Pakistani U alumna speaks to students about home country

Pamela Steinle

Before she dies, Fouzia Saeed says, her dream is to see peace in south Asia.

So far, she says, she can see positive changes on the horizon.

As an Islamic state, her native Pakistan exists under the pretense that Allah alone is sovereign. Women have limited civil rights, and the Sharia courts rule the land.

But new leadership in recent years has indicated that Pakistan might be moving toward democracy. In October, a general election will be held for the National Assembly, and women have been promised at least 20 percent of the seats.

General Pervez Musharraf has been president of Pakistan since 1999, when he led a successful military coup against civilian Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Initially shunned by the United States for his less-than-democratic rise to office, he has since become an important figure through his role in the war on terrorism.

Musharraf has also made public statements indicating he wants a modern, more secular Muslim state.

“Pakistan was created secular,” Saeed said. “It was secular in the early 1980s and not seen as a religious country.”

Saeed is Pakistan’s country director of Action Aid, a U.N. program that works toward poverty eradication and against social injustices.

She received primary and secondary education in Pakistan and then spent eight years at the University earning her doctorate in education.

She lectured about the role of women in Pakistani society Monday night at an event sponsored by the Pakistani Student Association and the Culture Corps in the Office of International Programs.

Saeed said law and order are harder to implement in a place such as Pakistan where social control is far more effective than laws.

For example, people wouldn’t mind driving through a red light because it isn’t internalized as right or wrong, Saeed said.

“We don’t trust government,” she said of those in her native country. “Laws were never made for people. They were made to control.”

Raised in the town of Peshawar, which lies near the Afghanistan
border, Saeed grew up in a middle-class family.

In a country where 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, Saeed is not representative of the Pakistani people at large. But her perspective as an educated middle-class citizen is reliably indicative of where the country is heading.

The middle class has more power than the masses. It is they and the elite who currently determine the country’s foreign policy, said Joseph Schwartzberg, a retired former chairman of the University’s department of South Asian and Middle Eastern studies.

He agrees military dictators have a habit of merely saying they want to restore democracy.

Pakistan has gone through several constitutions and governments, and Schwartzberg is unsure how much power Musharraf will yield to the elected prime minister, who is typically much more powerful than the figurehead president.

“For the time being I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt,” Schwartzberg said. “But it’s an I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it sort of thing.”

For all her optimism, Saeed is also leery of the permanence of reform in Pakistan but remains hopeful.

“The current government strategies are committed to controlling militant elements and working towards development, progress and democracy,” Saeed said.

Pamela Steinle welcomes comments at [email protected]