Hope Blooms in the Desert

At 6 a.m. Karachi is slowly awakening - our taxi speeds through empty roads that are normally crowded with cars, donkey carts, auto rickshaws, and the brightly painted trucks for which Pakistan is so famous.

Shahnawaz, the man who will chaperone my daughter and I on our visit to Rural Women's Welfare Organization, has spent a whole day traveling in order to be with us. Since 1999, the Global Fund for Women has funded this organization serving women in the most remote parts of interior Sindh province, but we have never had a chance to visit the group in its own office or to meet with the hundreds of rural women who see the tanzeem (Urdu for organization) as a beacon of light and hope.

Today, my 13-year-old daughter, Mira and I are en route to Sanghar, the small Sindhi town, where the founders of RWWO live and work. It is two days before the festival of Eid ul-Adha (the celebration of sacrifice), better known in South Asia as Bakri Eid (celebration of Goats). It commemorates the sacrifice the prophet Abraham was willing to make and the miracle that substituted a lamb in place of his son at the moment of death. Today, all over the Islamic world, goats, sheep, cattle, camels, and oxen are slaughtered in a graphic re-enactment of this devotion to God. For over a month, families have been feeding and decorating the animals in their care. Goats are festive with paint, henna and colorful ribbons. It is said that a true sacrifice requires you to part with something that you have truly come to love. As we travel further away from the urban metropolis of Karachi, we notice goats in their finery everywhere - stuffed into the backs of small cars, paraded in small herds along the side of the roads, peering out from the backs of small trucks and lorries.

Goats are actually much more visible than women in Pakistan, especially here in rural and extremely conservative Sindh. Women are the backbone of the rural economy, performing over two-thirds of the agricultural labour, yet their contributions are neither included in assessments of gross national product nor a guarantee of their physical safety. RWWO works in a region with one of the highest rates of female illiteracy and violence against women in all of Pakistan. In the reports that fill our files in the Global Fund office, we know how hard RWWO has had to work to raise awareness and challenge traditional practices that reduce women to the status of private property. Karo Kari, Urdu for honor killings, are routine in the province of Sindh - last year alone some estimated 100 women were victims of murder perpetuated by male relatives. Women are murdered in retaliation for feuds between families, they are murdered because they are "presumed to be unchaste," they are murdered because they dared to marry someone of their own choice, they are murdered because they are the victims of rape and then considered to have brought shame on the family, they are murdered because they are vulnerable and no-one speaks out on their behalf.

No one that is, except RWWO. It is not until you actually visit the intensely provincial and conservative town of Sanghar, that you realize how incredibly brave and idealistic the founder of RWWO, Imam Zadi, must have had to be to embark on the path she has chosen to blaze here in her own small town, not in a big city. A soft-spoken woman in her sixties, Imam Zadi has eyes that shine with a passion for women's rights. She has an unshakeable conviction that her work on behalf of women's emancipation is no less an expression of her faith than those who have formal titles of mullah or priest. Her husband is a remarkable partner to this firebrand for justice. A graduate of Karachi University's philosophy program, he is the first man I meet in Pakistan to introduce himself as follows, "Greetings, I am a lifelong feminist."  This is followed by a tour of his remarkable collection of classic Hindi, English and Hollywood films.

Although we have just negotiated street vendors selling bangles, donkeys on the street, and loud arguments in Sindhi on the busy main street that is just outside their door, as you walk up the narrow stairs to the RWWO office and the home of the Zadi family, you can distinctly hear strains of Verdi - its one of his 300 vinyl records of Western Classical music that he has lovingly preserved. Surrounded by his grandchildren, whom he insists must learn English, he pulls out an extraordinary compilation of newspaper cuttings on crimes of violence against women.

"This is what is wrong with our world, this is what we have to change. This is why RWWO is so critical in our lives," he says as we look at photographs of brutally mutilated bodies.

Between them, Shah and Imam Zadi are a couple who have launched a small revolution. Products of a lower middle class, landed family, their marriage stands out as an example of true partnership and equality. He recounts how the jirga or local town council wanted to censure Imam for "promiscuity unfitting to a woman of her class" because she was "consorting with people of poor reputations, unmarried women, Hindus, tribals, and low caste villages."

He went to the Jirga and demanded to know what they had done during their tenure to improve the lives of those who most needed their help - the poor, the dispossessed, the Hindu minority of Sindh.

"My wife and the organization she has started have dug wells, provided clinics, built schools, and improved the lives of hundreds of people in Sindh. Until you show me that you have done a tenth of what she has, I refuse to accept your condemnation as anything but talk."

The council was silent and RWWO continued its work among the women of the neighboring villages of Sanghar.

As we walked into our meeting in the RWWO office on the third floor terrace of the Zadi home, it was clear how many boundaries RWWO has dared to cross. A diverse range of Pakistani women were present to greet us as we entered - Hindu Bhil women with brightly coloured Rajashtani veils and bangles all the way up their arms; an older Muslim woman who has dared take on the priest in her local mosque; younger unmarried Muslim women who work as teachers and activists and leaders of their local women's associations; women ranging from 72 to 14 years of age with a shared passion: transformation of their shared oppression and opening doors to a better future for all the women in their communities.

Hindu and Christian women are rarely included in organizations in Pakistan - they are a small minority in most parts of the country, except here in Sindh, where Hindus comprise about 10 percent of the population and Christians another two or three percent. We were greeted with colorful floral garlands and songs. The Bhil women were delighted to learn Mira's name, because they revere Mirabai the 16th century Rajasthani princess who turned her back on her comfortable life and abandoned her husband to become a mystic.  We were promptly regaled with Mira bhajans (hymns in praise of Mira!)  Other women shared with us their own stories of empowerment, the roles they played as members of the board of RWWO and the changes that they have been able to implement with the help of funds from the Global Fund for Women and other grantmakers.
 
 

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