Shabina Riaz is a Parliamentarian in Pakistan's Provincial Assembly of the Punjab. Mrs. Riaz is a member of the majority Pakistan People's Party and just got elected as the Chairperson of Punjab's standing committee on "Women Development, Social Welfare, and Bait-ul-Maal".
In an exclusive interview with The Exception Magazine, Mrs. Riaz addresses many misconceptions of her country, including women's rights, President-Elect Obama's statements regarding Pakistan, the prospect of war with India and the roots of terrorism.
The Exception: What is the biggest misconception of Pakistan?
Mrs. Riaz: Pakistan is often viewed as a rogue state harboring terrorists and our society has been frequently labeled as intolerant which is quite contrary to reality. More than 90% of our elected parliamentarians hail from political parties with progressive and moderate manifestos. The mishandling of the Afghan War resulted in an influx of Arab, Tajik, Uzbek, and Afghan fighters to our bordering areas. These foreign elements have been conspiring to destabilize our country through brutal attacks on our political leaders and countless innocent people. We, as a nation, stand united in our resolve to face this threat head on. A unanimous resolution recently passed by our Parliament clearly reflects that resolve.
What is the status of women's rights in Pakistan?
Over the last decade, women employment rates have climbed sharply. In our national and provincial legislatures, we have special reserved seats for women to promote their participation in the political process. For the first time in our history, we have a Speaker of our Parliament who is a woman.
We have a come a long way in terms of protecting women rights, but still a lot needs to be done. Women literacy rates are still lower compared to men. Our government is making continuous efforts to provide equal education and employment opportunities. Since our society is socially conservative, most victimized women do not openly speak out about their sufferings. However, this too is changing with support of an independent and powerful electronic media and recent amendments in women protection laws that have undone some discriminatory practices of the past.
The official name of your country is the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. What legal rights do Christians and Jews have and in your opinion, how are they treated by society?
All minorities enjoy equal legal rights. Our constitution also guarantees special reserved seats for minorities in our Parliament. There is a department for minority rights in our federal and provincial governments headed by an elected minister.
We have had a Chief Justice (Mr. Justice Rana Bhagwandas), who belonged to the Hindu faith.
What do you think is the root cause of terrorism towards the West?
Pakistanis felt isolated and betrayed when Americans left us in total bewilderment after the Afghan-Soviet War, especially after we had played a major role in bringing down the Soviets. Western support of dictatorial regimes in the Muslim world further distanced the people from the West. Invasion of Iraq on totally unfounded reasons made people further doubt the US's intentions in the region.
News reports of countless innocent civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan and NATO's unilateral drone missile attacks in our North-Western part provide stirring rhetoric for extremist foreign elements to manipulate poor, frustrated, and disgruntled youth in our region. The West needs to understand that there is no military solution to this problem. Unless we address basic issues like extreme poverty, lack of education and stop unilateral military operations, peace cannot find its roots.
Is there anger over the Israel-Palestinian conflict and if so, does this affect the political views of Pakistanis?
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a deteriorating law and order situation in our tribal belt has put the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a backdrop. Currently, Pakistanis' biggest concern is the raging threat of domestic terrorism that has put our country's existence at stake.
Having said that, Pakistanis have an extremely strong emotional bond with the Palestinians. And unless Western nations come together in addressing the plight of the Palestinians and amicably resolve the Palestinian-Israeli issue, in light of the UN resolutions which require Israel to withdraw completely from the occupied territories, the US and the West will always be viewed with suspicion.
What are the top legislative priorities of your political party, the Pakistan People's Party?
Our top most legislative priority is to strengthen our Parliament and other democratic institutions. During General Musharraf's regime, our Parliament was made a rubber-stamp institution through the 17th amendment, which we intend to reverse.
We plan to amend our district and town government bodies bill to introduce a truly democratic grass-roots level political system across the country. This will promote the common man's participation in governance and help resolve issues at large quickly. Special parliamentary committees have been formed to introduce Health and Education reforms across the country.
Is there a power struggle between democratically-elected officials like yourself and the tribal leaders throughout your country?
A great distrust developed between our government and tribal leaders when General Musharraf's dictatorial regime resorted to a thoughtless military aggression to establish the writ of the government in the tribal areas. Since our government took over, we have tried to bridge the gap by bringing these people into the democratic process. Already our efforts are bearing fruit, since tribal leaders have formed voluntary armies to drive foreign and extremist elements out of their areas.
What is the government doing to prevent domestic terrorism?
There is a two-pronged strategy. The short-term strategy involves enlisting the support of local tribal militias to drive out Al-Qaeda and other extremist elements. Already, our political efforts have started bearing fruit and in recent months many tribal groups have formed voluntary groups that are assisting the Pakistani Army in its pursuit against terrorists. However, our efforts to wage a joint struggle against extremists are badly hampered when US drone missiles hit innocent civilians in the tribal belt.
Waziristan remains one of the most under-developed and poverty-ridden areas. It is no surprise that the extremists find easy recruits amongst the poor, frustrated, and disgruntled youth. We need to do massive infrastructure development in the tribal areas, provide education and create jobs. The only way to succeed against terrorism and alienate extremists is by winning the hearts and minds of our local people. The Biden-Lugar bill granting non-military aid to Pakistan was a first right step in this direction.
Obama argued during the Presidential debates that, if needed, the US will disregard Pakistan's sovereignty and pursue terrorists within your borders. How was that US foreign policy proposal received by the Pakistani government?
The media seems to have misquoted Obama on Pakistan. What he really said was that if we have credible information and Pakistani government doesn't act on it, only then Americans will be forced to act independently.
Our troops have been in the forefront in the struggle against Al-Qaeda. We have lost thousands of soldiers in this war. We have been the biggest victims of terrorism, suffering from more than 50 suicide attacks just this year. We have lost our beloved leader Benazir Bhutto to terrorism. If given credible information about terrorist hideouts, we would be the first ones to take action. And why would we not? It has hurt us more than it has hurt any Western nation.
Obama threatened to cut aid to Pakistan if there are more "peace treaties with the Taliban." How dependent is Pakistan on US aid?
The peace treaties were not signed with the Taliban. Only the tribal militias who gave up arms and agreed to cooperate with the Pakistani army were given amnesty.
In a recent research report by our Ministry of Finance, it is stated that Pakistan has suffered losses amounting to $8 billion per year for the last 7 years as a result of the US's war on terror in the region. The international aid that we receive hardly makes up 10% of those losses. Plus, most of that aid is in the shape of military equipment. Our economy has suffered tremendously over the last few years as a result of this disparity.
Does the public generally support Pakistan's alliance with America?
Most Pakistanis have become skeptical of the US's support to Pakistan since the US left us all alone in the aftermath of the Afghan-Soviet War. The unilateral drone missile strikes by US forces in our tribal areas are taken as an attack on our sovereignty. Unless, Pakistan is treated as an equal and a sovereign partner in this alliance, public opinion about the US will continue to remain unfavorable.
Asif Ali Zardari, President of Pakistan, claims the Mumbai terrorists were "stateless actors." Was Pakistan somehow responsible for the terrorist attacks?
President Zardari was right on target when he labeled the Mumbai terrorists as stateless actors. Like Al-Qaeda, these people do no belong to any one state or country. These terrorists don't believe in any religion or faith. They have only one agenda, an agenda of hate and their mission is to exterminate anyone who comes in their way, be it a Christian, Jew or Muslim.
Pakistan has not only condemned those attacks but also offered unconditional support in setting up a joint investigation team. We have suffered from many similar events ourselves and truly understand the agonizing pain. Terrorism is our common enemy and it's time that both India and Pakistan shun their past practices of pointing fingers at each other and join hands to face this threat head on.
What are the chances of war between India and Pakistan now?
Both India and Pakistan cannot afford any conflict, especially in the light of the present global economic meltdown. Plus, public opinion on both sides is averse to any such misadventure. The political rhetoric and war frenzy will tone down in the coming weeks as reality sinks in.
Finally, if Americans had one a week to travel in Pakistan, where would you recommend they go?
Nathia Gali, a hilly resort, two hours drive north of Islamabad is a must-go place. It's a great summer retreat from the scorching heat with sky-high lush green mountains, delicious food, and hospitable local people. The drive to this hill station is an enthralling adventure in itself.