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One woman, many battles

By: Joe Evans

Devotion and Defiance is an outstanding political autobiography of a courageous Pakistani woman and her efforts to fight social injustice. She does this without falling into the trap of claiming to be the one and only saviour for Pakistan when everyone else was the problem. The book describes both her strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures, while complimenting those who helped her. It also has two great sections that explore important social challenges facing Pakistan and South Asia, where she provides intimate details of some of the cases she presents. It is a touching story with a heartbreaking but redemptive ending.

The book traces the journey of Humaira Awais Shahid who had no interest in politics as a young woman but managed to become one of the most active members of the Punjab Assembly. Her marriage to the son of a newspaper owner and editor brought her face to face with the issues facing underprivileged women. The author joined her husband’s family business and quickly moved to bring meaningful change to the lives of Pakistani women and girls by exposing abuse. Later, she expanded her efforts to battle corruption and apathy as an elected member of the government while sustaining herself through faith and family.

Ms Shahid makes use of her experience as a journalist to coherently express the complex nature of social relationships and customs. She was able to use these skills to articulate the issues to her fellow legislators, key government officials like then President Pervez Musharraf and to the rest of the world. Ms Shahid illustrates this by describing a conversation with Musharraf where she advocated that the government take action on issues like acid attacks and gang rape. She exhibits both optimism and realism when she says, “I could not be certain that he had really heard me but I appreciated that he let me have my say.”

Ms Shahid gives a human face to her struggle by presenting stories of women she encountered during the course of her work. She makes a point to avoid judgment, which only further strengthens her own position. When discussing the case of a rural Punjabi father’s sense of defeat after the rape of his teenage daughter, she recognises that “with barely enough food to feed his family, (the father) was a slave to his economic circumstances.” By juxtaposing her own story with the stories of women she was trying to help, the author illustrates the contrast between rural and urban life in Pakistan. Although she belongs to the urban upper-middle class, her empathy and grasp of rural life and the struggles of poor women are clearly portrayed to the reader. Her awareness of the problems of her rural counterparts led to her future advocacy work, as she asserts, “The consequences of poverty became the seed of my future legislation…that ensnares the poor and makes pawns of their dignity.”

In addition to telling the inspiring story of Ms Shahid’s efforts to tackle the issues that confront women, the book has multiple sections that could stand alone for use in cultural and ethical studies of Pakistan.

Ms Shahid’s account of various abuses against women effectively incorporates the human aspects, while unabashedly illustrating the horror this inflicts on the victims, the aggressors, their families and society. Her struggle against patriarchal traditions and bureaucratic obstacles in both the formal and informal structures of Pakistani society will resonate with anyone who has attempted to negotiate this challenging environment.

While focusing on politics and social injustice, the author makes it eminently readable and enjoyable by infusing it with the highlights and tragedy of her own family life. The stories of her family are permeated with humour, self-deprecation, heartbreak, relief, pain and joy, expressed in a way that will touch the heart of any reader. Yet, the author does not make the book about herself. While her personal triumphs and struggles add to the context and flow of the story, the crux of the book is the social injustices faced by the weakest members of society. Ms Shahid’s ability to keep things in perspective, although generally in hindsight, exemplifies the strength of character that allowed her to overcome the many obstacles and tragedies she faced as a wife, mother and parliamentarian.

This is an important book for those who wish to understand social issues and complexities in South Asia, the intricacies of governance in Pakistan and how strong values and courage can overcome bureaucracy and prejudice. It is a refreshing view into the life and challenges of a remarkable woman who loves her country and is attempting to make it a better place.

Daily Times