Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August/September 1996, Page 80

Meet the Pakistanis

Shahnaz Bukhari—A Single-Minded Activist for Women’s Rights

by Richard H. Curtiss

“What’s the name of that woman who’s always creating problems for us in the press?” the Pakistani government official asked a man and a woman on his staff.

“Shahnaz Bukhari,” they both answered simultaneously. And so, in response to the writer’s request for names of independent activists or officials of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who could best describe Pakistan’s problems and progress in the closely related fields of human rights, women’s rights, women’s education and family planning, the first of several such appointments was arranged.

Mrs. Bukhari is a clinical psychologist with a long résumé listing professional and electoral posts held, schools in which she has taught, and publications she has edited or to which she has contributed articles.

The divorced mother of two daughters aged 17 and 16 and two sons aged 14 and 13, she returned a few years ago from nine years in Saudi Arabia, where her former husband was employed and where she taught and was a practicing child psychologist.

Much of her voluntary work in Islamabad now focuses on journalism. Her schedule includes publishing and editing a 44-page magazine, Women’s World, and serving as chief coordinator of the Progressive Women’s Association, an NGO with a newsletter of its own. She also has served as executive director of the Women’s Employment Bank, which she describes as a platform for women’s economic stability.

She has held Pakistani government appointments including membership in Pakistan’s senate and the senate’s standing committee on women’s development. She also was her government’s nominee as rapporteur to the United Nations in Geneva. In general, however, she sees her role and that of the non-governmental organizations and publications she directs as combination conscience and gadfly, prodding government officials and agencies to help the powerless and voiceless in Pakistani society, chiefly its women and children.

She does much of this work from an improvised office in the dining room of her comfortable Islamabad home. Her chief assistant is her eldest daughter, and her other children all clearly have their roles. During the writer’s brief visit, her daughter fielded a number of telephone calls, produced from cupboards and stacks of papers whatever publications or letters her mother requested, and all the while Mrs. Bukhari directed the packing and preparations of one of her sons for a flight the next day to the United States, where her former husband now lives.

Shahnaz Bukhari’s life, however, is considerably more than a Pakistani version of the “Super-Mom” role foisted upon American career women. As the instant recall of her name by two government officials when asked about the author of “problems for us in the press” indicates, she has a knack for focusing public attention on issues that Pakistan’s elite would just as soon have someone else deal with, quietly, if possible.

Among them are religious-based laws discriminating against women, domestic violence against women, child abuse and neglect, the country’s special education needs, and vocational training and placement for women without education or family support. The means she has employed include articles, publications, radio programs, and even chairing a committee to produce a 13-episode television serial on women’s issues. In doing all these things, she has piqued the consciences not only of Pakistan officials, but also of foreign residents, some of whom have access to private facilities and grants that can be put at the disposal of Pakistan’s NGOs.

On the cover of the first, November-December 1990 issue of her bilingual English-UrduWomen’s World magazine, Mrs. Bukhari had a photo of Phyllis Oakley, wife of then-U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Robert Oakley and, as a former State Department spokesperson, a Super-Mom in her own right.

When the writer of this article asked the wife of a current U.S. official in Pakistan whether she thought Ms. Bukhari was spreading herself too thinly—trying to deal with too many problems and causes with insufficient time and money—the long-time American resident said that, on the contrary, the Pakistani activist sets an inspiring personal example for her countrywomen to follow.

One of Mrs. Bukhari’s campaigns was to pressure the Pakistani government to restore seats in parliament especially reserved for women, in addition to the regular parliamentary seats to which either men or women can be elected. The reserved seats, along with those for religious and national minorities, had existed in the past, but had disappeared when a military government shut down parliament.

While some argued that such reserved seats give any incumbent Pakistani government an opportunity to stack them with political supporters, Ms. Bukhari feels that such powerful positions for women are needed until the entire playing field is leveled. Her solution to keeping them out of the hands of political manipulators was for women to vote to fill them in special elections or to have technocrats rather than political activists appointed to fill them.

On March 8, 1994, to mark International Women’s Day, Shahnaz Bukhari announced that a number of NGOs would coordinate their efforts to focus on domestic violence against women. Since then, the cause with which she personally has become most identified in the public mind is one aspect of domestic violence which is largely unique to the Indian subcontinent, and one that few people like to discuss with foreigners—wife burning. If the term brings to mind the ancient Indian custom of suttee, the practice of Hindu widows throwing themselves on the funeral pyres of their deceased husbands, it is misleading.

It is, instead, intimately associated with the dowry which, in Aryan societies, may vary from the “prika” in modern Greece, where parents of the bride often are expected to provide the newly-married couple with a residence or its monetary equivalent, to the bride’s “trousseau” or “hope chest” in America, containing at least her clothing and the necessities for a young couple to set up house.

Among both Muslims and Hindus in South Asia, marriage traditionally involved a payment by the bride’s family to the groom’s family, the exact opposite of the custom in most Semitic societies, including Muslim Arab society, where the groom was expected to provide a “bride price,” to be administered by the bride’s family to help meet her needs, and to provide for her support in case of divorce.

Today in Pakistan some marriages, particularly among the educated classes, involve only a token dowry from the bride’s family or none at all, but this is not true among the lower classes throughout the subcontinent. Instead, cases arise where a promised large dowry allegedly is not paid in full, and violence ensues. Because of the flammable gauzy clothing and long scarfs worn by women, and the fact that in poorer homes many women cook over open kerosene or wood-burning stoves, fires are among the most common accidents sustained by housewives. Sometimes there are allegations that such a tragedy was not accidental, but that in fact a “burning” resulted from a domestic or dowry dispute.

It is such cases that Shahnaz Bukhari has made a concern of her Progressive Women’s Association since 1994. When there are such allegations, or ambulance or hospital personnel report suspicious circumstances or incriminating allegations by the victim, they may call both the police and Mrs. Bukhari. If they do, no matter the time of night or day, she may arrive first.

With the help of her daughter she has documented 389 cases of burned women, of whom only 10 have survived. Her personal help to the survivors extends from documenting any charges of foul play to seeking medical rehabilitation assistance for them abroad if the needed facilities are not available in Pakistan. Her publications report such personal stories, and she has been instrumental in obtaining both governmental and private assistance where it is needed.

“There are five patients at the moment I would love to send abroad for plastic surgery,” she explains, offering photos of badly disfigured women. “People who wish to can send help to my NGO.”

At the same time that she and her daughter, both of whom serve without pay, attend to such details, she is concentrating on societal and legal changes to deal with the broader problem of domestic violence. Among her grassroots efforts to raise public consciousness over the extent and prevention of domestic violence, she has conducted awareness workshops with the judiciary, officials and police at the national and provincial levels. She also is campaigning for official and legal measures to deal with the fact that, in her words, “Under the military regime, women slipped years backward.”

Among measures she supports are establishment of burn centers not only to save lives, but also to provide some of the specialized treatment now available only abroad. She also seeks the creation of crisis intervention centers. She cites the existence in Rawalpindi, the nearest major city to Pakistan’s national capital, of a model domestic violence complaint center which deals with 30 to 60 complaints daily.

In addition she has campaigned against excessive violence on television, a problem with which Americans can readily identify. In fact, some of the problem originates in American-made programs shown on Pakistani television.

Mrs. Bukhari’s efforts are widely recognized, and on Pakistan’s independence day on Aug. 14, 1995 the Pakistani government granted her an award in recognition of her struggle for women’s rights. She also has received an award from the French government and she received a U.S. government grant to participate in workshops in her field in the United States.

All this, she says, helps her efforts to raise the national consciousness. “Now in Rawalpindi/Islamabad I am a name,” she explains. “In any police station I can inquire about any woman,” and she can gain immediate access to any victim of suspected domestic violence.

Her magazine, which is listed as a monthly but which appears “as the budget permits,” not only draws attention to Pakistan’s problems in the field of human and women’s rights, but also dispenses good advice. As a psychologist, Mrs. Bukhari realizes that although government can level the playing field with legal changes, most of the struggle for women’s equality must be carried out by women themselves. The popularly written articles not only inform women of their rights, but also dispense common-sense advice aimed at reinforcing women’s own sense of self-worth.

This energetic and resourceful activist’s own example of self-sacrifice to appeal to the conscience of her compatriots clearly is making a difference. Her desire for the future is to put her NGO* and her publications on a sounder financial footing, and widen their effects. Clearly her triumphs of common sense against all odds in Pakistan’s conservative and patriarchal society already have given feminism—and Shahnaz Bukhari—a good name. 


*The Progressive Women’s Association can be contacted at Mrs. Bokhari’s address, 16-B, 45-St., F-8/1, Islamabad. Subscriptions to Women’s World are $30 in the U.S. and Canada, and may be obtained from the same address.

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