Service and Advocacy in Pakistan

With support from United Methodist Women, Ayra Indryas works for women’s rights in Pakistan.

Service and Advocacy in Pakistan
Ayra Indryas attends the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women in March 2014 with financial support from United Methodist Women.

My quest for questioning injustices began during my school days in Rawalpindi when I and my dark-skinned classmates were discriminated against on the basis of our complexion and were not encouraged to take part in Christmas tableaus. A few teachers preferred girls of fair complexion, and I was given subsidiary roles that did not demand a prominent visible appearance on the stage. I had to fight for even small roles.

After completing my studies I went to Kinnaird College for Women, in Lahore, Pakistan. I was exposed to a broad canvass of possibilities to use my talents and skills. I did face discrimination there.

Upon completion of my master’s degree I realized that only financial independence could allow me to live my life according to my own choices and wishes. Finding a job for economic sustenance and independence was always a question of great significance for me. I used to worry that my parents would set up an arranged marriage for me. It is customary and a culturally sanctioned belief that girls are meant to pursue certain stereotyped roles, like teaching, nursing and secretarial professions. Other professions were deemed not appropriate for women. Marriage before the age of 22 years is considered a right and respectful path for girls, and those who choose a professional career rather than early marriage are considered rebellious.

In 2005 I joined the Catholic Organization for Justice and Peace. As time passed, I started realizing that working for a cause and getting engaged in a political discourse gives me an inner satisfaction and bliss that I can’t get from other sources. I nurtured my intellectual capacities with the conviction of standing against injustices, questioning patriarchal structures and making a space for hearing the voices of downtrodden and the marginalized.

In 2007 I joined the Women Desk, Church of Pakistan, Lahore Diocese. Although the churches are hierarchical and patriarchal, I was fortunate to work under Bishop Alexander John Malik, who has been a strong advocate of women’s rights. I felt that more work could be done with women’s fellowship groups at the church platform. Through my work I found funding through the Barnabas Fund and through United Methodist Women. Since then, I have been involved in developing community-based projects for women and girls living at the fringes of society. In 2010, United Methodist Women provided funds for the long-term recovery after the widespread flooding in Pakistan.

In order to quench the thirst of political activism for women’s emancipation, I joined Women’s Movement in Pakistan. Women’s Movement protests discriminatory laws and policies against women and religious minorities and promotes women’s causes and concerns at the national level. Coupled with my grass-roots experiences of working with women and Christian communities, this forum helped in shaping my perspectives.

The majority of Christians in Pakistan belong to the lower economic strata of society. With the rising tide of religious intolerance and bigotry, several incidents of mob violence against poor Christian settlements and church-run institutions have raised many questions about my Christian identity. Does Pakistan really respect the rights of religious minorities? My national identity as a Pakistani and my Christian identity always stand in contrast to each other. During my master’s studies it dawned on me that most textbook content overtly emphasizes the supremacy of the majority religion, Islam, over others. Knowing and witnessing that blasphemy laws have been used to settle personal scores against weaker sections of society, I fear pursuing intellectual inquiry on issues relating to religious freedom in Pakistan.

In 2009 I was involved in a high-profile case of a Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, a poor villager, who was charged with blasphemy. I along with the Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, and his family visited Ms. Bibi to get her signature on an application to seek pardon from the president of Pakistan. The governor spoke against the misuse of blasphemy laws in Pakistan. Within no time media, conservative scholars and Islamic political parties criticized the governor’s visit and remarks and called him traitor, among other things. This case was covered by national and international media.

On Jan. 4, 2010, Governor Taseer was assassinated by his own guard, who admitted that he shot the governor on account of his opposition to blasphemy charges. Two months later the federal minister for minority affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, was also assassinated, and at his death scene a few letters were found stating that no one could speak against blasphemy laws. I could not sleep for four consecutive days, filled with pain and agony. I was completely astounded by the series of events.

Working amid a patriarchal mindset in which tradition and culture are used as excuses for oppression and literalistic interpretation of religious text places women in a subservient position, there have been instances when I have felt like giving up the fight. Yet I see the positive changes the community-based projects bring in the lives of women I work with, and it sustains and triggers me to continue my work. The zeal of women trained in stitching, sewing and adult literacy is the real driver of my work.

Being a part of international advocacy gives me solace and space for intellectual activism. This year United Methodist Women gave me the opportunity to participate in the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. With their financial support I was able to travel to New York City to join international discourse on concerns and causes pertaining to women living in challenging situations. I learned about a wide range of challenges concerning women, such as poverty, environment, sexual violence and reproductive health, economy, resource allocation, access to justice, leadership, human rights and sustainable development, and my time in New York energized me to continue my work toward the emancipation of women and the marginalized communities, and it gave me an impetus to invite both men and women to be part of the solution.

United Methodist Women Mission Giving provides support to the Women’s Desk in the Church of Pakistan Lahore Diocese.

Posted or updated: 10/12/2014 11:00:00 PM
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UMWNewsThis article also appears in UMW News.
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