Zainab Shafi: Representing the Marginalized and Critiquing Violent Culture

Zainab is an international student from Lahore, Pakistan who aspires to earn a law degree in the U.S. and represent marginalized women as an attorney in her hometown. Her work addresses the causes and trajectories of honor killings in Pakistan, and seeks to offer resources to those most closely affected by culturally sanctioned violence. Zainab emphasizes that such violence must not be attributed to religion, and that liberal progressivism is necessary in order to remedy traditions of violence against women.


This is my second time in the U.S. since I was, like, six; I’ve only ever been for like family holidays and stuff. So I’ve lived in Pakistan my whole life, I went to school there and everything. I’m coming here [to the U.S.] because I want to explore history and politics, and liberal arts education in America is just known to be more flexible in that way: there’s more variety and things to do here in that regard, so that’s why I’m here.

My immediate family (like my parents), sect-wise they’re Sunnis but they have a very Sufi outlook on Islam. They really like reading Sufi traditions and that’s their thing, and they drink, so I grew up like that, and my friends and my immediate social circle also drink–lots of Pakistanis drink. So [Islam] hasn’t really been forced in my family, but, like, definitely in school. I’ve had a really religious socialization and education as well, because Islam is just used in every context, and it becomes very silly sometimes.

At home, people always find out [about your religiosity] especially in a big city. People knew that my parents were drinking, people knew that I was from a Muslim household, but from a very relaxed Muslim household, so growing up, that would always put ideas into people’s heads. Like when I would fast, people would roll their eyes, like ‘what is the point of her fasting? [Her family] are infidels anyways.’ (laughs) So there was a lot of judgment and doubt at home with my Muslim identity, which made it very hard to embrace it because I figured no one was going to take me seriously anyways, so screw it. Here in the U.S., it’s interesting because I definitely shock people; people on campus will be like, ‘oh, you drink,’ and like, ‘you wear shorts and dresses, wow that’s really amazing!’ and I’m always like ‘no, it’s really not that big of a deal.’ (laughs). But here, because I hold that [Pakistani] passport, that changes everything; so here my Muslim identity is definitely more of a marker than it is at home, and it’s more important [to me], and I’ve actually wanted to embrace more of it since I came here because it sets me apart.

One project that I was really invested in when I was home was doing research about honor killings; you know, finding out about cases, and why they happened, and where they happened, and looking through different newspaper reports. So that was my job for a while, and it was just really important for me because, to the outside world, [honor killing] is such a marker of Islam that just screams about the violent aspect of this religion, but when you actually get down to the facts, it’s not about Islam at all. People use that legal aspect of Islam to try to rationalize honor killings, where, you know, you can take “blood money,” and you can kill people if they “dishonor” you, but the problem is actually just a lot of very fragile masculinity, and misogyny–that’s what actually causes these things.

Ever since I’ve been working with the Human Rights Commission, I’ve done annual reports on honor killings and issues like that. I’m basically just keeping track of the numbers and where and when they’re happening, and things like that. It’s a lot of work, and the sad part is that you really are desensitized growing up in a country like Pakistan, like I have to admit that. It hurts to read these things as a woman, but at the same time, I’ve grown up around so much of it, so it’s hard.

My main concern is that we need to uncover and unpack this problem, and convey to the world that this isn’t what Islam propagates, which kind of lead me to my more recent research here. I feel like Islam is something that kids in my class bracket run from so often because we have the choice to do that, but then when we come here [to the U.S.], we really want to cling to it, and hold on to it because that’s such a core part of our identity. There’s a lot of stuff connected to religion and Islam when I was growing up that has definitely impacted my identity as a progressive, liberal Muslim. But, that is also a very classist position to hold; for example, in Pakistan we have a lot of religious political groups and there are always ardent female factions who subscribe to these really fundamentalist views, and these are usually very poor women. Even in middle-class families, you are always brought up with this notion that Islam is outdated, and that we need to, you know, move past this–but we hold those views in part because we have more economic mobility.

My plan is to study law here, then go home and open up a free, or minimum-cost practice and help women get out of unfair marriage contracts and work on blasphemy cases. I’m being very idealistic here, but the goal is to go back and try to legally counter some of the symptoms of violence that I’ve been studying. Being a female lawyer in Pakistan is a lot, you know, because you walk into a courtroom and the amount of masculine energy in that room is just crazy (laughs). The good part is that every year, even if the number is small, there are always women who are graduating from law school and going on to practice back home. I know people, who for the last four years have gone to law school and are now practicing; so it’s there, but I don’t know if it’s drastically changing in terms of the gender ratio–I don’t think it is. Even so, just seeing one woman in a sea of forty men is still a big deal for me, just knowing that they’re there and we’re being represented.”

Interview conducted by Andrew McDonald, MALA 2017 Fall Fellow. Stock photo has been used in this interview to protect the privacy of the story-teller.