'I Have My Voice Now': Pakistani Abuse Survivor Devotes Life to Helping Women

Tehmina Durrani survived years of domestic violence and became a bestselling author and campaigner for acid attack victims and survivors of abuse.

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Feb 2 2016, 3:25pm

Tehmina Durrani (right) with acid attack victim Fakhra Younus. Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

"Revolutions happen when injustice is felt so deeply that we are ready to pay any price," says Pakistani writer and activist Tehmina Durrani, as we are served finger food and cake at her home in Lahore. Six armed police officers stand outside her luxurious and well-staffed house. Durrani has received multiple death threats as a result of her work and her marriage to the most important politician in the province, though you'd probably never guess. Clutching her e-cigarette in one hand, she appears utterly composed. It's hard to imagine what her life was like before this. "I was completely oppressed," she replies.

Durrani's own revolution began with her controversial 1991 autobiography, published when she was 37. My Feudal Lord: A Devastating Indictment of Women's Role in Muslim Society was a bestseller around the world and was translated into 39 languages. The account lays bare a life under misogyny—first during childhood, and then in the brutal abuse of her ex-husband, the notorious politician Mustafa Khar, known to his followers as the 'Lion of Punjab.' She divorced him in 1989 after 13 years of marriage.

Durrani claims to be the first Muslim woman in history to have publicly documented—in intimate detail—her experience of domestic violence. And, verifiable or not, her proclamation is telling of the woman she is today. "I have my voice now and I'm not letting it die," she says, "I got it with too much difficulty."

Read More: Why Victims of Rape and Abuse Stay Silent

Pakistan was ranked the third most dangerous country for women in 2011 by the Thomas Reuters Foundation, for reasons including honor killings, forced marriage, acid attacks, and the prevalence of other physical abuse. According to Human Rights Watch, up to 90 percent of women in Pakistan have suffered domestic violence, though very few report it due to its normalization in society and the stigma of speaking out. Even if a case enters the courts, convictions almost never happen. Durrani says that, at one time, she felt Islam's only protection for women was the hijab, "that little piece of cloth."

The 'Lion of Punjab' remains an esteemed member of the political elite, and is now married to his seventh wife. The price Durrani paid for breaking her silence, on the other hand, was high. With no rights to alimony, she was left destitute. Disowned for bringing shame on her family, she became a single mother of five.

Tehmina Durrani on the cover of Newsweek Pakistan. Image courtesy of subject

Durrani threw herself into social justice activism. In 1993, she began a seven-day hunger strike against political corruption that culminated in a visit from the prime minister. But Durrani came to believe that if she truly wanted to represent the "silent majority", she needed to "step onto the side on which people lived instead of the one on which leadership basked." To this end, she spent three years working with Pakistan's most prominent humanitarian, Abdul Sattar Edhi, bathing corpses and wrapping coffins, and visiting and volunteering at psychiatric centres and orphanages.

She grew to see Edhi as a shining example of the essence of Islam; an antidote to the patriarchal "ritual and dogma" she felt had engulfed her faith. Her 1999 novel Blasphemy was a retort to those she described as "the powerful impostors who redefine Islam for their own whims... [and hold women] hostage to religious, economic and social bondage."

Here, feminism is seen as Western propaganda... I've realized that we need inspiration from our own faith.

A few years after Blasphemy's publication, in 2001, Durrani was compelled to act on a case of violent misogyny close to home. One of her ex-husband's sons, Bilal Khar, was accused of an acid attack on his wife, Fakhra Younus, a former sex worker, who had left him after years of physical and emotional abuse. Durrani embraced Younus publicly and made arrangements for her surgery abroad. "Through my public support of Fakhra," Durrani says, "I wanted people to realise that [a woman] doesn't have to be your daughter to deserve protection... That's not the way of Islam."

Durrani is adamant that women's rights can only progress in Pakistan if patriarchal mindsets change from the bottom up. When I try to discuss some feminist initiatives I've heard of—pink women-only rickshaws, for example, to combat sexual harassment—she is unmoved. "These things are so small..." she says, elongating her vowels. For such projects to be meaningful, she believes the root causes of misogyny must be addressed first, in "personal revolutions."

Tehmina Durrani became a social justice activist after suffering years of domestic abuse. Photo courtesy of subject

As a prominent feminist in Pakistan, then, will Durrani lead a feminist movement? "No," she snaps. "Here, feminism is seen as Western propaganda. I've realized that we need inspiration from our own faith." What that something—or someone—might be came to her in a 3am epiphany.

According to Durrani, the annals of Islamic history actually provide a 21st century role model for Muslim women. Hajar was a slave and is described as Prophet Abraham's second wife in Islam. After giving birth, she was forced to flee into the desert with her baby, Ishmael, where—saving both their lives—she discovered the 'miracle' well that all Muslims visit on the Hajj pilgrimage. "If this woman had not fought, the father of Islam would have died and the city of Mecca would not exist. This woman saved our religion before it began!"

Hajar is buried beside the Kaaba at the center of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, which every Muslim must face as they pray. "And yet today a woman in that country isn't allowed to drive?" Durrani says, indignant. "She isn't even allowed to walk Hajj alone! All Muslim women are inheritors of Hajar. Hajar represents our strong and intended position."

Read More: How Islamophobia Hurts Muslim Women the Most

This year, Durrani is launching a social justice NGO, the Tehmina Durrani Foundation. After setting up a helpline and response unit for victims of abuse, the first thing she wants to do is to make clean water available everywhere. "Beside every tank," she says, "I want the story of Hajar. I want it spread by storytellers. I want it taught in schools." Durrani is convinced that, once women know Hajar's story, "they will demand respect from their men—because of Islam."

We don't discuss Durrani's own husband until the end of the interview. She is married to the chief minister of Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif—the brother of the Pakistani prime minister. In her revolutionary ambitions, Durrani acknowledges her marriage can present a "conflict of interests," but she is practical about its advantages. "If I have the access to this power, I'm going to use it," she says. "I hope I can always convince the government to do what is right... I hope I always win."

I have to ask: what if 'the government' refuses to support her work? I look down and slice some cheese from our latest platter as she formulates a diplomatic answer. "Since my work for the deprived is for God, nothing—including my marriage—can come in its way." Durrani is clear: "It's taken a lifetime to reach this point, and I am finally ready to say, 'Follow me.'" She instructs me to try the tapenade, and I follow.