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Keynote address by Pamela Constable in honor of Asma Shirazi, recipient of the 2014 Peter Mackler Award

National Press Club, Washington DC, Oct. 23 – It’s not easy to be a woman in Pakistan, or a journalist who is committed to seeking, speaking or writing the truth. It is especially hard to be both.

Pakistan is a vast, complicated and semi-free society, a democracy in name where a variety of non-democratic institutions and forces wield enormous power. Freedom of the press is often subject to the pressures of military influence, partisan politics, religious extremism, traditional biases and sensationalist competition. Pakistan is also a patriarchal, mostly rural and Muslim society, in which many women have never read a newspaper, cast a vote, or ventured outside the confines of their villages and male-led clans.

Yet many of the best-known and most courageous advocates for human rights, freedom of expression and the establishment of a functioning democracy in Pakistan have been women, as was its late two-time Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto of the Pakistan People’s Party, a complex figure and a charismatic force for liberal democracy who was assassinated in 2007, shortly after returning home from exile to run for office after a decade of military rule.

As a foreign correspondent who has often visited and reported from Pakistan during the past 15 years, I have been privileged to meet and write about a number of Pakistani women who took risks – and who in many cases have been attacked or threatened – in order to expose or speak out against injustice, corruption, honor killings, government repression, extremist terrorism or sectarian persecution.

The most famous at the moment is Malala Yousufzai, the extraordinary 17-year-old blogger and author who was nearly assassinated by the Taliban in 2012, and who has just been awarded the Nobel Prize, for publicly advocating the education of girls and women. Yet while she is a hero in the eyes of the world, Malala has been portrayed by some in Pakistan as a Western spy, a traitor and an apostate against the nation’s religious values. She is now living abroad in fear of being attacked again if she returns home – not only by the Taliban, but by a variety of above-ground Muslim groups.

[Parenthetically, I wanted to mention that Pakistan’s only other Nobel Prize winner, physicist Abdus Salam who won in 1996, was also ostracized by many in Pakistan and never given prominent recognition because he was an Ahmedi Muslim, a sect that is reviled by many other Muslims, often persecuted, and not officially recognized by the government. This is another example of a country that desperately needs positive role models shooting itself in the foot.]

Another remarkable Pakistani woman, Mukhtar Mai, challenged the powerful and abusive rule of traditional tribal society. An illiterate villager of 33, she took the extraordinary step of complaining to the police when she was gang-raped in 2002 in a tribal punishment to avenge her brother’s alleged tryst with a girl from another tribe. She too won international acclaim for her courage, and most of her alleged attackers were arrested, but when the case reached Pakistan’s supreme court in 2009, a majority of the elderly male justices on the panel decided they did not believe her story, and they acquitted all but one man.

A number of Pakistani women in law or politics have crusaded against official and religious abuses, and all have encountered various forms of resistance as a result. Sherry Rehman, a member of Parliament and a former ambassador to Washington, received death threats after she proposed modifying Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws, under which it is a capital crime to say or do anything that can be construed as an offense to Islam, even making a joke or throwing out a copy of the Koran.

Humaira Awais Shaheed, another legislator, was jeered by powerful male politicians when she proposed legislation to criminalize domestic violence against women. Asma Jehangir, a relentless rights advocate, founded the Pakistan Human Rights Commission and the country’s first female law firm. She has often received threats, and in 1999, a gunman shot a women dead inside her law office, because she had dared to come there for legal help in seeking a divorce.

In the field of journalism, too, some of the most outspoken and courageous figures in Pakistan have been women. Newspaper columnists such as Kamila Hyat and Ayesha Siddiqi have challenged political corruption and exposed the pervasive influence of Pakistan’s powerful military and intelligence establishment, including what Hyat called “the long slimy trail” of connections among shadowy military, political and religious groups.

For the most part, though, this kind of critical reportage and opinion has been confined to the English-language media, a kind of limited-circulation echo chamber for the country’s small educated elite. In a country of some 180 million people, the official literacy rate is about 60 per cent, but for women it is only 36 per cent, and in some rural areas of Balochistan and Sindh, it is close to zero. English language papers such as Dawn and the News are full of outraged commentary, but they reach only a few hundred thousand readers.

The real battle ground for public opinion is Pakistan’s vernacular media, especially the highly competitive, sensationalistic and combative Urdu language television news and talk channels. In a country where so many people are illiterate and the number of television channels has exploded in the past decade, this is the coin of the realm and the minefield in which the nation’s real political and religious conflicts are being fought.

The potential for Urdu TV to educate Pakistani society and engender a thoughtful national debate is vast, but its content largely consists of political talking-head brawls, and its message often reinforces traditional prejudices and power relations rather than challenging them. The popular rise of fundamentalist Islamic parties is in part due to the vernacular media, which often panders to nationalist and Muslim sentiment rather than trying to separate rumor and gossip from fact.

This is the gladiatorial arena where tonight’s honoree, Asma Shirazi, has made her most important mark. As you know, Asma has been a pioneer for Pakistani women journalists in many ways. She covered the Lebanon-Israeli war with bravery, and was even briefly captured by Hezbollah fighters. She reported from the Swat Valley during Pakistani military operations against Islamic militants, and interviewed suicide bombers. She has risked being exposed to missile attacks and bombings, and been threatened by various Islamist militant groups. When President Pervez Musharraf, an army general, imposed a state of emergency and banned TV news shows in 2007 in an attempt to cling to power, Asma was the only female TV anchor to remain on the air.

But in some ways, her current role as a talk show moderator and anchor is just as challenging and even more important. Even though there is no state of emergency at the moment, and an elected civilian government is in office, there have been repeated crackdowns on muck-raking TV newscasts, and in recent months there have been numerous threats by the military to shut down Geo TV, the most popular news channel.

Since I have not had a chance to watch Asma on the air, and my Urdu is extremely limited, I got in touch with some of my Pakistani colleagues this past week and asked about her work. All of them described her as highly professional, thoughtful, calm and balanced – a voice of reason and civility in a medium full of blow-hards, bigots, mad mullahs and partisan demagogues. I am delighted that, having survived a variety of wars, Asma Shirazi is now working to bring a more civil conversation to her country, and that she is being recognized tonight with such a distinguished honor as the Peter Mackler Award. Congratulations.