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“Women need to fight with all their might” – Interview with Pakistani human rights activist Jalila Haider

Jalila Haider © Private

A Shia Hazara from Pakistanʹs Baluchistan, human rights activist Jalila Haider has made the persecution of minorities her focus. In interview with Saima Hyder Zaidi, she also takes a stand against patriarchal mind-sets and the objectification of women.

You are an advocate of freedom of expression and a strong critic of the political role played by many leading Pakistani institutions. What does this freedom mean to you in the wider context?

Jalila Haider: In Pakistan, freedom of expression means risking your life to speak the truth. Poke criticism at any state institution and you will instantly be judged to be anti-Pakistan, foreign-funded, or both. For my part, I have nothing against the institutions; it is their political role that I object to. I am determined to keep fighting for the rule of law, checks and balances and the separation of power. If the judiciary becomes involved in military issues, or if Pakistani politicians interfere in judicial matters, I as a Pakistani citizen will resist.

Facing legal discrimination and persecution, minorities donʹt have an easy time in Pakistan. Why does this continue to be a problem in a country that purports to be a democracy? Where does the problem lie?

Haider: The issue of minorities is still a huge problem in Pakistan. The removal of respected economist Atif Mian, a member of the Ahmadiyya religious minority, from the countryʹs prestigious Economic Advisory Council has again racked up tensions between Pakistanʹs different ethnic and religious communities. One day, no doubt, things will change. Yet whether Pakistan will ever be able to fully wipe out the jihadist legacy of military dictator Zia ul Haq remains to be seen.

As a socialist feminist, do you think Muslim women are being treated fairly? Or do you consider the term “female empowerment” mere lip service in a male-dominated society?

Haider: As a socialist feminist I don’t believe that exploitation is an issue limited to Muslim societies. The abject treatment of women is the result of a patriarchal mind-set, regardless of the group in which it occurs. Development projects are labelled as womenʹs projects that have little to do with the real issues that are exercising women. I have seen women’s rights turn into clean water projects overnight, which although in themselves laudable do nothing to further the female agenda.

What prompted you to go on hunger strike? Did the hunger strike have any impact on the wave of alleged extra-judicial killings and abductions in Pakistanʹs Baluchistan Province?

Haider: It was the struggle for basic human rights that pushed me to go on hunger strike – to demand peace and security from our state authorities. Now, five months on, nothing bad has happened to the Shia Hazara tribe. Unfortunately, at the same time, the number of forced disappearances has increased, so in that respect things have actually worsened.

You say that a woman is not a commodity. She must have a say in society and dare to live on her own terms. Do you think that in conservative, patriarchal Muslim societies, such freedom is possible?

Haider: In my opinion, women – whether they are part of conservative Muslim or non-Muslim societies – need to fight together against the set norms of patriarchy that define beauty for women, challenging the prevalence of the male perspective. Women are identified by capitalism solely as a gender, a commodity, something to be objectified. This is the system that preaches that the size of a woman’s breasts, rather than her confidence, knowledge and intelligence, will determine her career. Women need to fight against this with all their might.


Interview conducted by Saima Hyder Zaidi


07.11.2018 | 9:36