How did it feel when you walked across the stage to graduate?
That feeling cannot be described in words. Simply what once felt impossible after the attack had finally become a reality. That feeling of accomplishment renewed my zeal and zest to fight for the rights of the disadvantaged. I had simultaneously completed my degree while also fighting my case, both of which were demanding to say the least. This was so even when others around me were either telling me to choose between the two or bringing me down by saying that I could never win the case. I was proud of myself as I remained persistent in the pursuit of my dreams while also being undeterred in the fight of my life.
Women and education in Pakistan is something that is often up for discussion. Why do you think there is still so much controversy about educating women?
There is indeed still hesitation amongst certain strata of society when it comes to educating girls and women, which is a culmination of many factors such as poverty, misinterpretation of religion and stereotypical gender roles. However, a shift is slowly occurring in peoples’ mind set and while much more work still needs to be done, we should continue raising awareness through grassroots programmes to ensure that Pakistan one day reaches the milestone of 100% female literacy.
Coming from a culture where you often hear of “honour”-based violence, sexual violence and cultural stigma of reporting crimes, what would you like to see change legally and culturally in your lifetime?
When I was fighting my case, I was once called by a judge in his chambers and asked to show my wounds, and asked me to forgive my assailant as this was the trend in such kind of cases involving family honour. This shows how insensitive some judges are. There should be proper training and workshops in sensitive areas such as child abuse, domestic violence and family law. There should also be at least one female and one male in each case which involves such sensitive areas to ensure that all parties are given a fair chance to participate. There is currently no federal law which provides any assistance to victims of sexual crimes. At the very least, I would like the victim to be screened from the defendant when he/she is in court. Judges of lower courts must be sufficiently empowered to manage case hearings and not get overpowered by the tactics of the defence counsel.
Women in Pakistan are considered to be the custodian of the family’s honour. This perception has led to the character assassination of many women who even dare to stray from the typical societal definition of what a ‘good woman’ is. This thinking needs to change for our society to progress in the right direction and for women to come forward with their harrowing experiences of assault. The blatant double standards that exist in our society between the genders also need to be eliminated. For instance, in my own case the opponents tried to portray me as a girl of loose character for having taken pictures with my assailant, but no finger was raised about his character.
The stigma around divorced women also needs to end. We have countless women who stay in unhappy and abusive marriages just to protect their reputation and prevent being labelled as a bad omen. Divorced women are considered a contagious deadly disease in Pakistan, someone from whom ‘decent’ people should stay away.
Once you are called to the bar will you return to Pakistan?
Yes, that is the ultimate plan – to return and strive for a brighter future of my beloved Pakistan.
What are your ambitions for the future?
Before my attack, I was confused as to what path I would take after my law degree – but this changed. Going through my own three-year ordeal has given me a sense of direction. I now want to use my platform and voice to advocate for the voiceless – women, minorities, the poor and disabled – and to make the legal system more equitable for all.
Currently in Pakistan there is a dichotomy in the rule of law for the rich and poor. I wish to use my voice to make everyone equal before the law. Moreover, many criminal laws in Pakistan, such as rape legislation and the blasphemy law, are either outdated or draconian. I want to work to modernise and humanise these laws.