Knowing Pakistan- Through Marvi Sirmed

Marvi Sirmed started her career as a journalist in 1990. She began working as an article writer. Sirmed’s Other positions include sub editor, editor of the women’s page, editor of the students’ page and member of investigative team in different national dailies, such as Daily News, Daily Jang, Khabrein. After that, she had worked with Crescent Model School and Pamir Knot College, as subject specialist in chemistry and English linguistics. She has also worked as the National Project Manager of a parliamentary development project for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Strengthening Democracy through Parliamentary Development (SDPD) in Pakistan. In addition, she worked as an Institutional Development Specialist with the Ministry of Women Development (Government of Pakistan) and as a Policy Advocacy Specialist with National Commission on the Status of Women, as a UNDP expert.

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What do you think Pakistan needs the most to strengthen its Democracy? Can you share some of your experience and learning during your work at- as the National Project Manager of a parliamentary development project for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), Strengthening Democracy through Parliamentary Development (SDPD) in Pakistan?

A populace who is convinced that Pakistan should have democratic system of governance and that democracy needs to be strengthened. It is disappointing and alarming that much of what we call youth ‘bulge’ has stopped believing that democracy could ‘deliver’ and could be a better system of governance. I dread when I think of Pakistan’s future where this thought is being seen as growing. It is dangerous. It is anti-people. But what could one say when people themselves are getting convinced of something that disempowers them.

This mindset, one must keep in mind, is product of an education system that embargoes a questioning mind, discourages critical thinking and produces hoards of loyal conformists. There have been forces in Pakistan who have benefitted from this trend. The ‘establishment’, as we call these forces, has been responsible for this confusion among the urban middle class. The political ambition of these forces of ‘establishment’ is another big challenge for a fledgling democracy in Pakistan.

As regards my experience of working with the Parliament, I have learned a great deal about politics in Pakistan and the way politicians dabble their way through mostly unfair criticism they have to face. I learned how civil bureaucracy makes it almost impossible for the political forces to perform simple governance functions. The lack of transparency and governance hugely benefits these non-political forces that then leave politicians to do dirty work and clean the mess. Not saying that politicians are completely innocent. But just that, I have learnt through this Project, that we need to see other sides of the picture too.

You have established so many organizations for women in Punjab and Sindh, you were also part of the Aurat Foundation’s Legislative Watch Program in 2001. You think the conditions of women in Pakistan have changed since then. What is lacking in the effort? Your Comments?

I think it has changed a lot. In many respects, it remains the same too. I’m glad that I have been part of this movement to organize women at different levels and fight for their rights and rights of all the marginalized communities. But it is also a fact that these efforts need to be taken forward with a different approach and strategy.

I say this because for most of the issues that we have been taking up, the controversial ones like the repeal of Hudood Ordinances, of Blasphemy Laws, of removal of compoundability in honour killing cases through Qisas & Diyat Law, and many other discriminatory laws, we could not somehow muster popular support from the grass roots. While working with women from the lowest income groups, from most disadvantaged sections and from poorest of the poor, through various income generation, community development, credit programs etc, we could not gather them around these bigger campaigns for structural and legal reforms. Consequently, these campaigns were left to few upper and middle class women, who quickly got the label of ‘westernized’ women with a supposed ‘anti-Pakistan’ and ‘anti-Islam’ agenda.

Despite all these problems, women movement in Pakistan continued all through these decades. On our way, we have got quite a few accomplishments. Hudood Ordinances have become practically toothless, we got job quotas for women, we got reserved quota for women in legislatures, we got many laws against anti-women practices, etc. Emphasis on girls’ education in last two decades has produced educated women work force. This has resulted in increased women presence in social life. Education and resultant share in economic activity has been responsible for delay in otherwise early marriage trend among girls.

However, a lot of work still needs to be done. The struggle continues!

The recent victory of Obama- back as the President of the United States, is not appreciated by many in Pakistan, what is your take on it? With Reasons for the same. US was always a threat to the Muslim World, you think continuation of Obama is adding fuel to the fire- which is always Talk Peace and Wage War Strategy.

I think we are overestimating Right wing control on Pakistan’s narrative here. Yes there have been elements that have been fanning anti-US sentiment, but saying that most people in Pakistan did not appreciate Obama victory, would be an uninformed generalization. People here are anti-US, not anti-Obama. Most of the people believe that whosoever be the POTUS, Pakistan would be at the receiving end of American violence. We can argue about this faulty judgment, which is again, a product of organized propaganda campaign from right wing forces here. Unfortunately, people of Pakistan are much more receptive to these propaganda campaigns than people in any other given country.

I don’t think ‘Muslim world’ is a uniform political ‘whole’, which is being demonized by a ‘Satan’ America. Yes America as a sole super power in today’s world order does have an imperialistic streak and yes most of the countries receiving this imperialistic wrath are muslim majority countries. But deducing from this, that Muslims are being targeted by the world forces is too much of simplification of complex international issues. Unfortunately, we in Pakistan are not trained to deal with complex issues. We like to simplify them and simply love to go in a ‘victim’ mode. That gives us a comfort of not being responsible for whatever is happening to us.

What is the one message- apart from peace and Harmony, you would like to give to the world at large?(which you feel you must convey to the world or share with the world as part of your experience)

Justice and fairness. I think most of the problems of the world emerge from the fact that injustice happens and goes scot-free. At ever level of analysis, individual, societal and international, justice is one most important thing that we must observe. The powerless in this world is crushed or exploited by the powerful with every tool in hand. Sometimes this ‘power’ is exercised through money, resources, information, opportunities, law or even education. Certain groups are kept aloof from education, information, resources, opportunities and money. Law is designed to help only those who exercise power. At every level.National or international. When you do this perpetually, you give rise to strife and unrest, which has one logical end: war and bloodshed.

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