harassed in workplace. The women filed a joint complaint, which Saeed said was the first class-action suit against the UN.
“When I took that decision I realized that almost all the women were experiencing exactly the same thing,” Saeed said. “So what I thought was my problem was actually not just my problem, but actually it was that man’s problem.”
After that experience, Saeed turned her efforts toward criminalizing sexual harassment not only for women in the workplace but also for non-working women.
“I realized that we have always been paying attention to these flamboyant issues of acid attack, of wife-beating, and then many people saying that this only happens to two percent of the women,” Saeed said. “[Sexual harassment] is something that everyone in the country has experienced. … It is something that is so invisible and it stops us at every stage.”
One of Saeed’s main goals is to remove the stigma around sexual harassment. She said that many people in Pakistan believe that sexual harassment is usually the woman’s fault.
“We cannot touch the issue unless we deal with the myths,” Saeed said.
Saeed helped form An Alliance Against Sexual Harassment to reduce sexual harassment in Pakistan, where she believes every women suffers from some kind of daily discrimination.
AASHA decided to push for legislation protecting women in the workplace and in public spaces. According to Saeed, it was easy to mobilize people toward the issue, especially women.
To promote the legislation, AASHA organized public debates, held events and enlisted the help of popular Pakistani celebrities. Initially, very few people in AASHA held close ties with the government, so Saeed and her colleagues had to network from scratch.
“We did not come from a class who had aunts or uncles in the parliament. We didn’t know anybody in the beginning, and we didn’t have nice schools like you have here to teach us lobbying and how to do politics,” Saeed said. “All we had was our logical arguments and sheer passion. Once we had our foot inside, there was no stopping.”
Saeed said that AASHA participated in eight years of movements and two years of lobbying before its two bills against harassment in public and private sectors passed in Parliament. Some religious figures in the country lobbied against AASHA, but after tireless efforts, the president of Pakistan signed the bill into law in the presence of 100 women.
“Every step was a very long, drawn process,” Saeed said.
Saeed said that the legislation was the first of many steps toward breaking down the patriarchal structure in Pakistan. She added that nearly all countries adhere to some form of patriarchy. For example, she cited women changing their last names upon marriage as a widespread example.
“There are hardly any countries that have broken the shackles of patriarchy,” Saeed said.
Saeed’s advised that civil- and human-rights activists should work with their governments to bring about change rather than merely criticize the governments for lack of change. Through cooperative effort, she said that groups could achieve their goals.
“Human rights should not become a beating stick in countries because, trust me, that doesn’t help us,” Saeed said.
Saeed inspired and impressed members of her audience.
“To me, what was most impressive is the determination and the willingness to work with this step by step, to stay with it until they got it all the way through legislation,” global human development professor David Sprague said. “That was very impressive because so often these are one-shot campaigns that people take and then they’re over. What they have done is going to last.”