Thursday, February 04, 2010

Viewpoint - “And How are Things For You as a Woman?”

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Viewpoint - “And How are Things For You as a Woman?”

Novelist Sehba Sarwar in a round table conversation.

[This discussion is a part of virtual round table discussion between three writers from Pakistan, Nigeria and Philippines that is taking place on the webforum, The Mantle. Click here for more meat; picture by Partylicious]

“A woman’s body is no longer her own after she becomes pregnant,” says the protestor as she pickets outside the Planned Parenthood headquarters in Houston, USA. “It’s our job to give women other options.” She looks straight in my eyes. “I know a girl who went into Planned Parenthood for a pregnancy test, and she was forced to have an abortion.”

The woman pauses. When she speaks again, her voice is lower. “I mean, we’re here to tell women there are other choices. If they choose to go with us, we take them to get tested. We walk them through their pregnancy. Once the child is born, we make sure that a healthy family adopts the child. And the woman can go on with her own life. That’s our duty. And that’s the duty of the mother who bears a fetus.”

“And what if the woman was raped?” I ask.

The protestor widens her eyes: “Like I said, we promise to look after the woman until the child is born. After that, she can carry on with whatever she was doing before. Just because wrong was done to her doesn’t mean that she takes another life.”

The protester is part of a group of Christian extremists who gather each year for 40 days prior to Easter to protest against Planned Parenthood. On this particular Tuesday morning, there are only a dozen or so men and women holding up posters and walking the sidewalk outside Planned Parenthood’s fenced entrance on Fannin Street. Most Saturday mornings—when many of the abortion services are provided—the protestors assemble in large droves, and patients have to be escorted through epithets and rants before they can reach the building safely. Planned Parenthood is one of the few health agencies that provides not only abortion services (which comprise only five percent of their overall health services), but also affordable health care for everyone. All Planned Parenthood clinics, however, are subjected to extremist protestors.

Almost 40 years ago, a landmark ruling was issued by the U.S. Supreme Court; it gave women in this country the right to choose to bear a child. Today, the battle is still not over, as each year more doctors who provide abortion services have either been killed, threatened to be killed, or have simply been pushed out of communities. Over the last decade—nearly all of which was presided over by former President George W. Bush—providing abortion services became an increasing challenge. In Texas, abortion services are only available in seven percent of the state’s 254 counties. Each year, across the U.S., abortion laws are getting increasingly tighter, and slowly, the battle won in 1973 is losing ground, as has been seen in recent months with the so-called Stupak “amendment.”1

This past fall, I was invited to serve on the Board of Planned Parenthood of Houston and Southeast Texas. It was a difficult decision to make, mostly because my life is very full: I have an active writing career; I serve as Founding Director for Voices Breaking Boundaries (VBB), an activist arts organization in Houston for which I create multidisciplinary arts productions, fundraise, and do everything else that goes with running a non-profit; I maintain strong roots in my home country, Pakistan where I was born and raised, and where I spend several months each year; and I have a demanding family life with a five-year old daughter. I am also involved with Houston’s Pacifica Radio Station where I host monthly programs. After deeply weighing the decision, I chose to accept the invitation. My choice rested heavily on my commitment to fight for women’s rights wherever I happen to be, and because I believe that women’s sexual and reproductive issues are at the heart of women’s struggles around the world.

As a teenager growing up in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, I marched on the streets with the then fledgling Women’s Action Forum—or WAF as it is known—which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, WAF was one of the grassroots organizations that spoke up against the dictatorship of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq (supported by the Reagan administration, which was also engaged in a covert war in Afghanistan—the impact of which continues to have global ramifications thirty years later). In 1979, General Zia succeeded in passing the Shari’a law-inspired Hudood Ordinance, under which many women were falsely imprisoned for adultery and faced the punishment of death by stoning.2 In cases of rape, women had to produce four male witnesses who were willing to testify on their behalf.

During that time (and after completing my secondary education), I interned for nine months at a radical, now defunct, English evening newspaper, The Star. Much of my political writing emerged during those months. All publications were subject to government overview prior to going to press, and often censors removed entire sections. There was a sense of danger, and even at a young age, I learned how important it was to strategize when speaking out. I also learned the urgency and importance of using one’s words to express protest and to share information.

I was raised in a home that was the hub of much literary activity. Many prominent Urdu poets of our time—Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Fehmida Riaz, Ahmed Faraz to name just three—visited our home to give readings, or simply dropped by for a visit. Most of those same poets and writers spent time in prison or in exile for speaking out against military dictatorships. My models for living were also forged by my mother, an educator, who founded her own non-profit organization to train teachers; my aunts and cousins who pursued higher education and professional careers; my sister, a recognized journalist; and my father, who spent a year in a Karachi jail during the 1950s for leading a student movement.

After completing my internship in Karachi, I arrived in the United States to obtain a bachelor’s degree from Mount Holyoke College, one of the first women’s higher education institutions in the U.S. It did not take me long to join an international community of women activists. Together, we participated in anti-apartheid protests and were able to push our college to divest funds from South Africa. I remember intense 4:00 a.m. conversations when we debated whether those of us with international visas should step back if police were to arrive, or risk deportation by remaining on the frontline. That fear did not stop us from participating in Take Back the Night rallies in New York City, or picketing in Springfield, Massachusetts against President George H.W. Bush’s bombings of Libya.

Since graduating more than two decades ago, I have been moving back and forth between the U.S. and Pakistan. In recent years, I have noticed that every time I return from Pakistan to the U.S, I am asked the same question: “How is everything over there?” And the follow-up question is usually: “And how are things for you as a woman?”

While I appreciate people’s concern and interest, I find it draining to explain that Pakistan is a large country. My home, Karachi, is on the coast, 800 miles away from the Pakistan-Afghanistan border where most of the violence is erupting. Today, insurgencies are penetrating deeper into the country, and there is a larger sense of fear. In Karachi there was a major suicide attack on December 28, 2009, where more than 35 people were killed, and hundreds of shops burned. At the same time, it is critical to recall that Karachi has endured enormous turmoil: During the 1990s, the city was torn apart by a civil war between the Muhajirs, who relocated to Pakistan after the 1947 splintering of the subcontinent, and the indigenous Sindhis, but that information went unreported by international media.

And when it comes to freedom for women, again, it is exhausting to explain that just as in the U.S. where gender equity remains a struggle, in Pakistan there is a continuous struggle. But there are also many progressive women—Anita Ghulam Ali, Rehana Hakim, Salima Hashmi, Asma Jahangir, Sheema Kirmani, Mukhtar Mai, to name just a few—who have paved the path for future generations in the judiciary, education, government, arts, media, social services, and activist communities. This said, it is important to recognize that educated women move through society without experiencing the same limitations that affect those from lower-socio economic brackets. In Pakistan, just as in other countries, the struggles for class, gender, and ethnic equity are multi-layered and there are no simple solutions. For example, abortion is illegal in Pakistan, and it is reported to be widely practiced in back alleys. But the issue is not on the front burner, since other struggles take priority. (Across the border in India, abortion is legal, and ultrasounds are banned because families were choosing to abort female fetuses—but families with wealth continue to have access to illegal gender screenings.)

Today, however, because Pakistan is at the frontline of conflict, there is much interest focused on events unfolding in the country. The country is projected onto the world through a Western lens, one that expresses fear that the country will be overtaken by “terrorists” and that all women are oppressed. What is not reported in the media is that Pakistan is largely a secular country, with only a small percentage of followers of extremist Wahhabi Islamic practices. The general public, especially as suicide bombings and violence increase, largely supports the elected government’s actions against the Taliban, and believes in education for men and for women.

Early in our lives, my parents made sure that my siblings and I understood that conflict is a part of life, emphasizing that no matter where one lives, there are issues to expose, address, and a need to organize. I choose to engage with the world around me, and I choose to recognize that there is conflict no matter where I am based. And ultimately, I choose to tackle women’s issues, no matter where I am—Karachi and Houston where I have already lived and worked, or Palestine, or the Juarez-El Paso border where I hope to take VBB productions—through my art and my writing.

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