Protection International interviews Rehana Hashmi
It’s dangerous being a woman in Pakistan. A report by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan shows just how much by listing the numerous challenges that are faced by Pakistani women. It’s even more dangerous being a Pakistani woman who defends human rights. Being the target of death threats and harassment, one such woman, Rehana Hashmi, had to go into hiding.
Rehana is a woman human rights defender, speaking up for human rights, especially women’s rights. She created two national networks that center their work around the defense of women’s rights (namely the National Network to End Violence against Women (EVAW) and the Sisters Trust Pakistan).
Protection International talks with Rehana about her personal experiences as a WHRD, the current situation in Pakistan, and her thoughts on protection networks.
Protection International: What made you decide to become a women human rights defender (WHRD)?
Rehana Hashmi: When I was 8 years old, I saw my father raising his voice against the dictatorship. As a result, he was detained and jailed. After he went to prison, I started taking care of my family, looking after the store that my father had opened. From that moment, my childhood was gone. My father’s activism finished there and then, but he had planted a seed in me. When I started school, I became active as a human rights defender. As a child, you’re afraid of many things, but I wasn’t a child anymore. I had to act like an adult. I saw that girls weren’t always able to continue their education because of fees, so I started collecting money in the class to support these girls. When the teacher would be brutal to someone, I would raise my voice.
“Authorities gave me a choice: leave the city or go to
Eventually, I led student protests ranging from the victimization of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to the prosecution of Shi’as. Authorities gave me a choice: leave the city or go to jail. At only 17 years old, I left the city.
PI: What does the situation for a WHRD that works in Pakistan look like today?
RH: The situation is deteriorating. Every human rights defender (man and woman) in Pakistan is targeted and there are often human rights defenders killed. There are no security measures or networks to protect human rights defenders. Worse even, there is more protection for offenders than for defenders! For defenders, it is very difficult to see who is on your side and who is not. Offenders can be anyone and everywhere. For example, due to my work, I have received a lot of threats. These threats have ranged from threatening phone calls to offenders coming to my home, and even chasing my daughters. At first, I wasn’t allowed to register these complaints with the police. When I was finally able to register the complaints with the help of a minister, the police gave the complaint to the media, who promptly published it. This forced my family and me to go into hiding and finally to leave my country.
PI: Do you think that your family was targeted because you’re a woman?
RH: Definitely. Women defenders face more risks than men. Men can flee alone and come back. When women defend human rights, you see whole families being targeted, like with my own family. Even my extended family was targeted. After my 17-year-old nephew was killed, my own family told me that I put them all at risk. Friends wouldn’t pick up the phone anymore when I would call. This is something I can understand.
“Friends wouldn’t pick up their phone when I would
call. This is something I can understand.”
PI: You have founded the National Network End Violence against Women (EVAW). How do you think these kinds of networks can help to protect WHRDs?
RH: EVAW lobbies at the national level. We practice advocacy and as a result, we’ve seen many bills passed. However, implementation of these bills has been a problem. There is no protection mechanism in Pakistan for (male and female) HRDs, nor are there facilities for creating protection networks. In terms of international networks, they can help protect WHRDs, but by the time they assist, it might be too late. Time is critical in these situations. Men benefit more from international networks than women, because women have to leave children behind. Which mother would do such a thing? This is why the international community should raise their voice more and support local networks. International protection networks need to take the gender difference into account. Without adequate support, WHRDs are vanishing. Women are at the forefront when it comes to developing a community.
PI: Do you feel that WHRDs get recognition from male HRDs in ‘mixed’ networks (men and women)?
RH: Yes, I’ve always felt there is a supportive environment in these networks. Male human rights defenders have recognized my rights as a woman. For example, in the late ’90, I established a coalition of civil society with 3500 members. This coalition was in a conservative male-dominated province. I was still elected for three terms as the president of this male-dominated network. However, these networks are also facing the same problems when it comes to protection.
PI: What kind of support or protection do you need?
RH: First of all, I need physical protection. This way, I can go places and I can go to sleep without the fear of being killed. Second, it’s the protection of my family. If they can’t reach you, they will harm your family members.
PI: Do you have any advice for young WHRDs who are struggling with gender-based threats and struggling to be acknowledged as WHRDs?
RH: Follow a training on protection and security. Create a local protection network. This is what I will do now through my network. Also, stay supportive of each other. Be aware of threats. Don’t stick out your neck when you think there might be a danger. Heroic acts can put you and your family in life-threatening situations. My lesson learned: international or national support might not come on time, so you need to be able to from the start rely on your own local and personal network.
PI: Would you like to go back to Pakistan?
RH: I’m dying to go back! My time overseas has strengthened me and I can’t wait to go back to work. Work is my lifeline. I love it and can’t live without it.
“Work is my lifeline. I can’t live without it.”
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