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Tag: gender

Remembering Asma Jahangir: “Pakistan’s Conscience”

By Mariam Chughtai, Ed.D. ’15, SAI Pakistan Programs Director

Mariam Chughtai and Asma Jahangir at Harvard in 2015


The auditorium was full as Asma Jahangir, who passed away this week at the age of just 66, delivered the Harvard Asia Center’s prestigious, annual Tsai Lecture in March 2015. Pakistani speakers at Harvard are quite rare, perhaps because anyone from the country who is consequential is, typically, also highly controversial.

Asma Jahangir was of course both, but the difference was that even those who disagreed with her respected her fearlessness. She was Pakistan’s conscience.

I remember first seeing her when I was a freshman at Kinnaird College, an all-women institution in Lahore, Pakistan. I sat at the very back of a large hall packed with young women, waiting to hear the great Asma Jahangir speak. We sat in awe of her bravery and most of us were also afraid for her life.

There were intense social debates taking place in Pakistan at the time, centred around a case she had taken on; her client was an adult woman who was asserting the right to marry without the consent of her guardian. She was facing down the religious right, which is not something many people attempt in Pakistan. Her fight went all the way to the Supreme Court of Pakistan, which eventually ruled in favor of a woman’s unilateral right to marry whomever she wanted without need for permission.

Asma Jahangir took on many of these challenges, any one of which would be enough to gather a lifetime of deserved plaudits. She was not only the most prominent human rights lawyer; she was the most successful.

In a society where women are sentenced to be gang-raped and honor killings are justified in the name of culture, Asma Jahangir relentlessly pursued new laws to protect women.

She represented the most persecuted victims in front of the Supreme Court. At a time when anti-blasphemy laws are frequently invoked to settle personal disputes and persecute minorities, Asma Jahangir represented Christians who were being held unfairly in jail, helping them get a fair trial.

She fought to restore children to the custody of their mothers. She challenged the state to fulfill its responsibility of providing education, health and employment to poor children, instead of trying them indiscriminately as juvenile offenders.

Her life was frequently in danger; she stood up to fearsome Pakistani regimes in the service of human rights and democracy. Tear-gassed, beaten and imprisoned, she led fellow activists from the Women Action Forum in the first public protest against military dictator General Zia in 1983, demanding equal rights for women.

There were death threats, assassination attempts and bullet holes in her office, but she continued to persevere right till the end.

I’ve often wondered how people like Asma Jahangir charge ahead despite these seemingly formidable odds. Religious political extremists labelled her anti-state and anti-Islam, stigmatizing her in the eyes of many. But in her struggles, you find a deep calm, anchored in the perpetual pursuit of justice.

Here is a text message that I received in the wake of her untimely death. To me, this embodies her essence:


aur jab jahan’num kay farishtay

fatwa-farosh molviyon ko

seekh maen pero kar

aag par bhoon rahay hon gay

tou aik divani aurat

kala coat pehan kar

khuda ki adalat maen

aen-e-asmani ki shik Ghafur-ur-Raheem kay tehat

gunah-garon ki bakhshish kay liay

dalael day ge

wohi Asma Jahangir ho ge


when angels

roast mullahs

on skewers

in hell

this same mad woman

in a black coat

will appear

before the lord


for clemency

for the holy sinners


Webinar: Working with boys and men to prevent gender based violence

DSC04912By Anisha Gopi, Project Manager

On July 28th 2016, the Harvard University South Asia Institute (SAI) and Tata Trusts hosted the third webinar of a multi-part series on Women’s Empowerment. The webinar, titled ‘Working with Boys and Men to Prevent Gender Based Violence,’ consisted of a panel of eminent speakers. The first was Ms. Rujuta Teredesai – Heron, a journalist and Co-founder of Equal Community Foundation in India, an organization that works with engaging boys and men to prevent violence and discrimination against women. The second speaker was Dr. Gary Barker, the President and CEO of Promundo, a global organisation that promotes gender justice and prevents violence by engaging men and boys in partnership with women and girls. He is also a member of the UN Secretary General’s Men’s Leaders Network and has been honored with an Ashoka Fellowship from the Open Society Institute, and the Vital Voices Solidarity Award. The webinar was moderated by Professor Jacqueline Bhabha, Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health, and Director of Harvard FXB Center for Health and Human Rights. The webinar focused on successful interventions by ECF and Promundo and lessons learned while working with boys and men.

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Empowering girls through education


Shantha Sinha, left, with Jacqueline Bhabha

By Anisha Gopi, Project Manager

On July 25th, 2016 the Harvard University South Asia Institute (SAI) and Tata Trusts hosted the second webinar of a multi-part series on Women’s Empowerment. The webinar titled ‘Empowering Girls through educational access and opportunity:  What enables deprived girls to succeed’ was led by Professor Shantha Sinha, one of India’s leading child rights activists and founder of M. Venkatarangaiya (MV) Foundation. Professor Sinha was formerly the Chairperson of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights and has been honoured with the Raman Magsaysay Award and the Padma Shri. The webinar was moderated by Professor Jacqueline Bhabha, Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, and Director of Harvard FXB Center for Health and Human Rights.

The 90 minute webinar focused on factors enabling girls to attend school, challenges faced by school-going girls and successful strategies for ensuring girls have access to secondary education. It was attended by grassroots practitioners, students and academicians from India, the US and the UK.

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Student voices: Women’s rights in Pakistan

This is part of a recurring series in which we share reports from Harvard students who have traveled to South Asia with support from a SAI grant during the winter session.

Click here to read more reports from students.

By Hira Baig, MTS ’16, Harvard Divinity School 
Internship in Women’s Advocacy at Shirkat Gah in Karachi, Pakistan


Street view from my apartment in Gulshan Iqbal, Karachi

Street view from my apartment in Gulshan Iqbal, Karachi

I hadn’t been to Pakistan since 2002 and was, admittedly, very nervous for my trip. I had family in Karachi that I was in touch with over the years, but I couldn’t help and be a little concerned about my new immersion to the city. Pakistan was a place I had faint memories of as a child. I lived there for three years in my adolescence and had visited when I was just nine years old for a wedding. Returning to Pakistan at this age for a work opportunity meant I’d be reacquainted with a city that time and distance were making me forget.

I spent my winter break in Karachi, Pakistan doing an internship for a women’s rights NGO called Shirkat Gah. Shirkat Gah does local, national and international outreach in order to help women in rural Pakistan build better lives for themselves. They have four branches of work that are their main focus: women’s bodily rights, women’s voices, political environment and natural environment. Their staff works under these branches on various projects for women. These activities include but aren’t limited to research, capacity building and training, resource development and legislative advocacy.

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The City and South Asia Podcast: The Season of Migration in the City

How should we plan and perceive the urban?

In this podcast, Namita Dharia, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Harvard University, and Graduate Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study, talks about the life of a migrant worker in urban India and how the construction industry is addressing issues of child labor and women’s safety.

Namita spent over a year at a construction site in India working on an ethnography of the real estate and construction industry in India’s National Capital Region, and is the author of “The Season of Migration in the City” in SAI’s publication The City and South Asia.

Read the full article:



The City and South Asia Podcast: Floating on Waste Islands

Kashmir’s women in wait

Broken Memory Shining DustBroken Memory, Shining Dust, which was screened at a SAI event in December, is a documentary directed by Nilosree Biswas that depicts the extraordinary journey of Kashmiri women experiencing loss, separation, pain, anger, helplessness, faith, grit and determination amidst societal tragedies and circumstances.

Woven around the life of Parveena Ahanger, a Kashmiri mother and other women, the film is about “women in wait” for their loved ones, who went missing in the conflict ridden valley of Kashmir, India, in last two decades, and interweaves their memories of struggle and devotion into a resistance movement.

SAI recently spoke to Biswas from her base in Mumbai about the “women in wait,” as well as Kashmir’s unique culture, the effects of political conflict on women, and a filmmaker’s role in depicting a conflict area.

SAI: To start, can you give some context – what is going on in Kashmir, and why were you drawn to tell this story?

Nilosree Biswas: I had been making documentaries for a very long period of time, and in 2007 I was in a village in the northern part of Kashmir, which consisted of only widows who had lost their husbands to conflict, or had been picked up by the militants. In the process, I came across research about forced disappearances, which is something that has happened in Southeast Asia, and in our part of the world in India and Pakistan, and has had a big impact on society.

In the process, I also found out about Paraveena Ahanger, and over the next 4 years I repeatedly went back and forth to Kashmir and went to villages to meet many of these women, hundreds, who have lost either their husband or sons. This whole sense of trying to understand ‘wait’ from the women’s point of view was part of the process. More than the political aspect, it is understanding how women cope with the phenomenon of disappearances that appealed to me as a filmmaker

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Addressing gender norms through education

Gender and Education Seminar1

Participants included representatives from government, research, non-government organizations and academic institutions.

By Payal NarainProgram Consultant, SAI Delhi Office

On January 9, 2015, the Harvard South Asia Institute (SAI), Harvard FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, and the Population Foundation of India (PFI) co-hosted a day-long seminar on “Addressing Gender Norms through Education: Developing and Implementing Adolescent Curriculum” in New Delhi.

The aim of the seminar was to formulate a research agenda and constitute a group of partners representing government, researchers, non-government organizations and academicians. Held at the PFI office, the seminar was well attended by representatives from the state and central government, civil society and the academic community. In all, there were 28 invited participants, including two who Skyped in from Boston.

Education is crucial to re-orienting gender stereotypes and traditional gender roles, and has the potential to address gender based discrimination and violence by altering patriarchal and repressive mindsets. Though there have been many attempts to create educational frameworks that address gender norms, a comprehensive nationwide program is yet to be implemented.

There is a need for a framework that promotes healthy attitudes about gender and sexual health, empowers young people with accurate, age appropriate and culturally relevant information that is accessible and engaging, and develops skills to enable them to respond to situations in a gender-sensitive manner.

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2015 Student Winter Grant Recipients

SAI has awarded 18 grants to support undergraduate and graduate student projects over the Winter Session in January, 2015. These include 6 undergraduates and 12 graduate students who will be traveling to India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka for research and internships.

The projects cover topics from many disciplines, for example: Using microfinance to alleviate poverty, sustainable housing, the “Islamization” of Divorce Law in Pakistan, vernacular literature of Indian Christians, changing education in the third world countries using cheap computing devices, and internships at health ministries in Sri Lanka.

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Access to sanitation and women’s rights

By Ghazal Gulati and Divya Sooryakumar, Ed. M Candidates, International Education Policy, Harvard Graduate School of Education

“We have a moral imperative to end open defecation and a duty to ensure women and girls are not at risk of assault and rape simply because they lack a sanitation facility.”

-UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Message for World Toilet Day, Nov. 19, 2014

From left to right: Subhadra Banda, Ramnath Subbaraman, and Sharmila Murthy

Worldwide, 2.5 billion people do not have access to proper sanitation. Of the 1 billion of people in the world who defecate in the open, half of those reside in India. The country faces a challenge in meeting the 2015 UN Millennium Development Goal, which aims to “halve, by 2015, the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.”

The theme of this year’s World Toilet Day, which took place on Nov. 19, 2014, is “Equality, Dignity and the Link Between Gender-Based Violence and Sanitation.” The campaign seeks to put a spotlight on the threat of sexual violence that women and girls face in developing nations, due to the loss of privacy as well as the inequalities in access to safe sanitation.

On Monday, November 17th, SAI hosted a Gender and Urbanization seminar on the topic with Sharmila Murthy, Assistant Professor of Law, Suffolk University; Visiting Scholar, Sustainability Science Program, Harvard Kennedy School, Ramnath Subbaraman, Associate Physician, Brigham and Women’s Hospital; Research Advisor, Partners for Urban Knowledge, Action, and Research (PUKAR), Mumbai, India, and Subhadra Banda, Research Associate, Centre for Policy Research; MPP Candidate, Harvard Kennedy School, titled ‘Access to Toilets and Women’s Rights.

By approaching the issue of access to toilets from multiple perspectives of public health, law, and civil society, the three panelists dove deep into the intricacies of the issue, and into the connection between sanitation, toilets, and gender violence, often a taboo topic in India.

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Preventing gender based violence

On August 26 and 27, practitioners, researchers, government leaders and academics from both the US and India gathered to explore how gender violence in South Asia can be prevented in a workshop hosted by SAI and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, titled ‘Gender, Civil Society, and the State in Contemporary South Asia: Preventive Approaches to Gender Based Violence.’

The workshop was meant to shed light on the research being undertaken as part of the Harvard Gender Violence Project, a research initiative coordinated by SAI and led by Jacqueline Bhabha, FXB Director of Research, Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights, Harvard School of Public Health, Jeremiah Smith, Jr. Lecturer in Law, Harvard Law School, Adjunct Lecturer, Harvard Kennedy School, and Akshay Mangla, Assistant Professor, Harvard Business School.

This workshop was an important step in exploring how to reduce gender violence in South Asia, Bhabha explained, given that there is an urgent need to consider the relation between gender and violence focusing on legal reform, civil society and changing norms.

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