The Sydney Morning Herald
September 8, 2011
Paul McGeough, Islamabad
TO CAMP at the crossroads of courage and recklessness is to live dangerously. To stay put after two stalwart allies have been murdered requires the nerves of steel that are immediately apparent on meeting Sherry Rehman.
She is a woman who knows something about pressure politics – Pakistani style.
The striking 50-year-old, no-nonsense Pakistani MP glides across the marbled floors of her heavily guarded villa in Islamabad and folds herself into the upholstered club chair.
Above her is a portrait of a veiled Benazir Bhutto – on the opposite wall, a Picasso lithograph and a Miro.
Ms Rehman was travelling in the campaign convoy of the former prime minister in 2007 when a gunman shot Ms Bhutto before detonating a suicide bomb. Ms Rehman says: ”We all were injured in the blasts. You only worry about being maimed. It’s the price of a certain kind of politics in this country.”
Her steeliness emerges in her defiance of all gunmen – be they extremist militias or shadowy agents of the government of which she is a member. This year, militiamen killed the two senior public figures who had the courage to support her campaign to reform Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws.
In May she ignored security advice and was back in the streets protesting after the murder of a prominent journalist – a killing that senior US officials publicly declared to have been sanctioned by the Islamabad government.
”I come from a party with a long tradition of people putting their lives on the line,” she says. ”These are ordinary people who stand up bravely and many of them have been tortured and killed.”
It is safe to say that Pakistanis watch her movements closely. There have been 2.37 million hits on a YouTube clip in which the Prime Minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, brushed against Ms Rehman amid the tumult of a rowdy protest march, and 1.5 million hits on a clip of her smoking a cigarette. It goes beyond public fascination. In a country in which the gunmen say she, too, is in their crosshairs, it seems like overexposure.
Ms Rehman spearheaded the campaign to save Aasia Bibi, a villager from Punjab province who last year became the first woman to be sentenced to death under the blasphemy law. There are 60 women in the national assembly but Ms Rehman’s was the lone female voice in defence of the village woman whose ”crime” was to take offence when her fellow field workers, Muslims, complained that the water she shared with them in the heat of summer was unclean because she was a Christian.
The Islamist wave washing over Pakistan today is a manifestation of something that began long before the al-Qaeda attacks on the US, back when Washington made a strategic asset of extremist Islam in Pakistan. The military dictator of the day, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, encouraged religious factions to dilute the effectiveness of lay political parties.
It was era in which the US harnessed the mujahideen in neighbouring Afghanistan to defeat the Soviet Union and today Ms Rehman and those she supports pay the price. It was the Afghan conflict of the 1980s that fused militancy and Islam so ferociously across south Asia.
In January, Salman Taseer, the secularly minded governor of Punjab province, was murdered by a security guard who objected to his support for reform of the blasphemy law. After the killing, Ms Rehman urged her ruling Pakistan People’s Party not to wilt under extremist pressure to keep the law as it stood.
But in February, Mr Gilani told Ms Rehman to withdraw a parliamentary bill that sought to reform the law. ”Appeasement of extremists will have a blowback effect,” she warned at the time. Weeks later, another blasphemy reform campaigner, the federal minorities minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, was murdered.
Talking to the Herald about rallies that drew tens of thousands to oppose her reform campaign, she says: ”I don’t think my views anger three-quarters of the Pakistani people. I think they give them hope. We have to reclaim our Islamic beliefs from the extremists. So if I see a fire I run to it – we have to put it out. You can’t run away just because the kitchen gets too hot.”
In a country as unstable as hers it would be impossible for a politician not to be caught up in the endless national security debate and, while her profile as the blasphemy campaigner is ”unfortunate,” she adds: ”I can’t separate myself from women’s rights. You see it all around you and the dots have to be connected.”
Ms Rehman was a 19-year-old journalist when she received her first death threat. The subject of her story was the bare-knuckled political battles in her home city, Karachi. ”The threats became very much a part of my jobs – first in journalism and now politics.
”You kind of develop a distance. You can’t wake up to regard every threat as a real and present danger. But I do draw a line between foolishness and caution and I have to worry about my family.”
Ms Rehman returned from a period living in London in 2000 to help rebuild Pakistan’s democracy. But after a decade of frontline brutality, she says: ”There are times when I wish I could retire and live a different life, but I’ll have to put in more years on this roller-coaster.”
Before stepping into her bulletproof 4WD for the dash to Islamabad’s airport, she states a simple philosophy: ”If our educated people who have resources don’t pitch in to make their voices heard, it will be very difficult for the average Pakistani to reconstruct their dreams. We have to push back … there is no other way.”