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By John MacMillan   Date: 10/13/12 Bookmark and Share

Helping Women Realize Their Power

Three alumnae with ties to the Middle East say women’s networks can be an antidote to extremism and violence

In many Middle Eastern countries, women and girls live in fear under strict extremist laws that deny them education and freedom and leave them with few opportunities.
A solution, according to three Smith women with deep ties to the region, may lie in the strength of women’s networks. “I’ve never doubted the incredible power women have when we work together,” said Pakistani journalist Shehrbano Taseer ’10. “We can break barriers, break through glass ceilings and make things better than they are.”

Taseer joined Trudy Rubin ’65, foreign affairs correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy ’02, Oscar-winning director of the documentary Saving Face, for a wide-ranging discussion about the state of women’s lives in the Middle East, particularly Pakistan. In introducing them, President Carol Christ noted that each alumna has placed herself “in harm’s way” to report important, often groundbreaking, stories. “That they are all together on our stage is an honor; that they are all Smith women is no surprise,” Christ said.

Their conversation, which was part of Smith’s Women’s Global Leadership Celebration, carried even more urgency in the wake of the shooting in Pakistan this week of 14-year-old Malala Yousufzai, who had become a target of the Taliban for speaking and blogging in support of education for girls.

Rubin, who writes the Worldview column for the Inquirer, recalled meeting Malala’s father, a teacher in the Swat Valley in Pakistan, in 2009 and listening to him complain bitterly about how the military was making deals with the Taliban and the threats being made against girls going to school in the region. “He said, ‘They’re killing our girls,’” Rubin remembered. “At the time, he didn’t mean his own daughter; he was talking about his students.”

In the days since the shooting, Rubin has been inspired by the number of girls in Pakistan who continue to seek out an education, even at the risk of their own lives. “There is a thirst among young girls for education, and their courage indicates that this fight will go on,” Rubin said.

Taseer, who grew up in Pakistan, said that one of the biggest obstacles facing her home country is what she called the “dark undercurrent of religious extremism that has all of us by the jugular.”

She knows firsthand what that can lead to. In 2011, her father, Salmaan Taseer, governor of Punjab, the most populous province in Pakistan, was assassinated for opposing the country’s blasphemy laws. “He was marked for violence,” Shehrbano said, “and shot 27 times.”

Though thinking about her father’s murder now makes her feel “unanchored and lost at sea,” she has refused to remain silent and has vowed to continue her father’s legacy, even in the face of threats to her own life. “I won’t be afraid. I refuse to stop living,” she said. “Our right to debate should never be questioned.”

Before the discussion, audience members watched Obaid-Chinoy’s film, Saving Face, which chronicles the stories of several Pakistani women who were the victims of acid attacks by their husbands. Introducing the film, Obaid-Chinoy recalled how she struggled to reconcile her own experience as a native of Pakistan with those of the women in the film, who had been disfigured and even shunned. “I wondered, How could a country that produces women like myself—educated, empowered—how could these women live in the same country I do?”

She said she grew hopeful during the course of filming when Pakistan’s parliament approved a law criminalizing acid attacks against women. The vote demonstrated that “a country like Pakistan can solve its problems if it wants to,” she said.

When legislation isn’t available to protect women, though, strong networks can provide support and even safety. “Women, when they work together, have incredible power,” Rubin said.

She urged women in the United States to remain aware of the continued fight among girls in the Middle East for education and for women’s rights, and to use their own networks to raise awareness and support. “Together, we can help other women realize their power,” she said.

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