Man on a mission for women’s justice

 March 8, 2009, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong


Nasir Aslam Zahid has led the struggle for equal rights in Pakistan, where women remain in chains. But the former judge vows to fight on.

For a free man, Nasir Aslam Zahid spends a lot of time in jail. “It does sometimes baffle callers,” says the Pakistani in clipped, wry tones, at the Asian Legal Resources Centre in Hong Kong. “Most of my phone calls these days are taken from prison.”

The former chief justice runs LAO, a legal aid organization based out of Central Prison Karachi, which helps women and children incarcerated across his home province, Sindh. These days he is more worried about the renovation of toilets, administering of medicine and arranging of bail than passing judgments, but both roles  have exposed him to the glut of problems facing women in his country: from honour killings and sweatshops, to drug use and the high rate of domestic violence.  Also director of the Hamdard School of Law, Zahid has taught some of Pakistan’s top female ministers. Now in his seventies, his decades in the field – and three daughters – have made Zahid a keen observer of the path of women’s rights in Pakistan for at least half of its 61 year history.

It all began with the political trail-blazer herself. “I became federal law secretary for Benazir [Bhutto] in ’88; I was part of the small group that got the entire election held,” he says with pride, recalling the landmark election of the country’s first female prime minister. Back then Bhutto had placed Zahid at the head of a small working group called the Commission of Enquiry for Women, which included Asma Jahangir, now head of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. But if the country’s women had expected a big change with Bhutto’s appointment, Zahid believes that they were let down.

“Firstly, Benazir didn’t call for it, the whole senate did – and when we finished I think just one or two of our recommendations out of 400 were ever implemented,“ he remembers of the study, which took the group years to complete. “It was never officially published. If I want to see a copy I have to go to a women’s organization.” Bhutto had two opportunities to make a big change for women, Zahid notes (she was prime minster twice) but under her, he says, there was surprisingly little done.

In fact it was when military chief Pervez Musharraf seized power in 1999, and Zahid had moved from chief justice of the Sindh high court to a Supreme Court judge, that he says some progress came about. Musharraf, who stepped down last year, tripled the number of seats reserved for women in the national assembly (to sixty), and reserved 17% of seats in provincial assemblies, though these would be picked by their parties rather than directly elected. Musharraf’s era also saw the Women’s Protection Bill passed, which brought certain crimes involving women, such as rape, under the penal code rather than religious law. In the old system rape victims could be jailed.

“Before that we had many cases where the man accused his wife of an affair,” Zahid also remembers. “In one case I interviewed a woman in the jail and she told me: ‘I was not well, so husband took me to hospital, and he and his brother would come and see me. One day the brother brought his friend, and the friend stayed outside the door of the room. When they went away, my husband asked me, who was he?’ … The woman didn’t know, and the man took a case against her. She remained in jail for three years until she was acquitted.”

As the lone man in a family of women, and married to a doctor, Zahid has long struggled with his country’s views on women, so for him this was a singular triumph.  “Now such cases are almost extinct” he notes, with a deep satisfaction. But he adds that sex outside of marriage remains illegal for women, punishable with up to five years in prison if proven by pregnancy.

When the new government came to power last April, human rights watchdogs noted the boost given to civil and political rights, and many foresaw a similar lift for women. President Asif Ali Zardari is the widow of Benazir Bhutto, assassinated last year, and there are women prominently placed in his party. But a year on, Zahid has yet to see much real change from his place in the field. Though a sexual harassment and domestic violence bill are inching their way slowly through the parliamentary process, with more than 100 girls’ schools in the north demolished last year by religious radicals, and an estimated 80% of Pakistani women having experienced domestic violence, is this enough?

“If you are being mistreated by your in- laws or your husband in Pakistan, even now, you will not take this case to the provincial courts,” says Zahid. “Many judges have not been trained or sensitized to gender issues. They say, how is this woman allowed to come to court? The law has been made by men, courts are men, police are all male and when a court case involves a woman, everything is against that woman.” In Karachi prison Zahid estimates that 17 to 20% of the inmates are there for murdering their husbands. “They think it’s their only way out,” he says.

At the Legal Aid Office and its sister organization, the Women Prisoners Welfare Society, partly run by his wife Dr Farhat Nasir Zahid, women are given pro bono representation by sympathetic advocates. Before LAO, Zahid says, there was little effort made to arrange bail for the women or attend to their needs, and some might not hear news from the outside for months at a time, their cases dragging on for years. Some had their children in jail with them. Under LAO the prison population has gone from about 700 to 300 inmates, most released early or on bail.

But to be a woman alone in Pakistan is also a daunting prospect, Zahid notes, and he worries about the circumstances his clients go back to. Most of them, female and young, worked in the ‘informal sector’ before they were arrested – in factories or offices where they weren’t registered and received no benefits or protection from labour laws. Many are government-owned, he says. “Social empowerment is important, but unless women are economically empowered they will always remain under the control of the man,” he says. “They will always be vulnerable.”

Out in the country’s rural perimeters women walk a particularly perilous line. Here, tribal customs and radical Muslim principles have evolved apart from the liberalization of the cities, with community elders and religious leaders still preaching a fiery, misogynistic brand of Islam and ruling through unregulated tribal courts. It is from the ‘deep south’ in Balochistan and Sindh that details of horrific honour killings have been escaping. A combination of fear and religious rigour in these areas keeps most cases from court.  Zahid remembers a recent seminar on domestic violence, run by an NGO and attended by 17 district judges. “For two to three hours I listened to speeches. When my turn came I said, I would like to know how much experience is in this room?” he says. “The total in the room was about 200 years. I said, how many cases of domestic violence have you had: between you?” He pauses. “Not one! And I asked, how many cases of honour killings? Just one.”

Zahid believes that this mindset has little chance of being changed from the top down anytime soon. As well as its general inaction, Zahid and commentators across the country have noted at least two grave missteps on the part of President Zardari’s government. When five women were buried alive in Balochistan last summer, two of them girls on their way to be married, one federal minister (Senator Mir Israrullah Zehri) defended the acts in parliament as ‘custom’. Another minister was revealed to have helmed a tribal court ruling which saw five young children handed over between families as a compensation payment (they were later returned).  Not long after these incidents, both ministers received promotions and the latter, Mir Hazar Khan Bijarani, is now minister of education. Pakistan’s human rights community was horrified, and so was Zahid – he had taught Bijarani in law school.

“Why did mister Zardari accept them?” he asks. “What does that say? If you’re going to make compromises you’re not going to make any headway. It means that no change is going to come about as far as women are concerned in Pakistan.”

But back in Sindh province, no longer in court, Zahid takes satisfaction from the small victories. The Karachi jail has sixteen modern new bathrooms and an expanded outdoor area – there are even fans and TVs – and it has become a model for women’s prisons in the country. This has been managed, Zahid says with a grin, because most of the officials he has to deal with have appeared before him in the court at some time or another. He might have reduced the scope of his work but the former judge now gets to enjoy concrete, visible change. “There is a such a difference among the women. You can see it in their eyes that there is hope, “ he says. It’s a sentiment he would like to see move beyond the prison walls.