Baccalaureate 2012 Keynote: Humaira Awais Shahid

Humaira Awais Shahid, journalist, activist and provincial legislator in Pakistan, and 2012 honorary degree recipient, delivered the Baccalaureate keynote address, “The Long Arm of God,” in which she shared her passion for speaking out for those who cannot speak for themselves, achieved, she says, through cultivating awareness.

Honorable president, board of trustees, faculty members and respected audience — greetings, Assalamo alaikum, shalom Aleichem and congratulations, Class of 2012.

Humaira Awais Shahid

Humaira Awais Shahid is a journalist, activist and provincial legislator in Pakistan. She has dedicated much of her life to protecting human rights, particularly for women.

Once Ms. Shadid has a goal in mind, it may be hard to dissuade her from achieving it. For instance, she battled four years of sustained government opposition to pass an important piece of legislation that would prohibit interest-based private money lending, a practice that exploited the downtrodden. In 2007, the Punjab Private Money Lending Act was finally passed — the first successful legislation put forth by an individual parliament member. She has also been successful in creating laws prohibiting honor killings and prohibiting women to be forced into marriages to atone for crimes committed by male family members.

She puts no limits on her vision for reform: She has campaigned and advocated for many issues, including the economic empowerment of women, food security, police reform, Islamic micro-investment, and the end of acid-attack crimes and other violence against women.

And she works on a global scale: Ms. Shahid is the lead advocate of the International Violence against Women Act, proposed legislation that has been brought to the U.S. Congress by a coalition of 150 women organizations worldwide.

Born and raised in Kuwait, Shahid earned an M.Phil. degree in English at the University of the Punjab in 1999. Following her graduation she joined the Khabrain Group of Newspapers and established a helpline there to report on the grievances of the underprivileged in society and to seek remedies for them. In edition, she has been an editor of the Pakistani newspaper, The Post.

Ms. Shahid was a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University in 2009-2010. There she undertook a study of violence against women in South Asia, focusing on the cultural and religious roots of this violence.

Ms. Shahid is frequently invited by organizations around the world to speak on the topics of extremism, Islam and gender, democracy, food security, women’s issues and human rights. We are very happy to honor her here at Bowdoin and to hear more from her about her meaningful work.

When I learned that Bowdoin College was awarding me an honorary doctorate degree, I was honored. I was also startled, even bewildered: There was a time when I was condemned for my work, and today I am honored for it. I feel deeply gratified by this recognition. Thank you. I consider it not a trophy for my hard work, but an affirmation that I am moving in the right direction. At the same time, it frightens me to stand here and tell you the story of what I do and why I do it!

I shall begin with the beginning. I was born in Kuwait and raised in Lahore, the daughter of devout but liberal-minded Pakistanis. Very early on and throughout my life, my father imparted to me one message over and over again. “Humaira,” he would say, “there is power in the individual.” Now in my second decade of working to correct injustices against the weakest and most vulnerable populations of Pakistan’s society, I think often of these words and of how right my father has always been.

But the fact is: I did not set out in this life to speak on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves. I set out to understand the meaning of my own life, my own purpose. I have been aided in this quest by storytellers.

I long ago fell in love with Sufi writers, Western writers and philosophers. If their words cast a spell on me, I would carry them around in my head, bewitched. So it was with Thomas Hardy, whose tragic Tess led me to the even sadder Jude. It was so with Joseph Conrad, with whom I shared if not a heart of darkness, then, at least, the capacity to know darkness, to root around in it, perhaps even to detect some hint of light therein. For I believe that light shines in even the darkest of hearts. I like to say that I have perfect vision: I see God in everybody.

Like everyone else, the core of my journey has been to understand my life. Life cannot be lived by a set of formulas. I was fortunate enough to recognize my external reality from my inner life. I understood that life is not about being born in Kuwait, raised up in Lahore, and conferencing in Boston but life is actually a journey of consciousness towards its source, understanding the experience of being human, understanding our limitations as a human, learning our potential as a human. I remember a Sufi quote, which says: God created the body 7,000 years before he created the soul. He created the heart of the soul, its core (Arabic word) QULB, 7,000 years before he created the soul. The core of your soul is the reservoir of all knowledge. It is where your accumulated experience dwells. So God put himself closest to your core, and then He put this core in to your soul, and your soul into your body, and then He sent you down into this human life and said, “Go and find me!” I see life, then, as a journey of travelling back through these different layers of myself and reaching in to find that essence within each of us that recognizes the intimacy of God and His love.

The next struggling question was how to define success! This maddening race of success around me. We cannot live by formulas or prescribed notions. Success as defined by society is not success. I have come to visualize success as that stampede scene in the Lion King—a movie that my oldest child, my darling son Nofal, watched so many times that parts of it are etched permanently in my brain. I realized once you are in the race of success, you are in a perpetual fear of losing and being trampled. It’s like a mass panic of racing after material things and following a definition of success what has been defined for you. I decided to step out of the herd and follow my heart. Instead of chasing success, seek significance. Determine your own direction and follow your own dream. Success ends the day you die, significance will always outlast you! So today I work in peace, conviction and devotion without the mania of success.

I miss that my kids who are not here with me. Had my son been here he would have said: “ Yes, sometimes my mom makes sense, but Mom, you need to need say stuff that is easy.” Or my 11-year daughter Fajr would have made a comment: “Mom, your makeup is a disaster, you don’t know the difference between shimmer and glimmer eye shadows.” My little one who is only seven years loves to imitate my scattered multi-tasking when I am on the phone, laptop and helping her with homework all at the same time.

I am also guided by my children. Becoming a mother is strange business, because it transforms your heart and expands your compassion by an exponential factor. It sneaks up on you one day as you realize that love has no boundaries and that every child has become your child. You simply cannot see a child suffer and not feel it somewhere deep within you. The state of parenthood, I believe, connects you to all mothers and fathers and to all of their children. So when I meet women who have made the hard choice to work in a brothel so that they can feed their children, I cannot judge them. And when I meet children who have asked me to help them get out of dangerous and exploitative situations, I cannot sleep at night if I have not done all that is in my power to help them. One of my greatest challenges in my life and in my work has been to understand and contextualize the misery and suffering that I see around me and to make this world a better and safer place for our children.

So I stand before you today a Pakistani woman, a lover of dark tales, and a hopeful seeker. I am also a mother, a daughter, a sister and a widow. Professionally, I am known as a journalist, a legislator and a human rights activist, none of which I ever set out to be, but each of which gives meaning to my life in ways that I never imagined.

And to all of these roles that I inhabit, add devout Muslim. In my multiplicity, I draw upon parts of myself that have been formed by my upbringing, my passions, and my faith, as well as my crises of it. Like a stone whose shape gradually yields to the weight of falling water, I have been shaped by triumph, and also by tragedy and loss.

Hindsight and its perfect vision show me that all of the seemingly disparate parts of my life, all of the winding paths, have led me to where I am standing now. I could not have known the first time that I met a victim of an acid attack in a hospital in Pakistan’s Punjab Province that that encounter with a dying woman would shape my work and inform my life’s mission. It’s as I said: In life, terrible things can happen. But we are only complicit if we do nothing to stop them.

In my work as a journalist, My work involved dealing with victims of violence, from burnt, battered women, raped women, abused children, economic exploitation, poverty. Telling the stories of women and children who did not know that their stories mattered. In fact, many people probably would have agreed with them. Indifference to the suffering of others seems to be a global phenomenon. I see it in Pakistan all the time, and when I lived in this country while a fellow at Radcliffe, I was taken aback by the extent to which it exists here, as well.

When I look at the West I see same reality but different shades.

I have not understood what could be the extent of greed and lust that breeds cruelty and exploitation between the powerful and powerless?

Why do we work like machines to get enough money to buy things we don’t need? Why this wealth we earn is never ours we are never able to own anything, we have a life under lease, house on lease, car on lease, electronics on lease.
Why only some few people control the lives and resources of the rest of the world? Why money and consumerism is the only way to define as success?
Why do we have to bomb people and do wars in order to bring peace?
What is this assault on the weak, fragile and underprivileged?
Why the discourse of justice becomes so narrow, marginalized and prejudiced?
Why the concept of human rights is so hypocritical and partisan?
Why do we have supermarkets that sell the façade of democracy and equality?

Human nature can be cruel and brutal I can understand that but structural violence, economic exploitation and sustained injustice are something I have never been able to come terms with. Injustice and exploitation rooted in our systems have a long history and a thought out strategy, which didn’t come in power without dubious legalism, constitutionalism and a political manipulation.

Human rights violations are sowed and bred in the blood of deep structural social and economical exploitations and which gifted the world with horrors of grief, suffering and poverty.

It’s actually ironical that today a person like me is receiving a highest academic award, an honorary doctorate, in reality most of my life has been about unlearning what I learnt in this world. My struggle has been to dismantle the layers and reach the core, resisting what is taught and reaching to what is never told. My work is about resistance to these systems and trying to find the alternatives.

My work as a member of the parliament has been directly informed by my work as a journalist. When I realized that poor farmers charged usurious interest rates, were forced to sell their daughters to pay back the loans, women ending up in brothels to feed their kids and pay off their debts. Farmers shackled under usurious loans giving their minors into forced marriages. I moved the legislation in the Punjab Provincial Assembly that would outlaw private money lending. I was mocked by people in power, for doing so. My naiveté was such that I had no idea that the legislation I proposed would have put some of the elitist power holders and usurious moneylender mafia out of business! Similarly, when I learned in my work as a journalist that there was no law prohibiting the throwing of acid on a person, I proposed legislation to have that act count as attempted murder—or murder if the victim died. One would think such a proposal might meet with unanimous approval. It did not. In my work as a legislator, I have been mocked and intimidated. Mocked because usury has never been debated in the parliaments it was extremely naïve of me to even attempt it; and intimidated because I was trying to change the fiscal systems. The struggle has been very enlightening and strenuous, because in understanding it I realized the proclaimed notion of equal distribution of wealth in practice was a farce and a facade, and the instruments to usurp wealth were too strong and deceptive for a common man to understand.

This is a world where liberation is subjugation, where freedom is colonization and reality is constructed and human behavior is just a parody! In the end it’s all material business: business of war, business of pseudo human rights, business of power!

It is extremely difficult to reach to a spiritual reconciliation for negativity; Negativity around us is our own negativity. The hatred, the anger, the superficiality, the insanity, the whole dance of violence has not been without our collaboration. Our own bigotry, ignorance and conformism have made us powerless in front of these systems. But hope lies what is within us, our fundamental humanness and which is not an easy business to kill. No matter how hard core one can be the darkness of our evilness knocks on us every night, if it can do nothing else it takes away our sleep. My true confession today is that like everyone else I am afraid of lot of things and my biggest fear is living with a broken, amputated spirit. So I have to find ways of strengthening it and my work is a way for me to protect my self, my children, my sanity, fight my fears, save my spirit. And on my way I learnt gratitude, a gratitude that makes me see God in every face and in every situation. My confidence comes from the fact that I refuse to believe that we are meaningless. I am necessary to my creator as He is to me; I am His power, His plan and His attribute.

I keep saying this to myself: Do not wait for others, do not wait for leaders, do not wait for movement, do not wait for time… sometimes you need to be still, just stand very still and firm, just stand on your principles, just believe in yourself and don’t move at all. And you shall see you have changed the world, you have changed the time, you have just started a reformation!

My message to the young graduates is to believe that humanity is not dead, even with all these wars, this greed for power and money, these parasitical systems put together, it cannot kill our humanness. Our ability to re-dream is our ultimate power. A real dream will never let you be a conformist, a real dream would want you to be a real human being and build a real world… no matter how bad things can be nobody can take the power from you. Find your dream even if it means going against all odds and follow it. And believe in the power of an individual. That’s where you transcend being human and become Godlike!

Once again, thank you to Bowdoin College to its pioneers, founders and all the people who made this institute and academic excellence that it stands for today. Deep gratitude to the president, board of trustees, faculty members for honoring me, and congratulations to the Class of 2012!