She Khan make it right
IRENE KHAN never dreamed she would one day head the organisation that she once considered “does not seem right for me”.
But that was in 1978 and she was a student at the University of Manchester in England, caught up in the anti-apartheid struggle.
“I was thinking of becoming a member of Amnesty International at that time, but I did not, because Amnesty was not campaigning against apartheid then.”
Twenty-one years later, at the urging of a former professor, she secured the position of secretary general of one of the world’s influential organisations and during a nine-year tenure successfully managed to change its focus.
Khan delivered the Central Bank’s 35th Sir Winston Scott Memorial Lecture on Monday, and later sat down for an interview with the WEEKEND NATION.
She related her arrival in London on September 11, 2001, to officially begin work there the next day, when on the television set in her hotel room she witnessed two planes crashing into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre.
Immediately she got the call – “we know you have just arrived, but you should come into the office immediately”.
That was her introduction to a job that would see her campaigning throughout the world for Amnesty International causes.
“I had two goals. One was to make Amnesty more relevant in developing countries, and the second was to strengthen Amnesty’s work on women’s rights.
“I had to convince Amnesty members that if you want to be relevant in the developing world, if you really want to be a truly global organisation relevant in all countries of the world, then you have to focus on economic and social rights as well.
“My big challenge was to convince Amnesty International that poverty is not just a social problem or an economic problem; it is actually a human rights problem.
“The other battle was putting women’s human rights issues high on Amnesty’s agenda, because ironically, even though many of the researchers and staff working with Amnesty are women, somehow over the years Amnesty had not given high prominence to women’s rights.”
Khan now reports “very effective” results of her efforts.
“In the context of women we have had enormous success globally. Until Amnesty started its campaign to stop violence against women, most of Amnesty’s campaigns were about issues that affected other people – torture, the death penalty.”
Through their campaigns, Amnesty members in Morocco were able to bring about a new family law bill; in Spain they helped to introduce new legislation on domestic violence; in Mexico the campaign was about the mothers of Ciudad Juarez, and in Guatemala, the killings of women occupied their attention.
Even in the United States they campaigned against violence committed on vulnerable native American women.
Khan spoke freely about women’s problems in her native Bangladesh, and the “huge amount” of sexual violence against women when “hundreds of thousands of women were raped during the Bangladesh war of independence.
“Because of the failure to address that issue of gender violence it still stayed in the community and we see very high levels of sexual harassment of girls, and of domestic violence issue.”
Khan is working with women’s groups to improve the lot of her fellow Bangladeshi women to provide them with educational and economic means to escape oppressive situations.
The laws still remain oppressive but this is also an area currently getting Khan’s attention.
At the Frank Collymore Hall, the human rights activist defended Amnesty International position on the death penalty.
In the interview, she stated: “I can understand when a crime is committed, family members and the community get very angry and they would like
to hang the perpetrator. But if you look from the perspective of the government of the state, what is the right answer? What should the government do?
Khan added: “Research shows that actually executing someone does not reduce crime.”
She insisted the death penalty was not a deterrent.
“All European countries have abolished the death penalty. Countries like Iran, China, US, Saudi Arabia, the Caribbean, Bangladesh execute, but the crime rates are not lower.”
Not appropriate Khan argues more than 120 countries around the world no longer execute and she attributes this to her belief that governments have come to realise that execution is not the appropriate form of punishment.
“Capital punishment is not suitable for the 21st century. When people have committed a crime, yes, they should be punished, but I think when the state takes life it sends a very wrong message about the value of life.”
This petite dynamo has balanced the roles of wife, mother, homemaker, human rights activist and attorney with some difficulty.
Some view her as a very liberated Muslim woman and question how has she managed it.
But she responds: “There are hundreds and thousands of women like me and this is where, unfortunately, as a result of 9/11, as a result
of lot of attention on countries like Afghanistan, there is a misperception of what a Muslim woman is like.
“Muslim majority countries extend from Morocco to Indonesia, and in each of those countries the brand of Islam is quite different. There are different interpretations of Shariah law, and women have a high degree of autonomy and can live free lives.”
But she readily admits facing challenges as a female Muslim human rights activist.
“Sometimes, yes, I get attacked but I have to stand up and speak out.”
She has encountered personal threats to her safety sometimes from groups that felt Amnesty was too outspoken about its issues.
She has had anonymous threats in the mail, suffered verbal attacks on radio call-in programmes, and people have even attacked her status as a Muslim woman doing the job she does.
She is aware she is touching people on issues that are very sensitive to them. Yet Khan stands her ground.
She said: “Before I came to Amnesty I was a human rights activist and now I have left Amnesty, I am still a human rights activist.”