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An Interview with Nafisa Shah, Author of Honour and Violence

The following is an interview with Nafisa Shah about hew new book Honour and Violence: Gender, Power and Law in Southern Pakistan.

1) When did you begin working on Honour and Violence? Can you briefly tell us about your journey as a journalist, scholar, and politician following honor killings in Pakistan?

Honour and Violence is a process, a part of the journey, and not a product or a culmination. It is a coming together of different perspectives in the different roles through which I studied the phenomenon of karo kari, a practice that allows men to take lives of women in his family if accused and seen to be engaging in relationship outside or before marriage by invoking honour violation.

In 1992, as a young and fiery journalist, I travelled to Kashmore, and wrote the first story on honour based customs and practices in Upper Sindh for Newsline, a monthly news and features magazine headed by a woman editor, the late Razia Bhatti.

Then a few years later, as a Reuters fellow at Green College, Oxford I followed it up with a longer piece. My supervisor there, late Helen Callaway, was the first scholar to suggest I needed to convert these shorter journalistic pieces to something more longterm and showed me the academic route. And that’s where I built on whatever I saw and used the anthropological lens, which would allow me to communicate the problem to the wider world.

This journey ostensibly revolves around this customary practice. But it is essentially a personal struggle for rights of women, and also generally for justice and legal reform, perhaps that is why I have ended up in the parliament.

In the parliament, I’ve been leading gender movements – as the secretary to a parliamentary caucus on women, and also in moving bills or pushing for legislation that enhance rights–particularly women’s rights. Ironically, on the day the anti-honour killing law was being passed, I presented its most comprehensive critique on the floor of the house.

2) How has a background in anthropology prepared you for public service? As a graduate student, did you think you might one day join the Parliament?

No, I didn’t, as politics was primarily a male territory especially in Syed families. I come from a political family but my father was preparing younger men in the family to assist him in politics, as this was a no-go area for Syed women who lived a segreggated and secluded life inside their homes. But power works in strange ways. Ironically, the same dictatorship that ostensibly put women behind chaddar and chardivari (in veil and behind four walls), and introduced discriminatory laws in the name of Islam in the 80s, led to opening of doors for women. General Zia began putting all men in political families across Sindh behind bars, and we saw women earlier hidden behind veils and walls coming out in public to look after both the daily chores and the local politics in the absence of men.

Shaheed Benazir Bhutto being our party leader also broke the glass ceiling for many women including myself. I was spotted by her and asked to contest local government elections as I headed back to my hometown Khairpur for my fieldwork and being elected as Mayor in the very area that was to be my field.

As for the link between politics and anthropology, it’s a two way dialogue. Both anthropology and politics are about people, both involve daily interactions with them. Attending ceremonies of marriages and funerals is as much of political activity as it is an anthropological one. I enjoyed spending time with the people of my area, listening carefully to their issues and trying to address them.

I was a mayor at the time of fieldwork, which helped me with fieldwork, as it placed me right in the centre of the very problem I was interested in researching. However instead of participant observation, politics forced me to act, and take decisions, which made me a part of my own fieldwork. I was not searching for the stories, but the stories were landing up at my doorstep seeking attention and resolution.

Anthropology training broadens your horizons, prepares you to engage and understand all positions, it allows you to understand different perspectives, and also to see the interconnections and common ground, which does help in the parliament as we negotiate over laws with other view points.

3) In your Foreign Affairs piece, you discuss the challenges of Parliament adjusting the laws to block honor killings and you fear they will continue, writing “religious groups prevent parliament from making the necessary changes.” How do these groups block Parliament’s actions for better reform?

There are two main parties in the parliament representing the religious right. One of them had blocked the earlier domestic violence legislation, and this time, they agreed with the legal changes but would not allow us to tamper with the provision of compoundability on murder. Yet, if not domestic violence law, we managed to pass the anti-sexual harassment law and several others promoting women’s rights.

Although their numbers are never big in the parliament, their constituency cannot be ignored. Religious rightwing parties have a mob power, they also have the capability to mobilise the angry and frustrated persons. The use of religion by the state over different periods of time in Afghan war, has given these parties an ideological impetus and a bargaining power. So I don’t see a solution outside negotiating, and engaging with them is far better than excluding them. This makes it very challenging indeed and it at times it seems to be a case of one step forward and two steps back. But I guess, in politics you have to be prepared for that – there are radical groups or parties even Western secular democracies have to deal with – as in the case of anti-abortionists, evangelists, and now the supranationalists, etc.

4) What do you think anthropology can add to public discussions? Many western journalists and non-fiction writers are increasingly employing anthropological techniques in their work: can you elaborate on the connection here as a practitioner of both?

It is of great value in cross-cultural dialogues and in engaging differences and looking for common positions. Pakistan is historically a plural, multicultural society but a postcolonial state, faced with frequent wars and dictatorships, it has become a victim of extremism. In my view, a cultural ‘war’, may be the best way to defeat the enemies of diversity and pluralism. And anthropological approach is the best way to reenact and reuse the positive and rich cultural traditions of Sufism, or past histories of religious co-existence.

5) Do you think there’s a way religious conservatism in Pakistan can exist side-by-side defending the rights of women and girls in your country?

Religious conservatism is not ahistorical. I have seen it both happen and grow in my own lifetime. It has been deliberate creation of dictatorial regimes to legitimate their power. Just like I have shown honour to be a mask that provides one with moral power, religion too is used as a mask through which power is acquired or held on to. Right wing parties, militants, dictators have all used religion to reinforce their power.

Religious conservatism is neither static nor uniform. Different religious parties have different positions on gender and rights and these often help in negotiation over common grounds. There are many laws that are in place that uphold rights of women and girls supported by some religious groups and not others.

6) Of all the case studies you cover in the book, are there any you find particularly painful to remember or revisit?

The case of the two young women, Abida and Tehmina, who were killed by their relatives, and their bodies hidden. The dramatic exhumation of their bodies gave hope that the young girls would get some justice and perpetrators charged and tried, but the two exhumed bodies met with a ‘second burial’ after a farcical trial – I call it their judicial burial which their second death – and through our formal justice system. In a way the judicial closure of the case caused me more pain than even their very tragic and heartrending murders.



Learn more about the book here.

Nafisa Shah is a member of the National Assembly, the Lower House of the Parliament of Pakistan. Shah began her public life as a journalist, later studying social and cultural anthropology at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Oxford, where she received her D.Phil in 2011.