Tina Brown introduced Sherry Rehman as one of the most powerful and brave advocates of a more moderate and liberal Pakistan and it was without a smidgen of irony that the woman herself declared she hopes to die the way she has lived “with her most comfortable pumps on.”
Rehman, a senator and journalist, also heads the Jinnah Institute, a significant research and public advocacy organization in Pakistan. Her fierce defense of free speech is all the more admirable as many of her colleagues have been attacked or killed for their campaigning work.
Despite the danger, Rehman is uncomfortable with adulation and describes herself as someone who feels very humbled. She said she is a woman blessed by privilege , the same kind of South Asian privilege that brought many of the audience members to the Women in the World Summit in New Delhi.
“In my case, it is the privilege of education” she said. “When it comes to South Asia” she continued, “privilege makes it essential that whatever opportunities one receives and whatever choices are made, they be used for the vulnerable and those who don’t know about rights.”
Rehman said the use of that “little bit of power” could change lives and had been shown over and over again by the “incredible women” who had shared their experiences in panels throughout the Delhi Summit.
“These are people who understand the power of chip-chip-chipping away at the obstacles in their path,” she said. “Chipping away,” she added, “could be an interesting turn of phrase to describe the incredible work the Jinnah Institute is doing to work on the tumultuous Pakistan-India relationship.”
“I would love to say [this is] is a new icebreaker,” she added, conceding that the process was more like a “huge boulder … a pathology” that needs to be tackled.
Rehman argued that when the state fails to address such a “sorry situation” it is the people who should take agency by tapping into “the power of democracy, of people talking to each other, the power of society and public conversation.”
During an earlier meeting with Tina Brown in New York, the two women had discussed India and Pakistan’s so-called Gen 3.0, a third generation of young people who have lived in the wake of India and Pakistan’s bitter partition.
“Will it be difficult for this third generation that doesn’t have the memory of a syncretic community to work together?” Brown asked. “If Gen 3.0 doesn’t have the romance of having lived in each other’s countries, the positive is that they don’t have any baggage either and can connect with each other,” Rehman replied.
Later, the audience broke into uproarious laughter as Rehman described South Asia as the Jurassic Park of the world: “What age are we living in?”
“We can’t change our geography. We aren’t big islands like the U.K. or USA, separated by an ocean. We are connected not just by stories but also our geography, so work with what we have. We are neighbors, we can’t instantly love thy neighbor, but [can] dial down the hate,” she remarked.
Rehman noted that there are days she is exhausted by the same conversation, the same hates and yet like the mythical Sisyphus moving the boulder up the mountain, her community of brave souls persevere too.
Undaunted, she brings the same sense of grit and practicality to a call to the rest of the world to be united in the face of the new challenges of extremism faced by many nations now.
“Not just Pakistan. I want to tell this empowered audience that it is a dangerous world, the world my daughter grows up in is very different than the one I grew up in, but our challenges we are connected so let’s focus on finding common grounds. Global leadership has to be clear that we have to identify a common enemy, we you may have done that but the world has to acknowledge the freight train heading our way.”
Benazir Bhutto, her friend and her mentor, had told her about the danger of internal divisions and fostering of more polarity. Rehman had in fact been in Bhutto’s car at the triumphant rally celebrating Bhutto’s return home when it was attacked by terrorists in October 2007 and was also in the motorcade when Bhutto was assassinated later that year.
Today, she still finds it hard to speak about those days although what stays with her are Bhutto’s brave last words about saving the people in Pakistan’s restive Swat region terrorized by the Pakistani Taliban: “I am going to save Swat. You Are Going To save Swat. We Are all going to save Swat,” she promised the crowds.
Tragically, minutes after, the great woman leader was murdered.
Rehman says that Bhutto lived her life and campaigned in her last election the way she wanted to, touching every hand, going into it with her eyes open to people and danger.
“Now that is leadership,” declared Rehman.
In 2010 Rehman, displaying Bhutto’s spirit, she placed her own life at risk fighting for an amendment to blasphemy law in Pakistan.
Benazir Bhutto scouted me out, Rehman says, just as she did other bright young people. And now Rehman pays it back with her ‘Empowerment 101’ project which allows her to mentor college students and help them “actualize their rights” as she puts it.
A lot of decision-making is affected by what transpires at home, she says, and speaking to young women has revealed just how intimidated they can be by insidious conversations at home. “Women have to find power outside home and in spite of home,” she said.
This encompasses the many inhibitions Rehman says she hears vocalized every day, from “what will people think of us if we ask for divorce” to fear about asking for a pay rise at work.
Rehman insists too that many of the bills she has successfully steered through Pakistan’s parliament are laws she believed would never happen. And while she found resistance from some unexpected quarters, “you lobby, you work with media [and] the party falls into line but you still need critical mass,” she said.
One of the landmark pieces of legislation passed by the Parliament includes an anti-sexual harassment law, and a domestic violence bill along with a bill aimed at outlawing forced conversions are bills she hopes will come to pass in the near future.
A stronger bill on honor killing is also in the pipeline as the legislation that now stands, she says, still contains too much pressure on families to “forgive the aggressor.”
“I hope that a previously watered down bill will now see more power and that this privatizing of justice by forgiving, these jirgas, where women, too, collaborate in oppression … one has to protect those that are able to give voice to choose life.”