By her own admission, Humaira Awais Shahid grew up in a rarefied atmosphere of privilege and freedom. Born in 1971 and raised far from her native Pakistan, she was encouraged to think for herself and study Western literature, while remaining largely ignorant of the cruel constraints that entrapped many women in her impoverished Muslim homeland.
In her 20s, Shahid returned home to a “tidy, privileged corner” of Pakistan’s insular upper-class society. Harboring vague notions of defying convention and helping people, she shrugged off pressure for an arranged marriage, fell in love with the scion of a newspaper family and decided to take up journalism. Only then did her true education begin.
First came an appeal to the newspaper’s hotline from a poor man whose daughter had been raped. Shahid, rushing to assist, was coldly rebuffed by village elders who decreed that the victim must marry her rapist. It was a typical verdict in Pakistan’s tribal justice system, where such crimes are viewed through a prism of family honor and community peace, and where the state organs of law and justice rarely interfere. “You from the city need to understand some basic facts about village life,” one elder explained. “If we don’t marry her to the man who assaulted her . . . she will elope with another. That will bring more shame on the community and could incite a bloodbath.” Shahid withdrew in defeat, while the victim sobbed hopelessly in a dark hut.
From this incident the author plunges into an account of her furious, often frustrated campaign for women’s rights in a conservative, patriarchal society of 180 million — and “Devotion and Defiance” becomes a book worth reading. Though inevitably self-serving, the midlife memoir of this crusading activist serves an important and timely purpose.
Many readers will be familiar with Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager who became a world celebrity after being shot by Taliban extremists for promoting girls’ education. But Shahid gives us searing and systematic evidence that women in Pakistan — a paper democracy and U.S. anti-terrorism ally — can also be victims of institutions and traditions that are deeply lodged in its culture and politics.
On page after page, we meet women who have been tormented by jealous husbands, shunned suitors or cruel in-laws — and then victimized again by indifferent authority figures or institutions of law and order. There is Salma, gang-raped by thugs after daring to seek a divorce. Shahid brings her to the local police chief, hoping he will take pity and intervene. Instead, he takes one look and sneers, “Who would want to rape her?”
There are sisters Noor and Sameera, 8 and 17, who have been ordered to marry two brothers in payment for an accusation against their brother — a custom known as “vani.” If Shahid cannot help, the girls vow to take rat poison.
And there is Shaista, whose former fiance broke into her home on her wedding day and poured acid on her face. When Shahid presses officials to arrest the attacker, he is tipped off and vanishes. Months later, Shahid comes face to face with the victim and is appalled. “The acid had totally melted Shaista’s features, claiming her right eye, her nose, her chin and both of her lips . . . she almost did not look human.”
Although less sensational, the second aspect of Shahid’s education is more revealing. This is the account of her struggle to stir Pakistan’s complacent, male-dominated political establishment to take legal action. It offers a glimpse inside Pakistan’s weak and corrupt democratic system, and it shows how inconvenient truths, no matter how horrific, can be easily sidestepped when political leaders prefer not to rock the boat.
In 2002, Shahid is chosen for a seat in the “reserved” women’s section of the Punjab provincial assembly, where some of her overdressed colleagues strike her as little more than beribboned “petits fours.” She, however, decides to take her job seriously — preparing earnest memos and well-researched legislative proposals to criminalize abuses against women — only to be treated with “treacly condescension” by powerful men. One committee chairman keeps silencing her by calling for tea breaks. When she stands to denounce abuses and demand that her motions be heard, she is greeted by a “misogynist chorus” of jeers and catcalls. As her crusade gains media attention, she receives anonymous phone warnings to resign or face “grave consequences.”
Gradually Shahid’s persistence wins allies, grudging respect and a series of legislative advances. Her cause is also abetted by the support of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the army chief who ruled Pakistan from 1999 to 2008. A moderate reformist, Musharraf champions a new national law to protect women. Yet even after civilian rule is restored, she notes, reports of bride barter, acid attacks and other cruelties continue to rise.
The one discordant theme in this memoir is the interwoven story of Shahid’s marriage and family life. There are telling moments when her husband veers between admiration and exasperation with her relentless crusading. There are personal tragedies, especially his death in 2007 from a heart attack. But too often these domestic asides from a privileged corner distract us from Shahid’s larger, well-told and still-urgent story: the ongoing abuse of women across Pakistan whose names we will never know.
DEVOTION AND DEFIANCE
My Journey in Love, Faith and Politics
By Humaira Awais Shahid
with Kelly Horan
Norton. 294 pp. $25.95