Devotion and Defiance

Pamela Constable in The Washington Post:

BookBy her own admission, Humaira Awais Shahid grew up in a rarefied atmosphere of privilege and freedom. Born in 1971 and raised far from her native Pakistan, she was encouraged to think for herself and study Western literature, while remaining largely ignorant of the cruel constraints that entrapped many women in her impoverished Muslim homeland. In her 20s, Shahid returned home to a “tidy, privileged corner” of Pakistan’s insular upper-class society. Harboring vague notions of defying convention and helping people, she shrugged off pressure for an arranged marriage, fell in love with the scion of a newspaper family and decided to take up journalism. Only then did her true education begin.

First came an appeal to the newspaper’s hotline from a poor man whose daughter had been raped. Shahid, rushing to assist, was coldly rebuffed by village elders who decreed that the victim must marry her rapist. It was a typical verdict in Pakistan’s tribal justice system, where such crimes are viewed through a prism of family honor and community peace, and where the state organs of law and justice rarely interfere. “You from the city need to understand some basic facts about village life,” one elder explained. “If we don’t marry her to the man who assaulted her . . . she will elope with another. That will bring more shame on the community and could incite a bloodbath.” Shahid withdrew in defeat, while the victim sobbed hopelessly in a dark hut. From this incident the author plunges into an account of her furious, often frustrated campaign for women’s rights in a conservative, patriarchal society of 180 million — and “Devotion and Defiance” becomes a book worth reading.

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