Islamabad - Nasreen Azhar is a prominent human rights activist who is one of the founding members of Women Action Forum. Wife of late Aslam Azhar, founder of Pakistan Television, Nasreen is an elected council member of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. A graduate in History, English literature and Sociology from Punjab University, Nasreen advocates the values of democracy, tolerance, and pluralism in society. Nasreen is based in Islamabad and lives with her son and a daughter.

Q1) What is, in your opinion, the most pressing human rights issue in Pakistan right now?

I would say enforced disappearances because it curtails people’s liberty to express their opinion.Unfortunately, we have witnessed many people supporting secularism, freedom of speech, suddenly disappear from the public eye. This is a form of terrorism in my opinion because it terrorizes people from expressing themselves.

Q2) Is the government serious in tackling the missing persons issue? Or is it just lip service?

Frankly, I think the government is too afraid. Government and politicians are afraid of taking on those who are responsible for enforced disappearances. Although people are speaking out more than before, Farhatullah Babar being prominent among them, there is always a sense of fear that prevails when one talks about holding accountable the perpetrators of these disappearances.

Q3) What has the current government achieved in terms of defending human rights? What do you think is the most important legislation passed?

I think the passing of Hindu marriage act in 2017 merits notice. Since the creation of Pakistan, the Hindu community had not drawn the state’s attention towards its wellbeing. The law relating to Hindu marriages had been in place since colonial times without going through amendment. The new marriage law is a milestone because it has introduced clauses of judicial separation, and the right to divorce. The law will allow Hindu women to get out of an unwanted relationship and enter another one on their own will. Of course, the enactment of this law received harsh criticism from Hindu priests and patriarchs who could not digest the fact that women of their community will have control over their life.

Q4) How did you first become involved in activism?  What are the challenges you have faced as a woman in advocating the human and women rights causes?

When the Hudood ordinance was enforced in 1979 during Zia’s Islamisation regime, we didn’t fully realize the potential damage to different sections of society, particularly women. But when the Fahmida Allah Bakhsh case came to spotlight in September 1981, there was a desperate urge to break the silence.  This was right at the time when an elected prime minister, Z.A. Bhutto, had been hanged, and there was total censorship. News appeared in the papers that a young woman who had married a man her father didn’t approve of would face punishment of 100 lashes under the new hudood law. Fahmida’s father had filed a case of kidnapping against her husband, Allah Bakhsh who would be stoned to death for committing adultery.

The news shocked us and we decided to get together to do something about it.15 of us gathered at a friend’s house and invited women from all women organisations in Karachi. We then decided to form Women Action Forum. Since we couldn’t demonstrate on street, we launched a signature campaign to get signatures from notables in three cities of Pakistan: Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad.We wrote a five-point charter of demands, which included getting rid of the ban on cultural activities, ban on women taking part in sports and attempts to completely segregate education. We managed to collect 7,000 signatures from across the three cities and sent the document to Zia-ul-Haq. Of course, there was no response from him. But the movement instilled in us a confidence to highlight issues such as this. Then we established the WAF office and met once a week in our respective cities. So I would say it was with the formation of WAF that I became officially involved in rights activism. Then I also joined HRCP when it was formed in 1986.

Luckily I’ve not had any dangerous encounters being a woman, but I must admit that during Zia-ul-Haq’s rule, one felt intimated because we were not sure whether our phones were being tapped or whether we were being watched.

Q5) Although many young men and women are filled with the stereotypical ‘do-something’ spirit, very few have the courage to talk about a cause that will upset the status quo, such as the plight of religious minorities. What can be done to raise awareness among the youth about the importance of speaking out against human rights abuses?

The Ahmedi question is always a scary one. It’s understandable that not many people want to talk about it or speak up for the community, lest they are accused of committing blasphemy. I think we have to organize ourselves to bring real change. And political parties have to take lead because they are agents of change. Progressive men and women should join parties then stand up for human rights. Working with WAF, we would always prepare a charter of demands asking for rights which we would send to political parties. We demanded 25 percent seats for women in parliament and managed to achieve our goal. Our work was also not restricted to women; we took up the issue of religious minorities and labour rights in Karachi. Therefore, to become the next generation of activists, the youth must become part of platforms that can influence a positive social change.