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Rubina Feroze Bhatti says “I have devoted my life to create more peaceful Pakistan” in an Interview

Rubina Feroze Bhatti stands in frontline of leaders and human right activists due to her campaign for equal democratic rights for minorities and women who are targets of gender-based violence in Pakistan.

Pakistan Christian Post requested her for an interview for its readers that Christian in general and people of Pakistan in particular may be aware about her struggle.

Rubina Feroze Bhatti agreed to talk with Pakistan Christian Post team during her visit to New York where she was receiving N-Peace Award on October 23, 2015.

Rubina Feroze Bhatti in her colorful Pakistani women’s traditional dress of Shalwar-Kameez looked like true representative of Pakistani women when she gracefully walked towards stage to receive her N-Peace Award from UNDP Administrator, former Prime Minister of New Zealand Helen Clark in a colorful function in UN One Plaza in New York on October 23, 2015.

She met with team of Pakistan Christian Post after UNDP Pace Award ceremony in lobby of UN One Plaza and in a very simple way introduced herself that she was born into a Christian family in Sargodha district of the predominantly Muslim country of Pakistan.

When asked to tell about her childhood, very innocently she uttered “My birth had been a great disappointment for my grandmother because I was not a grandson. Of course, my grandmother was not a villain; she was merely a product of the feudalism and patriarchy that surrounded her. However, my father was not like most Pakistani men. He was a progressive, open-minded man, a dreaming storyteller, and a mathematician who would later revel in teaching us our numbers. Likewise, my mother always stood proud and firm that her daughter would not grow up believing she was inferior as a second girl. She named me “Ruby” (precious one), and I was always her most precious. My parents saw their daughter determined to be a leader in a culture that did not like its women to walk alone, much less lead the way. Since, my parents were both teachers, they placed a high value on education. My two sisters and I got the same educational opportunities as my only brother”.

Rubina Feroze Bhatti earned Master’s Degree in chemistry from Bahauddin Zakariya University (BZU) in Pakistan and Master’s in development studies from Ireland, where she was awarded with “Student of the Year” for her outstanding educational career. Later, she went to the United States to pursue a PhD in leadership studies at the University of San Diego.

Here we are presenting views of Rubina Feroze Bhatti on different issue for our readers:

Q: Why you decided to serve downtrodden communities?

A: Despite all this support at home, even as a child I recognized myself as being somehow different from the dominant culture, and I considered and observed Muslim children as superior. This self-deprecating attitude towards myself and appreciating attitude towards the Muslim community somehow became stronger during my school days where some of my Muslim teachers and the school curriculum preached falsehoods, hatred and bigotry. In contrast, I always saw our courtyard full of Muslim students, to whom my father, a teacher, provided homework help and free tutoring. I had an inadequate conception of the complexities of life and consequently was confused and overwhelmed about my growing sense of self.

I am not sure if this experience made me an activist or a voice for the voiceless. What I know is that a desire for my identity as a Pakistani – an equal citizen – led me down a stony path of everyday trials, and subsequently in the later years of my life I decided to work for downtrodden communities, as part of my searching for my identity as a Pakistani.

Q: Is it difficult to serve persecuted communities?

A: Oh yes! I myself grew up in a community of mainly landless farm laborers, and I am very well aware of the oppression and the discriminatory practices they experience in their everyday life. But I think it is even more difficult to work for marginalized communities if you are a woman from a working-class background and a minority. Then you have to climb two mountains of oppression – being a woman and a minority – to raise your voice. I am not saying which oppression is less or more; what I know is both are interlinked. Therefore, the key question always for me is: What can I do to create peace and security for religious minorities and women in Pakistan? Absolutely I am determined to establish a harmonized society, but how? This “how” is the most difficult question that nobody can answer precisely.

Q; Your experiences as human right activists?

A: I started my activism during my student life when I was doing my Master’s in Chemistry at Baha Uddin University Multan to protest against the inclusion of a religious column in the national identity card. Later, at the platform of COSAP, I actively participated in a campaign for the restoration of a joint electorate system and worked with Christian leaders such as Cecil Chaudhry, Shahbaz Bhatti and Peter Jacob. In acknowledgment of my leadership skills, which they observed during joint electorate campaign, Cecil Chaudhry convinced me to join politics. Eventually I left my government job as a lecturer in chemistry and became the Pakistan People’s Party nominee for reserve seats for women in the Punjab Assembly in 2002. But I did not win the election.

Then I focused more on human rights work. I am a founding member and general secretary of Taangh Wasaib Organization, a rights-based development group working for communal harmony and equality by addressing issues of violence against women, religious intolerance and sectarianism and discriminatory laws and policies against women and religious minorities. I protect the rights of women who are targets of gender-based violence, train women’s groups to report on violence against women, support victims with counseling and legal aid, and work with media to bring attention to these issues.

I have introduced human rights education programming in more than 200 public and private schools and written scripts for films and theater productions on human rights and peace issues. TWO’s production on the issue of domestic violence, “Shackle Yet to Open,” was presented in the SAARC Film Festival 2011. Besides developing some publications, I also have translated the Noble Peace Prize winner Mairead Corrigan-Maguire’s book “Vision of Peace” into Urdu language. The book discusses the role of Irish women in the struggle for peace and is introduced into various universities of Punjab. I designed and established the Taangh Peace Garden.

Q: What is situation of Interfaith Dialogues in Pakistan? How religious harmony can prevail in Pakistan? Are you satisfied with relationship among different religious communities in Pakistan?

A: Since contemporary Pakistan has been facing the issue of religious intolerance and sectarian violence, we need to initiate a “dialogue of life” for improving the relationships among different religious communities in Pakistan. For me, dialogue of life is a commitment of listening to others and also of knowing when to be silent. It means being tolerant towards others without losing our identity. I am not talking about interfaith dialogue that seeks for commonalities among different religions and requires certain expertise to be engaged in. I am talking about an interaction among various communities on a daily basis. It’s all about sharing sorrows and joys. That’s why we established a peace garden, which is a serene environment where people find an opportunity to think about peaceful co-existence by exchanging ideas and experiences among people of different faiths. They identify their problems and find the solutions collectively.

Q: Are you satisfied with role of government in interfaith harmony?

A: The government has taken some measures to address the issue, for instance, the establishment of interfaith committees or a group of parliamentarians on freedom of religion and interfaith harmony under the chairmanship of MNA Asiya Nasir. However, I think these are not sufficient.

Right now Pakistan has been passing through a difficult time, and therefore the government needs to weave the interfaith harmony in Pakistani society by developing effective policy formulation and implementation mechanisms. This situation reminds me of the words of Nelson Mandela, and what I say is that Pakistan needs its own Reconstruction and Development Program of the Soul: “It means building our schools into communities of learning and improvement of character. It means mobilizing one another, and not merely waiting for government to clean our streets or for funding allocations to plant trees and tend schoolyards. These are things we need to embrace as a nation that is nurturing its New Patriotism.” To make the situation better, we have to engage ourselves in individual and collective efforts. We need to enhance our lobbying and advocacy work with the international community to keep informed of the human rights situation in Pakistan and to improve the quality of life for Pakistani people by increasing development aid to the country.

Q: Do you think, constitution of Pakistan protects marginalized communities? What you will suggest parliamentarians to legislate for protection of poor and underprivileged?

A: There are two parallel issues. First policy formulation and second policy implementation. When you talk about constitutional protection, let me give you a concrete example of how local body elections limit the participation of women and minorities. In my district Sargodha, there are 164 union councils and only few women are contesting election on general seats. Isn’t that a pity? Now you think about the situation of minority women that how she can she get a space in such a patriarchal society or male-dominated political system. So I suggest to parliamentarians the formulation of legislation that protects the human rights of every citizen, even if it requires some affirmative actions. We also need to develop a mechanism for strengthening our public institutions for effective implementation of pro-women and pro-minorities law. For instance, despite the fact that the Federal cabinet approved a five percent job quota in federal government services for Pakistani non-Muslim minorities, the practice in the last five years shows that the job quota somehow failed to receive minorities in the government jobs.

Q: How many awards you have received for your services and which award you dream for?

A: My journey of achievement has been long and challenging. My nomination for the Noble Peace Prize in 2005 as part of the 1,000 Women for Peace project is a hallmark of my life. In 2009 I was selected as a Woman PeaceMaker at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice, where my life story was documented, and in 2010 was the recipient of the World Vision International Peacemaking Award. I also won the 2011 Woman of Courage Award, along with former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, from the National Women's Political Caucus, an award given to women from diverse backgrounds who exemplify women's leadership and demonstrate courage by taking a stand to further civil rights and equality. In 2013, I received the MMMF scholarship award at the World Bank Headquarters in Washington DC and met with WBG president Dr. Jim Kim. I was selected as one of 14 Harvey Fellows in 2014 from the students attending a premier university — typically those with an internationally recognized reputation as a “top five” program in the specific discipline and those who possess a unique vision to impact society. This year I am honored with 2015 N-Peace Award from UNDP.

My services are also hailed by District Bar Association Sargodha, Press Club Sargodha, Hurmat-e-Qalam Society, International Human Rights Commission and various civil society organizations. At the 21st Annual Award Ceremony held in 2011, my services were lauded along with Ahmed Fraz, Makhdoom Javaid Hashmi, and Abdussalam Somro. I was among the 100 women who matter most in Pakistan, according to News Week Pakistan.

And in response to your question of the award I dream of, I would say honestly speaking that I have never dreamt of any national and international award, even since my childhood. I always dream simply to be an equal citizen of Pakistan and of the day when minorities will be accepted socially and constitutionally as equal citizens of Pakistan. That would the highest award for me.

Q: As a woman peacemaker, what is your definition of peace and what is your vision for Pakistan’s peace?

A: For me, it’s a very easy definition. Peace is not only the absence of war; it is also the protection and promotion of human rights. It is the fullness of humanity. It is a situation where people don’t live in fear and insecurity. There may be no war, but if there is a trust deficit between me and my neighbors and I am living in a state of fear in my neighborhood, there will be no peace. What I want to say is that when people live in fear and insecurity, it generates ethnocentrism, religious intolerance, social exclusion and, finally, the underdevelopment of the country. Peace is the acceptance of each other without any discrimination, the active participation of all people in the development process and the uplifting of the entire population. Therefore, my vision for Pakistan’s peace is a harmonized society where the constant improvement of the well-being of all people across gender, ethnic groups and religions is ensured by the protection and promotion of their rights.

Q: What you think about role of women and their rights in Pakistan? Do women enjoy due rights?

A: There are two key reasons for the current state of women’s rights in Pakistan: a strong feudal system and weak institutions. In Pakistan, the institutions are too weak to act effectively to protect the rights of Pakistani citizens. For example, police and other institutions are still under the pressure of influential people. Equally, customary courts such as the jirga system are still in practice. Women have been struggling for a long time for the repeal of discriminatory laws. Both a strong feudal system and weak institutions make it difficult for us to protect women’s rights and access to justice and equality.

Q: Are you satisfied with role of International Forums to highlight issues of poor people of Pakistan? What you will suggest such forums?

A: Each forum has its significance and if we particularly talk about international forums, I must say that besides all limitations and delimitations these forums have effectively been raising voices for the voiceless. Being a part of various networks, I have been extensively traveling in different parts of the world presenting and teaching on peace, justice, gender issues, human rights, capacity building, advocacy and many other topics. I would say international forums provide us space: first, to explain to global community that Pakistan is not a land of terrorists, extremists and fundamentalists. It’s a land of peaceful people who have their roots in peace and harmony. It’s the land of Sufis. So for me to be a Pakistani is to be a peace lover and a peacemaker.

Secondly, through these forums we could engage ourselves in collective efforts to enhance our lobbying and advocacy work with the international community to keep informed of the human rights situation in Pakistan and to improve the quality of life for Pakistani people by increasing development aid to the country rather than non-development support.

Q: What are your challenges in life? Who is your key support in meeting those challenges?

A: As a minority woman, I have faced many challenges, ranging from intimidation to threats of prosecution and false accusations. However, like others of my tribe, I accept them as part and parcel of an activist’s job, and continue with my work by engaging volunteers and adopting interfaith dialogue and Sufi teachings as key strategies for managing these risks and conveying the message of tolerance and peace to people to reduce hatred in society.

My one and only brother, Kamran Bhatti, was my key support in all my work for downtrodden communities. He stood steadfastly beside me over the years, despite the challenges and risks of my work. I must say, without him I would not be a leader. He made me who I am. Unfortunately, he passed away last year in a road accident at a very young age of 42. This incident devastated me completely. Though he is no longer here to see me carrying out this journey, he has never ceased to be my inspiration and encouragement. He is with me always, and I have to walk this journey for him.

Q: Your message for women, minorities and people of Pakistan?

A: My message for people of Pakistan is lasting peace cannot be achieved without integration with the majority culture. Religious minorities must merge their voices with the majority, and women must work in collaboration with men. And particularly my message for minorities is that you played a historic and decisive role in the creation of Pakistan and now Pakistan has been passing through a difficult time of its life while fighting a war on terror. Let’s make history again and play a vital role in fostering a culture of peace in Pakistan.

(due to limited time and different engagements of Rubina Feroze Bhatti in UN meetings and busy schedule in USA, Pakistan Christian Post requested her any appointment in near future to cover more issues and her struggle and expressed gratitude for sparing time for this interview)