About Rafia Zakaria

Rafia Zakaria is a member of the Board of Directors and Country Specialist for Amnesty International USA. Zakaria is the first Pakistani American woman to serve as a Board Director for Amnesty International USA. She is a lawyer and the Director of the Muslim Women's Legal Defense Fund for the Muslim Alliance of Indiana/The Julian Center Shelter representing victims of domestic violence. She is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at Indiana University, currently working on her dissertation entitled "Negotiating Identity: Sharia, multiculturalism and Muslim women." She was the John Edwards Fellow at Indiana University for 2007-2008 which is the highest academic honor that can be achieved by a graduate student at Indiana University. Rafia writes a weekly column for the Daily Times in Pakistan and her work has appeared in the New York Times, Arts and Letters Daily, the Nation and the American Prospect. She is the only Pakistani American woman recognized by a joint resolution of the Indiana House and Senate for her work on women's rights.
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Breaking Barriers in Bahrain

Ali Abdulhadi Mushaima and Fadhel Al Matrook wanted to live in a free Bahrain.  For this they came out on the streets, inspired by the courage of protestors in Tunisia and Egypt. For this, they lost their lives.

Ali Abdulhadi Mushaima was killed when live ammunition was fired into a crowd of protestors on Valentine’s Day in a village in Bahrain’s north.   A day later, a funeral procession began from the gates of the hospital where he breathed his last moments.

Hundreds of Bahraini protesters shout slogans as the attend the funeral of Shiite Fadel Salman Matrouk, who was shot dead in front of a hospital a day earlier where mourners gathered for the funeral of another comrade (ADAM JAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Fadhel Al Matrook had come to pay homage to this martyr of freedom but before long, he too became the target of live shotgun pellets fired into the crowd of mourners. He too died of his wounds.

The authorities in Bahrain had no compunction about cracking down on the Day of Rage protests that were organized by rights activists on February 14, 2011.

Inspired by the events in Egypt, protestors have been calling for the right to free expression, the release of political prisoners, a new constitution and an elected government.

Since the deaths, protestors have taken over “Pearl Square” a major traffic intersection at the heart of Bahrain’s financial district.  Thousands of protestors have been spending the night under makeshift tents and blanket, with one protestor using a bullhorn to urge others to stay until the Government responds to their demands for change.


The Women in the Square

Women protestors, Cairo, 28 January 2011. Photo by Sarah Carr

One of the most inspiring sights seen in Tahrir Square this eventful February have been groups of Egyptian women who have braved riots and intimidation by pro-Government forces to join the protests.

At a time, when fundamentalist forces in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan are trying to drive women out of the public sphere, the actions of Egyptian women demonstrate the vitality of women striving for a political voice.

Even while human rights groups have reported casualties as high as 300 and protesters gathered in the square have suffered everything from being charged by horses to being shelled by tear gas and live ammunition, Egyptian women have remained visible and refused to be intimidated.

In addition to providing the world with a testament to the vibrant energy of Egyptian women, their participation has also demonstrated that it is grassroots activism rather than top down quotas that ultimately give women a voice in politics.

In late June of last year the Mubarak Government passed a law creating a special quota for women’s participation in politics.  Reserving a set number of seats for women in the Lower House of Parliament the law aimed at increasing women’s participation in the public sphere.  However, according to Fatma Emam, an editor for Nazra an Egyptian journal for feminist studies, the visibility of women in the protests at Tahrir Square has done far more for promoting empowerment and political awareness among Egyptian women than the reserved quota ever did.  Fatma says:

“The women in Tahrir Square have proven that they can fight and overcome the weak participation of women when they see that they are equal in protest and that their destiny is tied to the country like everyone else”.


Brutal Assassination of Salman Taseer is Call to Abolish Pakistan's Blasphemy Laws

It has been a bloody start to 2011 in Pakistan.  In the evening hours of Tuesday January 4, Salman Taseer the Governor of Punjab, the country’s largest province, was gunned down by his own bodyguard in Islamabad.

The brutal assassination came in the shadow of a country wide strike called by Pakistan’s religious parties against the Federal Government’s plan to amend Pakistan’s Blasphemy laws.  At the time of the assassination, Governor Taseer had been shopping at a market in Islamabad, when he was sprayed with over two dozen bullets, he died at the scene.

Pakistani policemen secure the site of a fatal attack on Salman Taseer by his bodyguard in Islamabad on January 4, 2011. Salman Taseer, outspoken against the Taliban and other Islamist militants was assassinated on January 4, apparently for opposing blasphemy laws. AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images

Governor Salman Taseer had been at the center of the effort to amend the Blasphemy laws which currently allow those accused to be sentenced to death on shaky evidentiary grounds.

In recent months, Governor Taseer had spoken against the death sentence awarded to Asia Bibi, an illiterate Christian farmhand who had a spat with other village women while working in the fields. The women accused Asia Bibi of blasphemy and she was arrested and convicted based only on their testimony. Bibi remains on death row in Sheikhupura Jail in Punjab province where her life is under constant threat.

Governor Taseer not only visited Asia Bibi in prison, but initiated a national debate on the issue urging for amendments to the law that allow Pakistan’s poverty stricken and ghettoized religious minorities to be targeted under the pretext of committing blasphemy.

In recent years, Pakistan’s minorities have repeatedly been the subject of persecution and have not been provided protection by state authorities. In July of 2010, two brothers accused of blasphemy were gunned down as they were being brought to the courthouse for a hearing. In other cases, the law has been used to prosecute not simply non-Muslims but also Muslims who are accused of defaming religious texts or figures.


Pakistan's Floods: A Crisis of Empathy

Pakistani flood survivors gather at a makeshift tent camp in Sultan Kot on August 16, 2010.

It is being described by the United Nations as the worst catastrophe in its history, with nearly fourteen million people affected and a third of Pakistan’s territory under water.   Nearly 1600 people died in the immediate aftermath of the floods but hundreds and possibly even thousands more are expected to perish as deadly diseases begin to spread through the displaced populations spread through the affected populations.  According to U.N estimates nearly 3.5 million children are at risk of water borne diseases and thousands of cholera cases are expected in the next few days.  The weather forecast continues to be unrelenting with further flooding expected as rains continue through the week.

Catastrophe of this magnitude visited upon a country already flailing under the weight of terrorist attacks and poor governance is an indescribable tragedy.  But the dimensions of Pakistan’s calamity have been exacerbated not simply by the vagaries of nature but by the inability of the world to join the effort to save Pakistan’s submerged millions.

After a tour of the affected areas U.N Secretary General Ban ki Moon once again urged the international community to come to Pakistan’s aid pointing out that only a quarter of the 459 million dollars in aid have actually arrived.  In the meantime, six million people are still living under the open sky without potable water or any food supply often scrambling under any available shelter and scrounging for food.   With the Pakistani Government mired in its own ineptitude and problems of logistics and corruption Pakistani NGOs and other citizens are essentially coordinating the flood relief effort on their own using virtual mapping to allow anyone who is helping to report incidents to see where help is needed.

Shockingly the cavalcade of bereft images, emaciated men clutching driftwood, women grasping half naked babies and villages and towns inundated in the ubiquitous murky brown have all failed to arouse the world’s sympathy.  While millions around the globe opened their coffers for the victims of the Asian Tsunami and the Haitian earthquake, few have done so for Pakistan.  Hollywood stars, usually quick to rally around victims of humanitarian catastrophe have been eerily silent in coming to the aid of millions of Pakistan’s hapless flood victims.


Taliban Leaders Should Be Prosecuted for War Crimes

Sanam Gul was a widow, 35 years old and pregnant.  According to news reports she was kept in captivity for three days before being shot to death in a public trial by the Afghan Taliban.  The execution took place in the Qadis District of the rural Baghdis province in Western Afghanistan.

The “court” that ordered the punishment, found Sanam Gul, also known as Bibi Sanubar, guilty of having an illicit affair, proof of which was her pregnancy.  She was sentenced to 200 lashes and then executed.  The punishment was carried out by Mohammad Yousuf, the area Taliban commander amid a crowd of onlookers.

Sanam Gul’s death comes soon after the chilling Aug 7 executions of ten medical aid workers who had been returning from a trip to provide free medical care to remote regions of Afghanistan.

These barbaric theatrics meant to intimidate and terrify local populations are not novel tactics for the Taliban.  In the time that they controlled Afghanistan, from 1998-2001, such public floggings and executions were frequent occurrences in towns controlled by the group.   In addition to such tactics of terror which misuse concepts of Islamic law to instate a reign of terror, the Taliban are also guilty of increasingly bloodthirsty killing campaigns that kill hundreds of Afghan civilians.

A U.N report released on August 10 revealed that civilian casualties caused by the Taliban have increased nearly 31% in the first six months of 2010.  This means that over 3,000 Afghan civilians have died in the shootings, killings, suicide bombings that the Taliban carry out with impunity in areas which they control.

In the first half of 2010, the executions and assassinations of civilians by the Taliban and other insurgent groups increased by over 95% to 183 recorded deaths compared to the same time last year. The victims were usually accused of supporting the According to Staffan De Mistura, Special Representative of the Secretary General of the U.N “Afghan children and women are increasingly bearing the brunt of this conflict; they are being killed and injured in their communities in greater numbers than ever before”.