Farahnaz Ispahani has been a leading voice for women and religious minorities in Pakistan for over two decades, working as a journalist, member of Pakistan’s National Assembly, and most recently as a United States-based scholar.
An advocate of Pakistan’s return to democracy during the military regime of Pervez Musharraf, she served as a spokesperson and international media coordinator for the Pakistan People’s Party, working alongside the late Benazir Bhutto.
During her tenure in parliament (2008–2012), she was a member of the Foreign Affairs and Human Rights committees and the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus.
In 2013 and 2014 she was a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, where she completed Purifying the Land of the Pure: Pakistan's Religious Minorities (Harper Collins, India 2016 & Oxford University Press, US 2017) a book on the persecution of religious minorities in Pakistan.
In 2012 she was listed among Foreign Policy magazine’s Top 100 Global Thinkers, as well as Newsweek Pakistan’s Top 100 Women Who Matter.
Watch one of the most powerful moments of the @Thinkfest with Farahnaz Ispahani on a panel with Jibran Nasir discussing the condition and treatment of minorities in Pakistan. Here Ms Ispahani responds to a disgruntled audience member.
“This is about us standing together and not apart…Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif and the PML-N are standing up for democracy. My husband was jailed by him, but today I stand with Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif because he is standing for democracy and the unity of Pakistan.
All institutions must change the definition, so please do not, with me or anyone else bring this down to petty politics. I am not better than Jibran or Arafat, we all work in different ways inside and outside this society…
You are not an Ahmadi Muslim you are not a Sunni Muslim we are Pakistanis that was Mr. Jinnah’s message and that is what I came here to talk about today. “
Farahnaz Ispahani ‘85 has been a leading voice for women and religious minorities in Pakistan for over two decades, working as a journalist, member of Pakistan’s National Assembly, and most recently as a United States-based scholar. An advocate of Pakistan’s return to democracy during the military regime of Pervez Musharraf, she served as a spokesperson and international media coordinator for the Pakistan People’s Party, working alongside the late Benazir Bhutto. During her tenure in parliament (2008-2012), she was a member of the Foreign Affairs and Human Rights committees and the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus. In 2013 and 2014 she was a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, where she completed “Purifying the Land of the Pure: A History of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities” (2016), a book on the persecution of religious minorities in Pakistan. In 2012 she was listed among Foreign Policy magazine’s Top 100 Global Thinkers, as well as Newsweek Pakistan’s Top 100 Women Who Matter.
What led you to Wellesley?
I arrived at Wellesley through family connections to the college. My grandfather, M.A.H Ispahani had spoken at Wellesley when he was Pakistan’s first Ambassador to the United States. My eldest sister attended Wellesley in the late 70s. I had never been to the United States before and I wanted to go to school in a warmer part of the country but I got in and the choice was made for me!
However, once I got to Wellesley I appreciated its unique and very special education and community and made it mine. Wellesley changed my life.
How did your childhood and family influence your work as an adult? Â Who was your biggest role model growing up?
Growing up in Pakistan in the 1970s I attended a convent school run by a teaching order of nuns from Ireland. My class was made up of girls from every religious and ethnic community of my city Karachi. We never knew who was a Christian or Shia or Sunni Muslim or a Hindu or a Parsi. The nuns ensured an atmosphere of inclusion. I started understanding that I belonged to a religious minority when my mother, siblings and I used to attend majlises or religious gatherings in the month of mourning which is called Muharram. We saw a city and country where we could commemorate this month in peace and our Sunni neighbors would acknowledge the solemnity and respect us to a point where our places of worship are surrounded by tanks and armed police or army men and we are frisked for metal objects and guns when we enter in case we are terrorist wanting to blow us up.
My career in journalism, politics and as a scholar was deeply influenced by what we as a family witnessed and experienced.
My greatest role model was my Iranian grandmother. She was an amazing woman who made Pakistan her home and founded and ran the first day care center in Karachi that enabled middle class and poor women to work and have their children in a safe environment where they were taught and fed. She also founded and ran an orphanage for unwanted children. Some were left outside in the dead of the night in a basket. In a society that rejects illegitimate children Kashana e Atfal and Naunehal took in and educated thousands of girls and still does. Some of the young women who were adopted from Kashana attended Oxford, Cambridge and the Sorbonne.
Khanumjoon, as we called her lovingly, spoke 5 languages including Farsi, Urdu, French, German and Turkish. She also attended London University and got a social science degree during WW11.
Her affection, love, guidance and time were a constant for us throughout her life.
With Pakistan being Sunni run and about 77 percent Sunni, does that lead to distrust towards them from religious minorities? Based on the number of claims of blasphemy and harsh penalties for it, is it hard to people of different religions (and within Muslims for Shi’ites and Ahmadis) to trust each other?
The founder of Pakistan, M.A. Jinnah was a Shia Muslim and he was supported in the creation of Pakistan by the head of the Ahmadi Muslim community. Unfortunately, Mr. Jinnah died a year after the birth of Pakistan. The downward descent of what I call ‘communal majoritarianism’ kicked in immediately and anti-Shia and anti-Ahmadi movements gained strength. Today, we see sectarian terrorist groups that kill those of Muslim minority and Christian and Hindu minority faiths and blow up their places of worship. The leaders of these groups are known to the authorities but remain free to address open public rallies and travel. The Blasphemy Law in Pakistan is considered the toughest in the world and carries a death penalty if convicted. Once this law was passed it gave the general public of Pakistan a sort of license to judge and convict anyone they feel has blasphemed.
You said in a paper in 2013 for the Hudson Institute that Ahmadis make up only 0.22 percent of the population of Pakistan. How much of a change is that since the Partition? I saw an article recently in Dawn that another Ahmadi Muslim was killed. Do you think they’ll ever be safe in Pakistan?
Members of Ahmadi sect forbidden to call themselves Muslim. Ahmadis are some of the most common defendants in criminal charges of blasphemy, which in Pakistan can carry the death penalty. By law they cannot call their place of worship mosques or distribute religious literature, recite the Koran or use traditional Islamic greetings, measures that they say criminalize their daily lives.
The legal restrictions began in 1974, when the then-Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto passed a constitutional amendment declaring Ahmadis non-Muslim. A decade later military dictator General Zia ul Haq barred Ahmadis from identifying themselves as Muslim.
The exact percentage is hard to calculate as though many Ahmadis have fled the country and gained asylum in the US, Canada, UK and Australia the constant increase of the Pakistani population which is not easily attainable as many Ahmadis have to hide their faith to be able to work and ensure the safety of their families.
I do not think they will be safe in Pakistan in my lifetime. In the month of November alone, nuclear armed Pakistan’s capital city, Islamabad has been taken hostage by thousands of religious extremists demanding further restrictions on the county’s Ahmadi Muslims & praising convicted criminals like Mumtaz Qadri, the murderer of our former governor, Punjab province, Salmaan Taseer.
Also, The National Assembly (Parliament) has passed the new Elections (Amendment) Bill 2017 challenging the voter registration of anyone accused of being an Ahmadi.
The bill relates to the fresh delimitation of constituencies keeping in view the provisional results of the recently conducted census with respect to the upcoming general elections in 2018.
Speaking on the new law ‘Elections Amendment Bill 2017′ Senate Deputy Chairman Abdul Ghafoor Haideri, who belongs to the Islamist Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-F, said that the Ahmadis’ status is the same as it was back in the 1973 Constitution. Reinforcing the Ahmadis vulnerable position and demonstrating that the parliament and government consider them non-Muslims.
Can Pakistan ever be a place where all feel safe and welcome regardless of religion?
In my lifetime only former military dictator General Pervez Musharraf had the power during his ten year rule to change the laws and ensure prosecution of those who attacked minority groups. And, to disband sectarian terrorist organizations. But he did not. I am not hopeful in the rational sense but one has to keep hope alive to ensure change one day.
Can social media be freely used or is it regulated as part of the blasphemy laws?
It is regulated to some extent. People have been arrested for blasphemy because of blasphemy allegations of online comments and killed as university student Mashal Khan was. But, like others, his family has not received justice. Journalists and bloggers speaking freely on social media have disappeared, been tortured and fled the country.
Especially after writing Purifying the Land of the Pure can you safely return to Pakistan? If not what would have to change for that to be possible?
I have gone back on a handful of occasions – but in a very low key manner and with a full understanding of the risks. Anyone who has written and spoken as much about the issues I do can never be safe in Pakistan. Vigilante justice continues unimpeded.
Do you think it’s possible to have a country based on a religion that’s welcoming to those who don’t follow that religion?
No. There has to be a separation of church and state and all citizens must be considered equal under the constitution. Religion or ethnicity cannot be a part of any modern and civilized nation.
Your work has largely focused on bringing Pakistan back to democracy. How do you hold onto hope for a country with such a history of violence?
Hope does spring eternal. However, as Pakistan is a relatively young country one can only work for a better tomorrow. But, I know how ugly the lives of those of minority community faiths are. That spurs me on. The country belongs to every single Pakistani and they deserve that.
I can’t even imagine getting to work with Benazir Bhutto as you did both when she was in exile and when she returned to Pakistan in September 2007. What is your favorite story about her?
Benazir Bhutto, was human and had faults but what a great leader she was. I still miss her every day. She had political intelligence, knowledge of her country and the world and a deep compassion and empathy for women, the disadvantaged and the persecuted. She was hated by the religious right wing forces.
My favorite story about Bibi as any of us referred to her was the day after her arrival. Estimates say that 1 million supporters gathered to welcome her arrival. As her caravan slowly inched through Karachi terrorists set off two bombs to kill her. Many died but she managed to survive.
The following day Benazir Bhutto held a press conference in her small garden at her Karachi home. It was packed with PPP party officials and reporters. Benazir arrived in a old pair of glasses from her bedside drawer as the ones she had on were shattered in the blast. The audio didn’t work. Bibi picked up a hand mike and without missing a stride spoke so clearly and with an unshaken sense of mission.
She answered every question although she was mourning those who had lost their lives and been up all night talking to her family and party people.
That was Benazir. Brilliant and unbowed. And, kind..Finding a bond with every woman she met. Rich or poor, educated or not. Privately her humor, and love of chocolate and ice cream, and escaping to a movie or a having a cozy chat for a brief respite from her lifetime of heavy responsibility. I always thought of her as the perfect Wellesley woman though she went to Radcliffe!
‘If I were to compare some notes with my elders and do the same with my younger ones, chances are that we may differ in many of our versions of historical events. The reasons are very simple: firstly, we don’t seem to get over our past and secondly, we can’t seem to decide which ending we like best for certain events.
It is a known fact that most rulers of the Middle Ages had their own past and present written in front of them, so as to make sure that in later times, the world would see them the way they wanted to. The Mughals, in particular, either wrote their own biographies, like Baburnama and Tuzk i Jahangiri, or would engage competent historians, using mostly their competence in language skills and less in giving first hand accounts and get their life recorded as they themselves saw it, like in the case of Akbarnama. It is only through some juicy gossip notes recorded by foreign travellers that we have some insight in the private lives of the emperors, although the authenticity of these notes is itself not very reliable, owing to misrepresentation through lack of understanding or simply mischief, for the purpose of gaining popularity back home. Although we could still learn quite a few tricks from our ancestors in the area of administration or cultural practices, we seem to like their habit of choosing their own history the most.
In his preface to Muqaddimah, Ibn e Khaldun, a 14th century Arab historian, warns of seven mistakes he thought his contemporaries often made. One of these was ‘a common desire to gain favour of those of high ranks, by praising them, by spreading their fame.’ Ismat Riaz, an educational consultant and author comments in a popular magazine that ‘this particular mistake, or lie rather, has plagued history writing for school texts in Pakistan since the 1950s and has been used as a political tool to project successive rulers – whether civil or military – in a eulogistic format.’
When Pakistan Studies was introduced as a compulsory subject in our curriculum, times changed – literally. Farahnaz Ispahani, former Media Advisor to the President of Pakistan, commented in her research paper titled ‘Pakistan’s Descent into Religious Intolerance’ that when Social Studies (later Pakistan Studies) and Islamic Studies was made compulsory from grade six onwards in the Ayub regime, ‘the syllabus emphasised Islam’s martial tradition, spoke of a longstanding conflict between Hindus and Muslims in the subcontinent and drilled into student’s minds the idea that Pakistan was created to be an Islamic state.’General Zia’s regime went a step further when it ordered a revision in curriculum for all subjects to ensure that ‘the ideology for which this nation had achieved Pakistan may permeate the lives of people…. The basic aim of this policy was to create a new generation wedded to Islam and what the state described as the ideology of Pakistan.’
‘The most blatant lie in textbook accounts of Pakistan’s history is by virtue of omission, which is in effect the denial of our multicultural, multiethnic and multi religious past’, laments Hamida Khuhro a historian and former education minister of Sindh in unison with Ismat Riaz in the same publication. ‘It is a common complaint that Pakistan’s history is taught as if it began with the conquest of Sindh by the Umayyad Dynasty, led by the young General, Muhammad Bin Qasim in 711 AD…..No student of Pakistani schools can tell us that Pakistan was once part of the empires of Cyrus the Great and Darius of the Achaemenid Dynasty and later of the Sassanian Empire under the legendary rule of Naushirwan “the Just”, she says.
Now history is repeating itself in our neighbourhood. While the Mughals may have recorded their own versions of life to be read later, the present rulers in India feel it’s time facts change a little more. They have decided that there is no reason to praise the Mughals, they were good for nothing, infact ‘looted’ India, robbing it not only of its wealth, but its religions and culture. Uttar Pradesh deputy Chief Minister Dinesh Sharma recently remarked that the Mughals were ‘not our ancestors’, they were actually ‘plunderers’. Using surnames of. Mirza or Beg, an estimated population of over 600,000 claim descent from the Mughals in only Sharma’s state. Many more of their relatives live across India. Ignoring such figures, it is strange that Dinesh Sharma insists that after almost four centuries of living in the country, the Mughal lineage has vanished and they are no more one of the Indian ancestors! Responding to a question by saying ‘This is not our history,’ he added during a ceremony in Lucknow that UP will introduce new syllabus in schools which could be based on modern history.
Reports claim that India seems to be making a conscious effort to scrap history of Mughals from the textbooks. And in their dedicated effort, the Indians even seem to erase from memory the Taj Mahal – one of the modern wonders of the world, one of the great Mughal landmarks in India and a source of great income for the country through tourism – by erasing it from the list of monuments in the state tourism brochure. But one wonders, how could India erase from its epic cinematic history blockbusters like Mughal e Azam and its evergreen melodies like ‘pyar kia to darna kia’ – a commoner’s protest about one Mughal to another!
While rewriting history seems a popular cause mostly in the subcontinent, in the broader sense of meddling with established curriculum content, the trend is infectious, one must say and others are catching up fast. Our brethren in Turkey are satisfied with their historical records. They have no hesitation in telling the world the mistakes their Ottoman rulers made and infact show lack of emotion, save some contempt when disclosing the decline of the once magnificent empire. They take more pride in the rebuilding of the nation under Mustafa Kamal Ataturk – a triumphant chapter in their history. It is the matters of science they are dissatisfied with. The new academic year in Turkish schools has begun, with lectures on Jihad going to be in, and those on the Darwinian theory on Evolution to be out. Subjects such as mutation, modification and adaptation are explained in biology textbooks without explaining evolution itself. The controversial decision to exclude the theory was taken ‘because it is above the students’ level and not directly relevant,’ elaborates Ismet Yilmaz, Turkey’s education minister. The move has fuelled fears that the nation is subverting its secular foundations and is an attempt to avoid raising ‘generations who ask questions.’