One of Farida Shaheed's happiest memories from her professional life is the reaction of men from Pakistan's conservative North West Frontier Province to a legal awareness session on women's rights in the family. Immediately after attending the session, they urged Shaheed and her colleagues from Shirkat Gah, a collective that works for women's empowerment, to conduct a similar session for women as soon as possible.
When she and her colleagues returned to do so, they found men cooking and serving women food - for the first, but hopefully not the last, time in their lives - to ensure that women could participate in the session without distractions. Later, they told Shaheed that they now recognised that women too were human beings. "It was sad that they only realised this after interacting with activists," she says. But it was heartening, too, that the realisation did come.
Over the last three decades, 50-something Shaheed's life has often been enlivened by such moments. At other times, she has been monitored and questioned by intelligence agencies and followed; she was thrown into lock-up once, though not for very long.
Much of this happened in the 1980s, when Shaheed was a part of a band of intrepid women who came together through the Women's Action Forum (WAF) to resist the retrogressive policies and laws introduced in the name of Islam by Pakistan's military dictator Zia-ul-Haq, who held power from 1977 to 1988.
These included the Hudood Ordinances, which attempted to quantify human life and reduce the worth of women and non-Muslims to half that of a Muslim man's. Laws were put in place to rescind women's right to participate in sports, to move about freely, to be appointed in state banks and in foreign postings. There were also laws that allowed for stoning to death and 100 lashes for offenders, and confused the issues of consensual sex and rape. Shaheed and her colleagues protested - almost daily - against the inhuman punishments brought in by the military, and laws and policies that continue to haunt Pakistan and its women.
In relatively more liberal times, Shaheed and her colleagues have faced pressure from hostile local elites, and the team has been threatened with death at least once. On the whole, though, skilful strategising in the field has allowed Shaheed and her colleagues to operate even when other groups have had to close down their work in an area. Shaheed has also been attacked in the conservative press by the Jamaat-e-Islami and other politico-religious parties on numerous occasions.
It also takes enormous courage to be present at contentious trials where open threats of violence are delivered, and sometimes made good. In one case, for instance, the judge was murdered after a trial. Shaheed, though, has regularly participated in blasphemy trials and those of women who have married against the wishes of their parents. "This is part of the game here and we take the risk," she says.
Today, Shirkat Gah is a 'respectable' organisation in the eyes of the authorities - in sharp contrast to its image in the 1970s and '80s - and works fairly often on policy interventions with the government. That said, the work Shaheed leads in Shirkat Gah under the 'Women, Law and Status' programme caused the government to make concerted efforts to try and close down the collective as recently as 1999.
Overcoming these roadblocks, Shaheed has helped bring about changes in laws on women's political representation as a key non-State advocate in the debate. She was the earliest to evolve ideas in this area and promote the need for 33 per cent reservation of seats for women in direct elections. This has been implemented in lower-level council elections in Pakistan (seats are also reserved in a smaller proportion at the parliament and provincial assembly level). She also wrote the 'Women and Power and Decision-Making' chapter for the government's National Plan of Action for Women, which contains affirmative action recommendations for women's empowerment.
In 2002, the Women, Law and Status team she heads made concrete inputs to amending the law on Muslim marriages for the better. She and her colleagues have successfully lobbied the government to reconsider laws pertaining to 'honour' killings, but are not satisfied with the law passed in 2005 and will work for further amendments. Their efforts for the repeal of the Hudood Ordinances have finally led to the Ordinances being reviewed.
On the ground, her greatest success, she feels, has been to ensure that more and more women know of their rights in marriage and can, therefore, negotiate more spaces and rights within marriage, step out of abusive marriages, register their marriages and insert rights within the marriage contract. Shaheed and her colleagues work with some 36, mostly rural, groups across the country, of which a little more than 50 per cent are women's groups. The rest are general groups that try and reorient to a human rights perspective.
Since 1986, Shaheed has been part of the core group of Women Living under Muslim Laws (WLUML), an international network that provides information, solidarity and support for all women whose lives are shaped, conditioned or governed by laws and customs said to derive from Islam. The network aims to increase the autonomy of women by supporting the local struggles of women from within Muslim countries and communities, and linking them with feminist and progressive groups at large; facilitating interaction, exchanges and contacts and providing information as well as a channel of communication. For nearly two decades, she has run the WLUML Asia Regional Coordination Office, which has helped many individual women whose rights or lives are endangered. Shaheed has personally helped two women leave Pakistan to avoid death threats by well-connected families.
With her colleague Khawar Mumtaz, Shaheed wrote, 'Women in Pakistan: Two steps forward, one step back?', a book that documents the path of the Muslim women's movement from the turn of the 20th century to its contemporary face. It was greatly acclaimed and received the Prime Minister's Award in 1989.
Shaheed has a gift for connecting easily with people and putting them at their ease. She can convert difficult concepts into simple language and is very serious about her research and writing which, she says, reaches far more women than she does personally. "I am touched by the number of women and people who tell me I touched them through my work," she says.
Shaheed lives in Lahore with her husband, an educationist and journalist, and two sons aged 20 and 17. She has a License en Sociologie from Geneva University in Switzerland and a Masters from Leeds University in the UK, and describes herself as a "sociologist by training and an activist by choice".