“For vulnerable communities, civil society groups are a ray of hope” – interview with Qamar Naseem, Blue Veins, Pakistan

Qamar Naseem, programme coordinator with women’s organisation Blue Veins, based in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan, speaks to CIVICUS about the main challenges civil society groups and women face from religious right politicians in Pakistan.

What do you feel are the main challenges faced by civil society in Pakistan?

There are several challenges to CSOs in the different areas of Pakistan. The biggest challenge to Pakistani civil society is its recognition; it has often failed to bring the government within a people-centric corruption-free framework.

In most areas of Pakistan civil society exists in an underdeveloped form. There are always challenges to the liberal and democratic system in Pakistan, which has not allowed CSOs to grow in a considerable way. Ignorance, lack of sensitisation and poor knowledge about rights, and a lack of inclusion polices, have remained big challenges for civil society.

With increasing extremism, the space for liberals has decreased significantly. The space for dissent is consistently becoming smaller and more restricted. It is becoming easier for the state and the other dominant powers to label all dissent as terrorism or anti-national, while non-state actors aligned with the state easily label dissent as being part of a western agenda.

We understand that civil society groups in the Kohistan district of Pakistan are coming under increased pressure from the religious right? Could you tell us a little bit about the situation?

On 4 May 2012 former member of the National Assembly Maulvi Abdul Haleem and well-known religious leaders from Kohistan warned women working in civil society organisations against entering the Kohistan district, and said violators of the warning would be forcibly married off to locals. He issued a decree during his Friday sermon that a woman obtaining degree level education is repugnant to Islamic injunctions, because if a woman gets a degree she may use it for job, an act which Islam doesn’t allow in absence of mehram (close relatives), he told reporters.

Mr Haleem said, “If women working in NGOs enter Kohistan, we won’t spare them and will solemnise their nikkah (marriage) with local men.” He added that if CSOs wanted to work for women’s development, they should spend money for this purpose through government departments. He added, “We won’t let NGOs influence our women in the name of empowerment and financial support through women workers of NGOs.”

In support of Maluvi Abdul Haleem, other religious leaders from KP started to issue statements such as, “Don’t you know what NGOs are doing here, they are destroying our social fabric, they enter Muslim countries in the name of charity and make veiled women unveil in the name of equality and empowerment. It’s our collective responsibility as Muslims in line with sharia to check immorality spread by NGOs and others in society.”

Accusing CSOs of working against Kohistani tribal customs, local clerics have decided in principle to expel them from the district. The clerics of Kohistan got together and warned CSOs to leave Kohistan or face consequences, in a meeting attended by 85 prayer leaders. On 1 July 2012, in a meeting at Jamia Masjid Kamila, over 150 clerics from across the district vowed that they will not offer funeral prayers (Namaz-e-Janaza) for people who continue to be beneficiaries of any CSO.

They also formed a 34-member committee for the purpose of ensuring that  CSOs leave the area as soon as possible. The committee will meet on 14 July to decide on a future line of action if CSOs are not driven out of the district. Former members of the provincial assembly Maulana Dildar, Maulana Abdul Khanan, Maulana Fakhrul Islam and Maulana Noor Nabi were amongst the prominent voices during this meeting. With the local ulema (Islamic law scholars) still adamant on not reversing their joint edict of declaring CSO-sponsored projects haram (un-Islamic), CSOs working in different parts of Kohistan have suspended their activities.

How are Pakistani civil society groups working to protect and expand the space for civil society and advance human rights?

Despite all the challenges Pakistani civil society groups are working to protect and expand civil society space of civil society and advance human rights at several levels. They are defending and promoting human rights and social justice, often in the face of state-sponsored bigotry and fanaticism. They are working against discriminatory laws in Pakistan and exposing grave human rights violations like disappearances, extra-judicial killings, torture, honour killings, harassment, bonded labour, child marriages and impunity.

Civil society groups in Pakistan are also playing an important role of creating awareness on legal and social issues. For vulnerable communities like minorities, people with disabilities, sexual minorities and women and children, civil society groups are a ray of hope.

Today, the number of women organising at grassroots levels and establishing linkages with other institutions is remarkable, even though their impact at the wider societal level is not so visible. However, women across Pakistan still continue to fight against primitive social customs and discrimination. Civil society’s efforts in this regard entail a slow process, as deep-rooted societal norms cannot be altered quickly.

How can international civil society support you in your cause?

International civil society can put pressure on the Government of Pakistan to comply with the United Nations Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognised Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (commonly known as the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders), which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 1998. Also the civil society of Pakistan should be given space and forums at international levels where they can raise and share issues with international CSOs.  International organisation should provide opportunities to CSOs in Pakistan to build their capacity to meet such challenges.

Qamar Naseem works as a programme coordinator with Blue Veins, a women’s organisation based in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and working in different parts of Pakistan, including the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). She is also Co-Chair of the End Violence against Women and Children Alliance (KP and FATA), and an active member of Pakthunkhwa Civil Society Network, violence against women watch group and the provincial gender-based violence response committee, legislative review and reform committee, the prevention of sexual harassment in the work workplace implementation watch group established by provincial commission for the status of women, and a member of the child commission for FATA formed by the Governor of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.