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Pakistani activist Nazir visits Cleveland
By Arooj Ashraf, La Prensa Correspondent

Women Speak Out for Peace Cleveland Chapter marked International Women’s Day by inviting Pakistani women’s rights activist Sameena Nazir, founding member of Pakistani’s new Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, to speak at a lunch forum on March 10, 2012.

Linda Park, Sameena Nazir, and Sujata Burgess

Nazir is a member of the International Human Rights Law group which has worked extensively for women’s empowerment and training in Pakistan and came to Cleveland on the heels of attending the UN Consortium on Women. She thanked the 40 women and men gathered at Kan Zaman Restaurant for attending and expressed her gratitude, “this is the largest crowd I have spoken to in the U.S.”

As the Executive Director of Potohar Organization for Development Advocacy, and Pakistan section of Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom she is one of the many activists in the country working to make life and conditions better for women. Her organizations focus on the rural areas because that is where most changes must occur, she said.

Nazir views her role as a bridge of information and connecting activists working for human rights and peace in the U.S. with their counterparts in Pakistan. “Just like people here think all Pakistani’s are terrorists, people in Pakistan have the perception all Americans want to kill them,” she said.

Drone attacks on Pakistani civilians and war in Afghanistan add fuel to that sentiment. “It is important for people in Pakistan to know there are people here raising their voices for peace,” she said.

Nazir said women’s rights activists have won many battles in the recent years and changed laws relating to forced marriages, acid burning, and more. She credits these changes to the women’s caucus in the parliament that is actively advocating for change and working in partnership with women leaders in Afghanistan to raise the standards there as well.  

She said women in the U.S. can assist in furthering the cause of women’s rights in Asia by lobbying for the government to ratify CEDAW, the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

“We [women activists] are always being accused of being agents of America, Israel and the West, and people are always saying: ‘Well the U.S. has not signed CEDAW.’” Nazir said. 

The UN Assembly adopted CEDAW in 1979, and is the only human rights treaty which affirms the reproductive rights of women and targets culture and tradition as influential forces shaping gender roles and family relations. It affirms women’s rights to acquire, change, or retain their nationality and the nationality of their children. Countries that have ratified the Convention are legally bound to put its provisions into practice. They are also committed to submit national reports, at least every four years, on measures they have taken to comply with their treaty obligations.

Linda Park, board member of Women Speak Out For Peace said women’s groups lobbied for the ratification in Ohio were disappointed by former Governor George Voinovich’s refusal to support because he considered the country had sufficient laws protecting women’s rights.

State Rep. Nicki Antonio of District 13 said the debate of women’s rights had turned another corner in the U.S. from women’s reproductive rights to access to birth control. She encouraged participants to convey their opinions on the matter to their lawmakers.

Nazir said the issue of women’s reproductive rights is an obsession for conservatives worldwide. “While in D.C., I was listing to a discussion on women’s reproduction rights and for a moment I wondered if I was back in Pakistan,” she said.

Nazir said September 11 events were a turning point in the history of the nation and its aftermath has only worsened conditions, introduced suicide bombings, more Afghan refugees, drone attacks and a state of despair in a country where half the population is under the age of 25 years.

“This is troubling because as they age they will need to find jobs, and if the war economy is the only one flourishing they will turn to it,” said Nazir.  She said what Pakistani’s desperately crave is an end to the war and withdrawal of troops, “Just end the war and we will deal with the advisors.”

Nazir said Pakistanis feel victimized from multiple sides, the U.S. drone attacks, the Taliban militia that target civilians in retaliation of Pakistan’s alliance with the U.S. and the never ceasing threat of India’s growing military arsenal. “More than 35,000 Pakistanis have lost their lives during the war,” said Nazir.

She outlined the contemporary history of Pakistan and its evolution from a new progressive nation in the 1970s to the current chaos of political fundamentalism and highlighted the U.S.’s role. Pakistan’s strategic location, with borders along Afghanistan, Iran, China, and India, make the country venerable and important. “The U.S. involved Pakistan in its ideological war against communism and Russia,” she said, using the North West Frontier as a launch pad for weapons provided to the Afghan warlords. “The war was branded as fighting for Islam,” she said.

This was the advent of religious militancy in the minds of people who were originally introduced to Islam through the peace loving sufis. “People were handed guns and told to defend their faith.” Another country that seized the opportunity was Saudi Arabia, said Nazir; “While the U.S. provided the technology and weapons, the Saudi’s provided funds and their own strict brand of Islam: wahhabism.”

At the beginning of the war, democratic leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had refused to allow Pakistan to be used as an entry to fuel war in Afghanistan.  He was accused on false charges and publicly hung by General Zia-ul-Haq. General Zia introduced eleven years of dictatorship that stalled all progress and introduced laws diminishing the rights of women, media, and ethnic minorities. “More laws were introduced to make a Muslim country follow a stricter version of Islam,” she said.

During the mid ‘80s and ‘90s the country returned to a semi-democratic state, with Zulfiqar’s daughter Benazir Bhutto becoming the first female prime minister to serve in an Islamic country. “She was only 35 at the time,” said Nazir, who said her return to the country in 2007, after another decade of dictatorship was received with much hope. “She openly and bravely spoke out against the militants,” said Nazir. Bhutto was assassinated after a rally in 2007 leaving a vacuum of skilled leadership that could usher a stable democracy in the country.

Nazir gave a segment from Bhutto’s speech on Equality and Partnership in 1995 at the UN Assembly in Beijing, China that stressed the importance of involving women in the conversation seeking solutions the world’s problems. “Because if we leave it to the men in our parts of the world, it would be another disaster,” said Nazir.

The Cleveland chapter awarded its International Women’s Day Ionne Biggs Award for peace and justice to María Smith for her dedication and service in the region.

To learn more about Nazir’s organization PODA visit: www.poda.org.pk

Copyright © 1989 to 2012 by [LaPrensa Publications Inc.]. All rights reserved.
Revised: 03/20/12 12:01:19 -0800.





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