When I was six I remember spending a few bored hours swinging on our front gate at our house in Lahore. I was there because my father spent those hours pacing anxiously up and down the driveway with my eight month old sister in his arms. It was years later I realized that this was the day that my mother, along with a few hundred other women from the Women’s Action Forum, had been arrested for staging a rally against our then-dictator General Zia-ul-Haq. Zia-ul-Haq was in the process of changing the country’s constitution by creating the Federal Shariat Court, a parallel court system that bypassed the Supreme Court. My mother, who had co-founded AGHS, the country’s first all-female law firm, had helped organize this rally. The police had tear gassed and baton-charged the protesters and had arrested dozens of them. That day, 12 February, is now celebrated as Pakistan Women’s Day. It also happens to be my mother’s birthday.
*start trigger warning about violence against women*
When I was thirteen my mother picked us up from school but, instead of taking us home, we drove for an hour and a half to the other side of Karachi where she had a meeting with some doctors and lawyers. We waited in the car outside the hospital for about an hour. On the way home she told us she’d gone there to see an eleven year old girl from a farming village who worked as a babysitter at her family’s land owner’s mansion. While there she has been raped, beaten, electrocuted, and held captive in a well. Aurat Foundation (AF), the non-profit my mother had co-founded a few years earlier in Lahore, was helping this girl and her family find shelter and legal representation.
My mother, by the way, was a constitutional lawyer and had previously been a criminal lawyer. When she was studying law in the 1970s she was one of six women in a law school of over two hundred men. She was the only woman in her graduating class.
When I was seventeen I dropped my mother off at her office for a meeting. She had established AF’s branch in Karachi and was now co-running its Islamabad branch. I was supposed to pick her up an hour later but, when I got there, there were a few police cars parked outside and an officer prevented me from going in but wouldn't tell me what was happening. I waited around anxiously for a bit but then went home and telephoned the office instead. My mother told me she’d call me once she was ready to head back, which turned out to be about four hours later.
They’d had a client at their office who had wanted to marry the wrong man; a man who was also of her own choosing. Her family had forbidden her from doing so but she and her now-husband had eloped. Her family had subsequently tracked her down and had made contact with her. She had sought help and had been referred to AF for legal advice. AF had negotiated with the family – who had said they wanted the client to come back home – so that afternoon they had organized a meeting between their client and two representatives from her family in order to discuss terms. However, before the two parties had met, one of the ‘representatives’ had slipped into the room down the hall where the client was waiting and had garrotted her. The murderer and associate had then then snuck out of the building without alerting anyone. From that day onwards there was always a security guard outside of my mother’s office.
*end trigger warning*
When I was nineteen my mother became a member of the National Commission on the Status of Women. The Commission was tasked with proposing amendments to the Muslim Family Laws Ordinance (1961). The committee held a two week long session in Islamabad when I was back home from college during the summer holidays and so, every day, I would drop and pick up my mother from the meeting venue. On the way home my mother would tell me about all the different ways in which the rights of women and minorities had been restricted by the law - and not just Pakistani law, but most of the legal systems around the world. It was quite an eye opener.
My mother, Shahla Zia, made a real, tangible difference to the lives of thousands, if not millions, of people in Pakistan – particularly women. Sadly, she died in March 2005 when she was only 58.