Nancho: The HRCP has also recently staged a rally against child labor trying to create awareness of this heinous practice. How do you view the situation and the its depiction in the Western media? Is it being misrepresented?
ASJ: I think that the western media takes things to an extreme. As far back as '86, there was a movement by activists to pressure the intergovernmental organizations to eradicate child labor, or at least fix a realistic minimum age. We suggested twelve because we had to start somewhere. We also recognized the fact that there are certain difficulties for governments to eradicate it overnight. At that time, the intergovernmental organizations in the West were talking about regulation. We having lived in this society believe that if you talk about regulation, you will simply get child labor in another sphere altogether. We have to start with the political will and the earnest belief that you have to eradicate it.
There are children as young as five years of age working and I think it is not just a moral question or a legal question. It cannot be justified on any grounds. There is a high level of unemployment here for both men and women and if the parents can't work, there is no justification for sending a five-year-old to go out and be the wage-earner. We have suffered through the fact of child labor our entire lives, but have not really been able to understand the reason for its existence nor how it can be eradicated. I don't think that all child labor is because of poverty. This is has always been the slogan of the West; it is an evil necessity because of poverty. We feel that poverty is only one of the factors; the factor of children not being able to unionize, the factor of low payment to children, the factor of its social acceptability.
So we have begun a very comprehensive program of which one important part is education. In our country that education can only be done by electronic media given the high rate of illiteracy and the vast population involved. It is impossible for these programs to be carried out by NGOs alone. We need government cooperation. Here I am talking about educating just those parents who think that sending their child out to work is socially acceptable. In addition, we have to build alternative places for children like schools, and more importantly schools which are friendly to children.
We have found during our research that a number of children have become dropouts because of the severe corporal punishment in the schools. If we give institutions to a child that are as hostile as the labor market, then the choices for the parents and the children are very limited. So, that is one aspect of it. The other aspect of it is that our research shows that these young children really do not want to work. We must keep in mind that we are really wasting a future generation; not only in terms of getting something out of them economically but destroying them psychologically.
There has to be a very sympathetic, conscientious effort, both by those who work in the field and in the government, to look at it realistically and plot out a plan. What is happening here is that our government reacts to the arm-twisting of the West and so do the employers. So they try and make some kind of very quick fixes and the result is that the child may disappear from the factory but the child is still working at home. I wouldn't dispute that perhaps this is better. At least the child is then under family supervision but sometimes even family supervision can be quite exploitative for the child.
It is a very complex question and one must see it for oneself to understand the dimension of it. I think essentially we have to keep the interest of the child in front of us before we begin to think of our exports, or the image of our country. I think if we do it in a manner of sincerity, we will get results but unfortunately we are not doing it for results, we are doing it to cater to the West.
Nancho: The family unit in Pakistan is so much more important than the individual; and the individual gives all to the family. Is this one reason the practice is considered socially acceptable?
ASJ: Yes, the family is very important here and I think that the West has to understand that but at the same time because I come from this part of the world I know also that the tight-knit family structures here can be very exploitative to those who are vulnerable within the family like the child and the women. So in understanding family obligation and unity, we should not look away from the fact that there are those people who are suffering within these patriarchal family structures in spite of the fact that they are contributing to their families. When it comes to receiving, however, they don't. We are not encouraging the women, the children to break the social structures. No, we are just trying to say there is a better future for them. It is a doable thing, but unfortunately, it is not being done.
Nancho: There is a Minister of Women's Development and Social Welfare, Ms. Themina Doltana. Few countries can boast such a position for women. How do you rate her performance?
ASJ: Few countries can boast of a position like that but few countries can boast of having a woman prime minister as well, which we have had. Few countries can boast of having a deputy prime minister as a woman which Iran has. So, I don't think the position of women in a society can really be gauged on the fact that there are isolated women in positions of power. In terms of how I would rate Ms. Doltana's work, I think she comes across as a very genuine and feels great compassion for the plight of women in this country. But her work is limited in the sense that it is really connected with overall governmental policy. You cannot have a women's ministry overriding policy like a chief minister of a province saying that we are going to change the uniform of girls schools and everyone will wear a dupatta (scarf) on their head. She cannot contradict government policy.
Nancho: In the West, we have a very strange perception of what is happening both here in Pakistan and in India in the sense that you can have a prime minister as a woman but yet women's rights are depicted as virtually non-existent. Can you describe and tell us of the situation here and what allows for this dichotomy to continue?
ASJ: Well, we are a country of contradiction and dichotomy. In societies with a history of treating women as lesser beings, the ascendancy of these women to the center stage of politics is a paradox. Westerners have this perception that as you land in the airport in Pakistan you will never see women, you will never talk to one. Yet you see women sitting in high positions here and you see very forceful women in the labor force - doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers.
This Western perception that you have of our women I think is very interesting because I think our hope lies in that. When you look on paper the kinds of rights we have are absolutely nil, the kind of sexist atmosphere we have, I think, is very apparent to anyone, especially a female visitor from any other part of the world. Even if you go to any of the other countries nearby in the South Asia region like in Sri Lanka or Nepal or India or Bangladesh, you see far more visibility of women than you do in Pakistan. But at the same time, I think that it has been this oppression of women in Pakistan that has made them very strong and more aware.
Even the uneducated women in this country have such a wisdom about them; and that is because they have had to deal with a hostile environment around them from the day they were born. It has made them realize that they have to really fight. Women in Pakistan are survivors, let me put it that way. It's not as if we had a female prime minister who got to that position of power on her own. No, she was a female member of a family who survived a political situation and then rose up to replace the male figure.
If you look at the entire southeast Asian region, we have produced probably far more women prime ministers and presidents and leaders of the opposition, but again mostly through their families - Bandarnaike, (Megawati) Sukarnoputri, Indira Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi and in Pakistan, Fatima Jinnah and Benazir Bhutto. There really has not been a female leader who has come up by herself, she has usually been a replacement of the male figure. But that is not to take anything away from these women. By surviving that political situation, she took hold of that opportunity with great art, I would say. And that is what we are here, survivors - people who grab our opportunities whenever they are given to us. If you would ask each one of the women here at my law firm how they became lawyers, you would find that often times it has been an accident of history.
Nancho: Your area of expertise is women's rights, minority rights, custody cases...
ASJ: And prison trials and appeals, criminal appeals. See, my basic area of law is constitutional law, criminal law and family law.
Nancho: What kinds of cases are you presently handling?
ASJ: Some of my cases, for example, deal with Zinah, sex outside marriage. The highest punishment is death by stoning, but most women end up in jail. If I were raped I would never file because in this legal system one just can't get justice. You have to take on the full burden of proof and must have the evidence of four male witnesses because the woman herself is not considered fit enough to be a witness. Everyone admits it's an unfair, unjust law but because it is the result of a handful of religious extremists, enacted in the name of Islamization, no one has the courage to repeal it. The law comes from a handful of extremists who want to use religion to intimidate others. It's not because of a religious belief that they have. They don't want to see women as independent, with a sense of integrity. They want women to remain powerless.
Nancho: In the early l950s there was a tennis champion, Laila (sp?), who wore shorts on the court. Since its establishment, it seems the country has dramatically shifted in terms of its treatment of women. If Jinnah were alive today, how do you think he would view these past fifty years?
ASJ: I think if Jinnah were alive today, he would be a member of the Women's Action Forum, sitting in the Opposition and really confused about what he had done to himself. I really believe that. My mother, for example, had studied in a coed college here. She was badminton champion, swam and went into debating. There was no question of segregation in that college. When I was in college myself, I used to cycle down to college many times. There was no restriction on any dress at all. In winters you would wear pants and go off to college and there was no hassle about it. Things have really changed for worse for women and that is why I say it is not easy to sit back while the orthodoxy puts us where they wish to see us.
Nancho: What has allowed the orthodoxy to gain power in the country?
ASJ: You see, religion has always been a focal point of people in our country, as well as in the subcontinent, for that matter, but in a more spiritual manner. Back in the 60s, the kinds of government reports and judgments being delivered were very progressive, for example. Suddenly you see a deterioration in the 80s as the state began to politicize religion and used it as an instrument of oppression. The reason that religion was used was to rage war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and for that the government needed their own local support which was the orthodoxy. It obviously wasn't going to be the liberal elements or the political parties that were going to support the war. That period was followed by a transition to democracy which has been unstable. There is also the factor of economic deprivation. All of this is a breeding ground for religious orthodoxy.
Nancho: Now with the election of Tarar, you think the situation is intensifying?
ASJ: Tarar's election is only one factor, not a hugely significant factor, but a significant factor, I would say, and its influences will be detrimental. But the fact remains that people like Tarar in the 70s were not the Tarars of today. They have been politicized into being what they are as well. I call them opportunists basically. You find a lot of people like that in decision-making powers, or establishment, or the judiciary, or in the hierarchy of power associations who have suddenly become rabid Muslims because it gives them more respectability, it gives them more opportunities to progress. They are less controversial.
Nancho: Are women's issues at least being discussed more openly now?
ASJ: I am of the belief that democracy is survival for women. Now you have an independent, or at least, a better press now than before. Issues are at least aired. People read about these issues and discuss them. People begin to realize that the stories reported are not imaginative fairy tales and that they are happening to women and women like ourselves. There is open debate about these issues and people in the Bar will discuss it. When you are arguing a case in court, there will be nationwide interest in it. More than that over the last many years I have seen a change in the attitude of women clients.
Previously we used to have more women coming here asking for advice; they would come back and forth and not take action for years. They were more like therapy sessions. But I was happy to do it because if that is what helps them, then so be it. I find a change now; I have my clients now coming and telling me that this is my case and these are my instructions. There have been times when I have asked a client very innocent questions like, "you have six children, you know, do you really think you should be asking for a divorce?" And this one particular client who is not literate or anything turned around and told me, "Listen, I want to tell you something. Nobody has ever died of starvation after divorce, but many women have died of starvation or of physical violence during marriage. So you get along with your work and these are my instructions."
I really like that. I think that is hope. That makes me smile. A lot of women are now going to court on all kinds of issues. For example, only ten years ago we had women taking the government to court on admission policies to medical schools. Despite the fact that these women knew that it would be a long, legal battle and that they themselves would not gain admission into the school, they continued to fight on so that others could benefit from their actions. They won their case in the Supreme Court.
So, I think that responsibility, that understanding, that commitment is there. That kind of a change is there. We have to be patient because it's a legal battle we are fighting and we have to do it properly. We have to be all there to do it.
Nancho: Would you agree with some critics that the women's movement in Pakistan is elitist?
ASJ: It is a valid criticism that the women's movement is somewhat elitist, but it's only those women with that kind of educated background who could go out and march in the streets against a military dictatorship and the Islamization process and then get away alive. How can these women who are not allowed to leave the four walls, who are being beaten, how can they suddenly become very active? Maybe one day the leadership of the women's movement in this country will hopefully pass on to these women. They will probably have more fire in them than we do.
I think people are afraid of the women's movement because it's the longest social movement in history. I think looking at it in a global manner there has been a world of change. Twenty years ago was the first UN Conference on the Rights of Women. Twenty years ago the phrase women's rights was not understood in Pakistan. But today it is very much alive. You see it in the lives of the women sitting in the jails of Pakistan, in the lives of the women who pick cotton, and in the hearts of the young students who wish to see themselves as leaders of tomorrow. It is very much there. In every part of the world, whether it is the developing world, the developed world, whether it's a remote corner of the world, it has taken seat in the hearts of women.