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.
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.
A member of Pakistan's Parliament since 2002, Rehman has drafted a raft of bills to amend the country’s rape laws and outlaw sexual harassment in the work place. She was appointed information minister shortly after the PPP came to power in 2008, but resigned from her cabinet position a year later in protest at the government’s curbs on journalists, and returned to the backbenches of Parliament.
A strong believer in Pakistan’s system of parliamentary democracy, Rehman retains confidence in the government’s ability to enact reform, but stresses the need to keep the debate civil and to deal with issues expeditiously.
“The religious parties love taking it outside on the streets,” where tensions boil over and rhetoric runs high, she says. “They get disproportionate power there, and in Parliament they are outnumbered. So it’s in their interests to keep it outside the political mainstream.”
Indeed, several parties leading the charge to keep the blasphemy law intact have little or no presence in Parliament, and religious parties have generally fared poorly in the polls throughout Pakistan’s history. This, says Rehman and others, is proof that most Pakistanis don’t trust religious conservatives to rule.
By contrast, Rehman believes the PPP was given a mandate to enact change when it won the largest number of seats in the 2008 election.
Rehman tabled an amendment to the blasphemy bill last fall when the case of Aasia Bibi – a Christian woman facing the death penalty on charges of insulting the prophet Muhammad – came to prominence. Some progressive allies criticized Rehman’s timing, given the strong emotions surrounding the case.
But, she says, she was just doing her job as an elected official. Not only had Parliament tasked a committee to look into the issue, but the Council of Islamic Ideology – Pakistan’s highest advisory body on Islamic laws – had also called for reform. Still, in this case she says the parliament hesitated too long, and in that hesitation the religious parties outside Parliament, the same ones that didn't have enough popular votes to govern, took up the cause and blew it into a fierce rally point on the streets – contributing to the bill's limbo.
“Let me tell you it’s not the religious Ulema [scholars], it’s the religious right, which is politicized," she says. "This is all about power. All other Ulemas who are not associated with any political party or are not Imams associated with particular sect … are insisting that you have to amend these laws.”
Had the blasphemy laws amendment bill been brought straight to the Assembly agenda, she says, it might have been revised by the people elected to govern Pakistan and be a fait accompli.
Another key to winning past controversial bills, she says, was reaching out to the Islamists by framing issues in Islamic terms. In the bill she worked on to amend laws on sexual abuse, for example, rather than keep the argument secular she made sure the bill included language that appealed to the nonsecular population and argued that the prophet Muhamad would not tolerate injustice. That was a big reason it passed, she says.
In a sign of progress, she points out, an influential Karachi-based Imam who had brought a fatwa against Rehman, declaring her a non-Muslim, was forced to back down after three alert citizens responding to a Facebook petition registered criminal charges against him.
If this cohort of increasingly vocal citizens can join hands with Pakistan’s progressive political parties, she says, then moderate Pakistanis can rescue the nation from fundamentalists.
While regaining ground from religious fundamentalists will be a long process, Rehman says, “we’re already seeing the beginning.”