Brave Pakistan Politician Stands Her Ground

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Sherry Rehman photographed in 2008 when she was Pakistan's Information Minister. She resigned from the position in 2009. AP

It’s no coincidence that Sherry Rehman’s mango-colored, Raj-era house in Karachi’s Old Clifton sits close to Fatima Jinnah’s. Like the sister of Pakistan’s founding father, Sherry—whose Westernized diminutive is derived from Shehrbano, a classical Persian name that means “princess”—has devoted her life to her country. As a journalist, author, and (for a decade now) politician, the elegant 50-year-old has seen and suffered violence without yielding to the temptation of an easier life.

It has been a bleak year so far for Pakistan, even by its own harrowing standards. Salmaan Taseer, governor of Punjab, was assassinated by his own fanatical security guard in January, and Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian in Pakistan’s government, was gunned down earlier this month by the Punjabi Taliban. Like them, Rehman has urged a review of the country’s blasphemy laws to prevent their misuse. Like them, Rehman had stood up for protecting minorities as well as vulnerable Muslims in Pakistan. Last November, after Taseer took up the cause of Aasia Noreen, a Christian mother of five sentenced to death for blasphemy, an indignant Rehman put forth a bill in Parliament to amend the controversial laws.

The jihadists were outraged by Rehman’s move. She was anathematized at high-octane Islamist rallies and burned in effigy. A cleric at a major mosque in an Army-run neighborhood in her hometown of Karachi issued a fatwa, declaring her wajib-ul-qatl, or fit to be killed. The Tanzeem-e-Islami, an organization devoted to an “Islamic renaissance through the revolutionary process,” pamphleteered against her for “provoking the religious honor of the Muslims of Pakistan.” A lawsuit in Lahore seeks her dismissal from Parliament. The charges against her are outlandish, but passions in Pakistan are running dangerously, even insanely, high.

“That call to emotion, ‘if you’re not with us, then you’re not really a good Muslim,’ instills fear in many hearts,” said Rehman in an interview with NEWSWEEK at her house, where she lives with her daughter, husband, and mother. “It has rattled the religious right that many of us have read chapter and verse of the Quran, as well as the sayings of the Prophet, and we make our arguments in Parliament and on television on the basis of that.” She is well versed about Islam, but does not wear her faith on her sleeve, as many women in public life here are expected to as proof of their piety and domesticity. Ultimately, she says, there will have to be a new middle ground.

“There has to be a much more tolerant Pakistan because everyday issues are sweeping up people’s lives, and those everyday issues are structured in inequalities that are getting more and more aggravated and deep. And when that happens, your passions inflame much easier.” The religious right has used Pakistan’s social fragmentation to inflame passions on issues that are framed in religious or theological terms in order to control the political agenda. “It’s not as if Pakistan does not have major structural and economic problems, and we really need to focus on those in the days ahead,” she says.

Rehman, who has largely been keeping to her Karachi home because of the security threat, met with Bhatti at the National Assembly a week before his assassination. “He was understandably very upset and frustrated. He said he was going to go to Lahore and address issues of religious intolerance at public meetings, but the Raymond Davis issue had added to the flames in the street,” she says, referring to the CIA contractor on trial for killing two Pakistani men. “He knew that blasphemy and anti-Americanism have become one deliberate and unfortunate conflation, and that was not good for anyone.”

Bhatti was killed on March 2 in Islamabad outside his mother’s house. His assassins have warned that they will target other members of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party—whose ideology preaches a tolerance that is derided by its critics as secularism, a word that carries an increasingly pejorative charge in Pakistan. Speaking in Parliament the day after Bhatti’s assassination, Interior Minister Rehman Malik identified the targets that the Tehrik-e-Taliban have in their sights. “I am at No. 1, Sherry is at No. 2, and Fauzia Wahab [an M.P.] is at No. 3,” he said. “Next time, you may not find me here,” he added.

Precautions would seem to make sense. In February 2007 Rehman was hospitalized after being attacked at a rally in Karachi against Gen. Pervez Musharraf, then president of Pakistan. Three months later, she was caught in an ambush when Musharraf loyalists opened fire in various parts of the city to disrupt a protest against the sacking of the country’s chief justice, an opponent of Musharraf. The clashes claimed at least 42 lives. That October she survived the attack on former prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s homecoming procession in Rawalpindi—at 136 dead, this was Pakistan’s most brutal suicide bombing. “Those kinds of experiences, the kind of fire you walk through, sharpen your resolve to at least stay centered,” says Rehman. It was Bhutto who persuaded Rehman to join her Pakistan Peoples Party. “One day she rang me in London and said, ‘Sherry, have you registered your vote?’ I said, ‘Of course. Do I look like a nonvoter to you?’” When they met in London, Bhutto asked her to accept a party seat in the Senate. “She was a force of nature. How could you ever say anything but yes to her?”

In 2002 Rehman became one of 60 women who had seats reserved in Parliament, the result of an affirmative-action initiative to enhance the woefully small number of female legislators. “I think it revolutionized the discourse,” she says of the reserved seats. “It’s women who always tackle the difficult, head-on challenges—always the women.” Rehman is not one to shy away from a good challenge. As a legislator, she has often had to reach across the aisle to push for laws against domestic violence and sexual harassment, and for amendments to the country’s rape laws, which stack the deck against the victims. “In the last assembly I was constantly battling women’s issues,” she says. “The main work I do is national security. That doesn’t usually draw this kind of controversy; it’s safe work.” Jinnah Institute, the think tank she founded in 2000, focuses on regional peace and security matters.

When Rehman became the country’s first woman information minister in March 2008, she introduced a bill to remove restrictions placed on the media during the last days of the Musharraf regime, and she has authored a right-to-information bill that will force greater official transparency if signed into law. She made an in-camera presentation on national security to a joint session of Parliament; this was novel in a country where women, who make up almost half the country’s population of 180 million, are almost never taken seriously on security matters. In April 2009 she made an impassioned plea, urging Parliament not to abandon the northern district of Swat to the Taliban. The appeasement of the Taliban backfired, as she had feared it would. The Army had to be sent in, and the military operation to flush the Taliban out of Swat created the world’s largest population of internally displaced persons.

Through it all, Rehman kept her party colleagues on message, and maintained her cool despite provocations from opposition M.P.s, news anchors, and smear campaigns through anonymous mass text messages. Rehman was one of President Asif Ali Zardari’s closest advisers and, for most Pakistanis, an important face of his government. After she resigned from office in March 2009 (in protest against the government’s disruption of TV channels critical of it), she was also removed as her party’s information secretary. Now, after the recent assassinations, the party has pulled together. “The PPP is still the most tolerant party for women and minorities, and at times when Pakistan faces serious crises, we stand by each other,” says Rehman. The government is providing security cover to her.

In Karachi, Rehman is now deluged with visitors concerned for her safety, many of them begging her to leave the country. “It already bothers me that I’m not at the rallies and the vigils. The least I can do is not walk away from this,” she says. “What is a life worth living? What is there left for me to protect forever? If I go away, I’ll always be anxious about what I did, what is happening at home, and what I left behind.”

But things may already be changing. Conservatives like ex-prime minister Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain and cricketer turned politician Imran Khan share Rehman’s position that the abuse of the blasphemy laws must be prevented. Maulana Fazlur Rehman of the orthodox Sunni Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, a former coalition partner, also seems to have come around. “This is not about constitutionalism or secularism, this is about having laws that conform to the Quran,” says Rehman. “Injustice is not something we need to show tolerance for.” The narrative of lost hope, she says, is a tired one. “We will not be able to turn back the tide of militancy with only military means. Extremism will have to be challenged now, especially when it takes a murderous turn. Pakistan must not be allowed to turn into a country where a person is killed for their beliefs. This is not who we are, either as citizens or Muslims.”

Ahmed is editor of NEWSWEEK Pakistan.