Webpage Editor: Ingrid H. Shafer, Ph.D.
Posted 10 April 1999
Last revised 7December 2003
Web-edition copyright © 1999-2003 Ingrid H. Shafer
THE INTERNATIONAL NETWORK
FOR THE RIGHTS OF FEMALE VICTIMS
OF VIOLENCE IN PAKISTAN
P.O. Box 17202,
Louisville, Kentucky 40217, U.S.A.
December 5, 2003
Dear Members and Friends of the INRFVVP,
I hope this finds you all in the best of health and spirits. You have been often in my thoughts though I have not communicated directly with many of you for some time. This has been a very challenging year for me in a number of ways. The fracture and dislocation of my ankle after I slipped on ice at Davos, Switzerland in January was followed by surgery. The operation was successful but the demands of a relentless schedule of work and travel has prevented me from following though on the physical therapy treatment that was required to restore my foot to full and pain-free mobility. The osteo-arthritis from which I have suffered for a long time has gotten worse this year. I will have to have knee-replacement surgery in both knees within the next couple of years.
Despite the physical difficulties I have done a lot of travelling this year. Aside from my speaking engagements within the U.S., I participated in international conferences held at London (March), Doha, Qatar (April), Ottawa, Canada (June),Utrecht, Holland (June-July), Brussels and Antwerp, Belgium (July), and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (October).
Shortly after September 11, 2001, the idea of an international organization in which women would play a leadership role in building bridges between conflicting groups was generated in Milan, Italy. I am considered the Founder of this organization which later got named as WEBB (Women Engaging in Bridge-Building) because it was built on my vision (Please look up http://www.webb-international.org). In June, WEBB-CANADA, launched the organization with two conferences held in Ottawa. The first one (on June 19) was a celebration of WEBB by its members who came to Ottawa from many countries. The second one (on June 21) was a conference on the subject of Diversity and Islam Bridging the Gaps. This conference which was strongly supported by the Canadian parliamentarians and attended by many diplomats, civic leaders, media people and others, was held on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. The opening keynote was given by Karen Armstrong and I was the ending keynote speaker. There were notable scholars and speakers from across the world at this conference. I am very proud of Nazreen Ali, President of WEBB-CANADA for providing excellent leadership in organizing such an historic event.
Last year my university had competed for and won a major U.S. Department of State grant entitled, "Islamic Life in the U.S." Under this grant we will be bringing Muslim religious scholars from four South Asian countries to the U.S. for a 4-week intensive program involving travel to some other universities and cities and exchange of ideas with our university and community groups. I am directing this grant which took me to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India in the last seven months to meet a variety of Muslim religious scholars, preachers and community leaders. The process of selecting the scholars who will be visiting the U.S. in Phase I of our program is now almost complete. The scholars will be in the U.S. from March 26 to April 22, 2004. Their visit will be followed by a return visit to South Asia of some American scholars who will be interacting with them here. This visit will take place in Summer 2004. Phase I will be followed by Phase II which will repeat the exchange visits.
When I undertook the responsibility of directing the "Islamic Life in the U.S." grant I had little idea of what this would entail. I did not know that travelling to Afghanistan was a life-risking enterprise nor what a twelve-hour bus ride from Lahore (Pakistan) to Delhi (India) would mean when there is so much hostility between these two neighboring countries. The travel schedule to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India was very arduous and demanding. And the task of convincing many Muslims who were highly suspicious of U.S. motives that engagement in dialogue with Americans was of critical importance today was an even more challenging experience. But during the course of my travels I met a variety of extraordinary people, some with the help of the U.S. embassies/consulates in the selected countries, and some through other channels.
As I travelled in each country and met religious scholars and preachers representing diverse perspectives I was struck by the nature and quality of the discourse that I heard. For instance, in Peshawar, Pakistan, I met five scholars of Islamic Studies who ranged in age from early thirties to near sixties and in rank from an Instructor to a Professor. Though they appeared to be conservative in appearance I found these scholars to be astonishingly open-minded and willing to engage in dialogue on difficult subjects including the situation of women in tribal areas. Frankly speaking I had not expected to find such people in Peshawar which borders the land of the Taliban and is a city with a highly traditional culture where the Shariat Bill (mandating that the Shariah or religious laws of Islam be implemented throughout the North-West Frontier Province) had been promulgated only two days prior to my visit.
I met a number of exceptional persons in other cities also. In Kabul I met an imam who had resisted the Talibans ban to allow women into the mosque or to educate them. There was a religious scholar in Quetta who had been instrumental in making his tribe (of which his father was the leader) support the governments effort to combat and curtail terrorism in Baluchistan. Another scholar I met came from Multan and was in charge of 500 madaris (religious schools). Coming from another very conservative area of Pakistan this scholar had an interest in promoting Muslim-Christian understanding and was open to discussing issues of curriculum reform and womens rights. A most exceptional scholar I met in Rawalpindi is a Sufi academic who has thousands of devotees who come to hear his weekly dars (lecture) on the Quran and other sources of Islamic law and tradition. In these gatherings there was an equality of men and women that is rarely seen in the Islamic world.
In Bangladesh I met several groups of Muslim religious scholars, preachers and community leaders. Many people in these groups were very critical of American foreign policy, especially in Iraq. However, they responded positively to my description of the Islamic Life in the U.S. grant and said that it was important to have real dialogue with their American counterparts. At the University of Dhaka I met a number of scholars, including some very highly-qualified women, who were teaching at the newly-established Department of World Religions perhaps the only such department in South Asia.
In India I learnt many important things that I had not known before. For instance, I learnt that an institution for Muslim Muftis had been set up in Hyderabad, that in Chennai there was a conglomerate of educational institutions for girls and women that had been founded by a Muslim judge, that in Mumbai there was a school for Muslim girls that had 4500 students (This school belonged to a Muslim organization called Anjuman-e-Islam which had 87 such institutions). I also met many impressive Muslim scholars as I visited Delhi University, Jawaharlal Nehru University and Hamdard University in Delhi and the Post Graduate Karamat Husain College for Women in the old historic city of Lucknow.
Having met so many distinguished Muslim religious scholars, preachers and leaders in my brief travels through Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India, the task of choosing a few who would be invited to visit the U.S. in Spring 2004, was an extremely difficult one. I believe that the persons whom I have nominated are those who will be able to initiate a process of authentic interchange of information and ideas between their own communities and Americans. I believe that they have the leadership qualities to do ground-breaking work in a highly complex and volatile region of the world and that the work that they are capable of doing would make a significant difference.
But the process that is just starting needs to be continued. There are a large number of very worthwhile people in South Asia - people who will not be coming to the U.S. as part of Phase I of our grant - who should be included in this process as it evolves and grows. South Asia has a population of almost 500 million Muslims from all sects and schools of thought. Presently it is a very troubled region which is at the frontline of the war on terrorism. What I want to highlight is that in this region are a large number of Muslim men and women who are widely influential in the area of religious discourse who want to engage in serious, scholarly dialogue with Americans. I believe that in South Asia the possibilities of creating a model of positive dialogue between Muslims and Americans are excellent if they are pursued with cultural sensitivity, intellectual honesty and patience. This model, once created, could be emulated in other regions of the Muslim world.
I have been engaged in interreligious, inter-cultural dialogue for almost three decades and have learnt from experience that authentic dialogue can be a very effective way of transforming ideas and attitudes. Such dialogue, however, is based not only on enhanced knowledge but also on trust. Building trust takes time and effort.
Some of you may know that in October Saudi Arabia had its first ever conference on Human Rights and International Law at Riyadh. Saudi Arabia has never before allowed any women to participate in any conference held in this country. I was, therefore, both shocked and enthralled when I was invited to be a speaker at this conference. There were four other women - all Saudis - who were also speaking at the conference. I had known about the segregation between men and women that exists in Saudi Arabia but to know something academically is one thing and to see it visually is quite another. It was obvious from the start that the many of the Saudi organizers were not comfortable with the presence of women who were told to sit on the balcony and not in the main hall. Even the women speakers were not permitted to speak from the podium in the main hall and had to speak on a small microphone that had been put in the balcony. This was disconcerting to say the least. However, I was pleased that Saudi Arabia was holding the conference on a very important subject at which some women's voices were being heard even though they could not be seen. I see these small steps as harbingers of profound changes that are occurring in many countries including Saudi Arabia. A Canadian participant wrote a report of this conference which you may find of interest and hence I am attaching it to this update.
An unexpected blessing of the visit to Saudi Arabia was that I was able to visit the cities of Mecca, the birthplace of Islam, and Medina, the city where the Prophet Muhammad established the first Islamic society. The experience of circumambulating the Ka'ba which Muslims believe was built by the Prophet Abraham and his son Prophet Isma'il, and of following the footsteps of Hagar (Hajira) as she looked for water in the desert where Abraham left her with the infant Isma'il, is unforgettable.
I returned to Louisville on November 7 in a state of great exhaustion. But there was no time to rest. There was a huge backlog of things that had to be attended to. Then there were three speaking engagements, back to back, at Oberlin College in Ohio, Wells College in Auburn, New York, and Denver, Colorado.
On December 9 I leave for an international conference in Berlin (December 11-13) This conference is on "'Holy' War and Gender: Violence in Religious Discourses" and is sponsored by Humboldt University. Before returning to Louisville I will spend a day in Holland. The Dutch Ambassador to Canada who attended the WEBB conference in Ottawa in June has shown an interest in sponsoring a WEBB conference in Holland. When I was in Holland this summer I spent a lot of time talking about WEBB to Dutch Muslim and non-Muslim women. These women were supposed to meet in September for a planning session but this meeting did not take place. While I am disappointed about this I still think that Holland is a very good country for establishing WEBB. I will be meeting some people who may help to jump-start the process.
I will be going to Pakistan for the winter break and returning to Louisville in January.
During my time in Pakistan I will be meeting a number of people who are interested in joining The Middle Way which is a worldwide movement of moderate Muslims. Since September 11, 2001, prime time American media has relentlessly represented Islam as a religion of violence and extremism and blocked out the voices of moderate Muslims who happen to be the silent majority in virtually every Muslim country. I have been speaking endlessly on what Islam is and its focus on justice and peace, at campuses, interfaith meetings and community events throughout the U.S. and in several other places as well. But intensive as my efforts have been in this regard, I believe that what is needed most urgently today is a platform where the collective voices of moderate Muslims can be heard. I am happy to tell you that I am now working with a number of like-minded persons who are dedicated to strengthening The Middle Way and making it an effective voice in global discourse as well as a social change agent in Muslim countries.
My commitment to the INRFVVP remains as strong as ever even though there are times when due to the heavy burden of my multi-faceted responsibilities I am not able to devote as much time to it as I would like to. The fact that we have hardly any financial resources prevents us from having a proper, full-time staff. In September 2003 we were joined by Aisha Shah who is an exceptional young woman. Originally from Mumbai, India, she came to the U.S. on a squash scholarship. She graduated with a degree in religion from Bates College in Maine and then wanted to work for a womens organization. I had given a talk at her College some years ago and she had become a member if INRFVVP. It is most fortunate for us that she opted to come to Louisville to work with me. At this time the INRFVVP is not able to give Aisha an adequate salary and this concerns me greatly.
Once or twice a year I write to you to ask for a donation so that we can sustain the INRFVVP. Some of our members send us a donation without our asking and we thank them sincerely for their faithfulness to the cause of disadvantaged girls and women in Pakistan and in Pakistani communities abroad. But today I want to ask all of you for your help. If you are familiar with the history of the INRFVVP you would know that we have confronted the complex issue of violence against girls and women at every level from the social to the political to the legal to the theological. With our scanty financial resources we have still become a globally-recognized organization listed in many websites on subjects relating to human rights, womens rights and violence. Besides the advocacy and humanitarian work that we do on behalf of female victims of violence the INRFVVP has played a key role is helping several female victims of violence who have sought asylum in this country. Only yesterday one such woman in Seattle won the right to stay in the U.S. Had she been denied asylum and had to go back to Pakistan there is hardly any doubt that she would have been killed.
This is the season of giving for many people in the world. By sending your donation to the INRFVVP you will be helping many girls and women in dire circumstances. If you want to see the faces of some of them please look at our website (https://inrfvvp.org) Our mailing address is P.O. Box 17202, Louisville, Kentucky 40217. Your donations will be tax-exempt and we will promptly send you a receipt for your contribution.
I thank you in advance for your help.
May this season be one of good health and happiness for you and your family and friends.
With my best wishes and regards to all of you,
March 28, 2002
Dear Members and Friends of the INRFVVP,
I hope this finds you in the best of health and spirit. I am writing to you to give you an update on the activities of the INRFVVP and to seek your continuing support for our work which has, since September 11, 2002, become even more critical than before.
Today more attention is focused on Islam than perhaps at any other point in modern history. Undoubtedly, the events which took place in the United States on September 11, 2002, is the immediate cause for this attention. The hijackers who flew commercial planes into the World Trade Centers in New York, and the Pentagon in Washington D.C. - symbols of American economic and military might - were identified by U.S. intelligence agencies as Muslim and Arab. This led to an intense reaction not only against the perpetrators of the gruesome crimes, but also against Islam and Muslims /Arabs at large.
The massive destruction of life and property which took place as a result of the criminal assaults shocked the world and was condemned strongly by the global community. Included in this community were a large number of Muslims who came from all walks of life ranging from leaders of Muslim countries to ordinary people. However, the crisis was perceived - and described - from the outset in terms which polarized the world into two absolutely opposed camps. The worldview which became dominant in the discourse of both American administration and media was symbolized by expressions such as us versus them, either you are with us or you are against us, good versus evil. Dualistic thinking which permeated this discourse seemed, at times, to be cosmic in magnitude. It appeared as if the so called clash of civilizations between the West and the world of Islam posited by Samuel Huntington had indeed come to pass.
However one interprets the fateful events of September 11, 2001, one thing is clear. The world changed forever on the day. There is now no going back to the situation which existed prior to this day. We cannot go back - we can only go forward. This poses a serious challenge both for (non-Muslim) Westerners and for Muslims. How and on what basis are we going to create a new world-order in the aftermath of what happened on September 11, 2001? Is it possible to depolarize the world and to build a bridge between the West and the world of Islam?
While there are no easy or simple answers to the questions posed above, it is gratifying to note that in recent months so much media attention, particularly in the U.S., has been focused on the plight of Afghan women under Taliban rule and that the First Lady of the United States made this the subject of (the Presidents) monthly radio address in November 2001. It is the hope of human rights and womens rights advocates and activists all over the world that after more than two decades of deep misery, hardship and oppression, Afghan women will be able to participate fully in the rebuilding of their lives and their country. It is also my hope that while global attention is centred upon the terrible wrongs suffered by women in Afghanistan, the plight of large numbers of girls and women who are victims of gross violence and brutality in Pakistan will also be remembered.
Pakistan has been a frontline state since September 11 and, under the leadership of General Pervez Musharraf, it has played a vital role as an ally of the United States in the war against terrorism. No other Muslim leader in the world has spoken out so clearly, strongly or courageously against terrorism, both in the region and within Pakistan, as has General Musharraf. The actions taken by his government in cracking down on terrorist organizations and activities is a major historic step for Pakistan. However, much hard and serious work remains to be done before the negative cultural factors which have promoted various kinds of violence in Pakistan can be transformed into positive ones.
President Musharraf and his government has issued many statements about improving the condition of girls and women, and taking concrete steps toward eliminating discrimination and violence against them. Unfortunately, however, the situation on the ground has not changed significantly. The INRFVVP continues to receive stories of girls and women in all parts of Pakistan being victimized in a variety of ways. We recently posted a digest of crimes against girls and women covering the period between August and December 2001. Our data files continue to expand and we are now in the process of organizing the materials we have collected for publication.
Since its start in 1999, the INRFVVP has come a long way. It has become an internationally recognized organization mentioned in many publications and media events. It has become an important resource for parliamentarians and civic leaders, researchers, human rights lawyers, media agencies and other concerned groups and individuals. It continues to be a forum for those who want to raise consciousness about womens issues - particularly those relating to violence either through their personal testimony or through focused discussion of relevant matters. Despite the fact that shortage of staff sometimes causes our listserv to become relatively inactive, the INRFVVP continues to provide services that no other organization in the world does. The importance of our campaign against honor crimes is recognized, amongst others, by former Congressman Paul Findley in his recent book Silent No More: confronting Americas false images of Islam (Amana Publications, Maryland, 2001)
Our hope this year is that we will be able to do workshops in Pakistan. The subject of these workshops would be Mitigating Violence Against Girls and Women in Pakistan through Human Rights Education Based on Normative Islamic Teachings. There is great demand for such workshops throughout the country, particularly at this time when Pakistani society is rethinking its past, present and future. There was never a time as good as now to bring about changes at the grass roots level in Pakistani society. Furthermore, if we are able to create a viable model of womens empowerment through education in Pakistan we can also reach out to those progressive Muslims in other societies and communities that desire to create a justice-and-compassion-based world free of extremism.
I thank you for being Members and Friends of the INRFVVP and I look forward to hearing from you very soon.
May all the blessings be yours.
Wishing you all the best I remain,
With cordial regards,
She deserves a chance!
P.O. Box 17202,
Louisville, Kentucky 40217, U.S.A.