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The Rediff Interview/Pakistan activist Tahira Abdullah

February 19, 2004

Based in Islamabad, Tahira Abdullah, 50, works for the economic development of Pakistan's women. She is disappointed at what she calls President Pervez Musharraf's 'non-performance.'

Tahira, who has been an activist since she was 12, has volunteered to work for the India-Pakistan peace movement, besides her regular interests of women's empowerment and human rights in Pakistan.

Like many common Pakistanis whose voices are rarely heard, she is strongly against the 17th amendment to the country's constitution. The amendment, passed in December last year, enables General Musharraf to continue to remain in power.

In an exclusive interview with Contributing Editor Sheela Bhatt, Tahira spoke of her anxieties for her country, and about how Pakistani women hoping for a liberal social and political environment have been disappointed by Musharraf's lack of will to help them:

"I think it is shocking that the military-mullah alliance has helped pass the 17th amendment to the constitution, which will have far-reaching effects. To remain in power, President Musharraf has taken the support of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal [a coalition of religious and fundamentalist parties in Pakistan]. The mullahs have ganged up in favour of the amendment to help a military dictator rule our country.

"There are many shocking fallouts of this development. President Musharraf in his personal life, in his world view, is a progressive person. But at war with his world view is his lust for power. He is a military ruler who has come to grab power and now he wants a permanent stake in that power.

"In 1973, Z A Bhutto, though an autocrat, gave us this constitution which had no place for the military. But in 1979 General Zia-ul Haq changed it. In his attempt to Islamise Pakistan, the greatest disservice was done to people when the anti-woman Hudood ordinances, the Anti-Evidence Act, etc were imposed on us.

"One of the Hudood ordinances pertains to adultery. Because of that ordinance, in rape cases it becomes impossible for women to get justice. And in some cases raped women have been jailed!

"What Zia brought into Pakistan's constitution remains till today. Anti-women laws and laws against religious minorities are encroaching on basic human rights. Women activists have been engaged in demanding the repeal of these ordinances.

"When Musharraf came to power in October 1999, progressive groups in Pakistan and I looked forward with high hopes because his personal lifestyle, his mindset, his world view are liberal, progressive, and secular. Of course, the same women's groups, secularists, labourers, peace activists, civil rights leaders, don't want a military government in Pakistan. But in the circumstances the progressive people of Pakistan expected Musharraf to perform.

"We thought he would repeal discriminatory legislation like the Hudood and reverse the Islamisation of laws, which is working against women. There are other barbaric and horrible blasphemy laws which are working against religious minority sects. As I said earlier, one of the laws equates adultery with rape and does not admit evidence in favour of women!

"We demanded that the general check and control the madrassas. In these religious schools little boys are indoctrinated with hate propaganda and a jihadi mentality to wage war in Afghanistan and Indian-occupied (sic) Kashmir.

"We wanted Musharraf to act because an unelected President Zia had enacted these laws, therefore an unelected President Musharraf could easily repeal them. Even though it is desirable, we don't need a parliament to do this. From October 1999, when he came to power, to October 2002, when elections were held, he had enough time, but he didn't do it.

"He did hold a national human rights convention in April 2000 shortly after coming to power. Some of  us attended it, some of us boycotted it because it was held by a military dictator. But what happened at the end of the convention was very enlightening. He didn't repeal the blasphemy law, but he changed a condition of law. He changed an administrative process to register a case of blasphemy, that's all. He didn't do anything for women.

"Still, the religious leaders, madrassa heads and extremist groups protested on the streets. Musharraf bowed to their pressure and withdrew the order within two days. Can you imagine the pressure under which he is ruling?

"The mullahs in Pakistan have street power. They don't have the numbers to win at polling booths. You should understand how Pakistan operates. Every Friday there are prayers in the afternoon where law-abiding, moderate, centrist people get together to pray. These religious-political parties get a captive audience here. These leaders have a nuisance value and noise value, though they don't have the numbers.

Also read: 'We are walking into the American trap'

"But the saddest part is that we, the progressive people, don't have numbers either. We have the intellectual capacity and demonstrative capacity. We can give petitions and press releases, but nothing more.

"Now, because of the 17th amendment, the mullahs have a foot in the door. They have arrived in Islamabad after more than half a century of independence. Now they are not far from grabbing power in the federal government. They are in power in the North West Frontier Province and a partner in the government in Balochistan.

"Since Musharraf had to pass the 17th amendment, he struck a deal with these mullahs. So a question arises in the minds of people like me: Which one is the real Pervez Musharraf? Can the real Musharraf please stand up? He is speaking from both sides of his mouth. He talks about moderation and takes on Islamic terrorism and extremism in front of the world media. After 9/11 he has been talking about joining the coalition against terrorism which has taken up a fight against Osama (bin Laden). At the same time he is cutting a deal with anti-American mullahs and religious parties who are fanning jihadis.

"Musharraf is supporting the Americans, but people in the streets are reacting very badly against the American presence in Pakistan. People know the Americans are in Jacobabad and the border areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. People know about the FBI and CIA's activities in Karachi and Lahore. They are picking up people and interrogating them. I don't hold a brief for jihadi groups, but two wrongs don't make a right. The FBI can't take out our people and send them to Guantanamo. Is this country run by the FBI?

"We feel that under Musharraf's leadership we have lost a lot of self-respect. How can we hand out our sovereignty? Look, the people of Pakistan are not stupid. We have lots of poverty, ill health, illiteracy, inequity, and inequality, but we are not stupid.

"You must note that from 1947 to October 2002 we didn't vote for religious parties like the Jamiat-e-Islami to bring them into power. They never got more than 3 percent of the votes. But what has happened this time? 9/11! People of the border areas in the NWFP and Balochistan, who voted for these religious parties, are not at all true supporters of  these religious groups, but they have voted against Musharraf and America.

Also read: 'Osama is definitely in the land of the Pashtuns'

"Their anti-American card has worked. The MMA got votes because of Musharraf's policy on Afghanistan and because he is siding with America. People perceived that under American pressure Musharraf sold out on Pakistan's Taliban policy. For Pakistanis, Afghanistan is an important nation. And the same is true for Kashmir. It is an emotional issue. There is a saying in Urdu that not love for the one but hatred for the other is what makes them vote like this. So Musharraf's American policy and his lust for power have bought religious extremists to power. For me this is extremely dangerous for the women of Pakistan who make up 48.5 per cent of the population.

"Today people who want to keep anti-women laws like Hudood in the constitution have won in the tribal areas. Musharraf has taken their support to pass a law. While doing that the religious fundamentalist parties have spread their influence. They have just reached Islamabad and I am worried that this will have far-reaching consequences.

Also read: A New Pakistan?

"The 17th amendment has made me pessimistic. It was a surprise and a disappointment to see that Pakistan's print media, which is quite lively otherwise, has not exposed the negative side of the 17th amendment. They were merely focusing on the fact that a year-long logjam in parliament ended with the passage of the 17th amendment.

Also read: 'Pakistan is not ready for democracy yet'

"The saddest part is that from now on the mullah-military nexus, which is anything but liberal, will be funded by the Americans. The Americans are back in full swing in Pakistan. To America, democracy in Pakistan is not a priority. They are serving their self-interest at the expense of Pakistani women's rights and the rights of the minorities and secular people. But I am sure this game will have to end.

"Pervez Musharraf can't have his cake and eat it too. He feels strongly about Kashmir. Now American pressure is on him. He will have to cut off the channel which fans jihad. He is either an American stooge, which I think he is, or he will have to continue funding the jihadi outfits. He can't toe both lines. The real Musharraf will have to stand up."

Photograph: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Image: Uttam Ghosh

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