Could there be a liberal resurgence in Pakistan? Lawmaker Sherry Rehman says she's working on it.
A liberal resurgence in Pakistan may not be as unlikely as it might seem, according to Sherry Rehman, a progressive parliamentarian who is attempting to amend the country's blasphemy laws.
Liberal Pakistani lawmaker Sherry Rehman left a comfortable life researching a book in London to fight for liberty in her homeland. Now she’s under siege, confined to her Karachi home ever since the assassination of liberal icon Salman Taseer three weeks ago.Skip to next paragraph
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Rehman and the former governor of Punjab Province both opposed Pakistan's blasphemy law, which makes derogatory remarks toward Islam a capital offense. Both claimed the law is used to carry out vendettas against minorities such as Christians and Ahmadi Muslims. In the eyes of Pakistan’s religious political parties, known here as the "religious right," the fact that she attempted to even blunt the law is enough to prompt death threats. In Taseer's case, it led to his killing.
“They’ve [got] a bullet with my name on it, I’m told,” she says wearily.
These are gloomy times for Pakistan’s liberals, many who worry that their nation has been lost to demagoguery. The general public appears passive and even sympathetic toward zealots with an increasingly narrow interpretation of Islam. “The silent majority does not want to take out a gun and shoot anyone, but at the same time they're not appalled by it when somebody else does,” said commentator Fasi Zaka shortly after Taseer’s killing.
Yet for all the dire predictions, Rehman, who has a handful of government-assigned police guards to watch her house, remains upbeat about the future of the country. Among Pakistan's liberals, she's seen as something of an icon.
“Sherry Rehman is the bravest of Pakistani women, because she has refused to leave the country despite a threat that is visible and real,” says Raza Rumi, the features editor of the Friday Times, a leading liberal publication. “Her continued positions on issues of human rights and minority rights testify to the fact that she’s a true inheritor of Jinnah’s vision for Pakistan,” he says.
In an interview with the Monitor, she says she sees the current political crisis in Pakistan as the birth pangs of a new “left” – from peasant movements in the countryside to a resurgent urban civil society – with the power to reclaim political space from religious extremists.
“It’s going to be a long haul but I don’t think it’s impossible. It just looks that way sometimes. If we are to live in Pakistan, to invest in Pakistan’s future, then we do have to think about how to find this glass half full,” she says, dressed in an elegant, cream-colored "shalwar kameez" (the national dress).
Rehman, former editor of Pakistan's prestigious Herald magazine, was among a crop of educated women drafted into the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in the late 1990s by her mentor, the slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.