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Trading death threats for serenity

Outspoken Pakistani leader visits with her family and reflects on her homeland's future.

April 12, 2011|Alexandra Zavis

It has been a harrowing few months for liberal Pakistani lawmaker Fauzia Wahab. Islamic militants assassinated two of her government colleagues. Gunmen tried to kidnap her son, and effigies of her were burned at rallies.

A trip to the U.S. this month to attend a seminar hosted by her congressional peers in Washington provided a brief respite from the turmoil. After a week of meetings, she took time off to visit her sister in Orange County, where she browsed in bookstores and took in a show about the Beatles -- without armed guards in tow.

"It's a beautiful place," she said over tea last week at her sister's home in Laguna Niguel. "Beautiful and serene."

As the former spokeswoman of the ruling Pakistan People's Party, Wahab has gone head to head with Islamic hardliners and right-wing media outlets, denouncing religious extremism and defending her country's weak, U.S.-allied government.

She received death threats after saying that CIA contractor Raymond Davis, accused of killing two Pakistani men in January, has diplomatic immunity and should be released. Although she said this was her personal view, the party asked her to resign as information secretary.

Colleagues advised Wahab to keep a low profile. For weeks, she hunkered down inside the Karachi home she shares with her husband and three children from their previous marriages. For the first time in her 23-year political career, she was assigned a police escort, but she is embarrassed to step outside with the guards.

"It's so horrifying ... those policemen jumping out of the car and taking up position with their rifles in their hands," she said, laughing.

Although President Asif Ali Zardari's government has launched military strikes against some militant enclaves, it has done little to staunch the radicalization spreading through Pakistan's universities, political parties, media and legal community.

Most leaders have stayed silent on the issue that cost Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti and Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer their lives earlier this year. Both men were outspoken critics of the country's controversial blasphemy laws, which make it a crime to insult Islam, the Koran or the prophet Mohammed.

Wahab said she had publicly defended Taseer's call for a pardon of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman facing the death penalty on allegations that she defamed Islam.

"I said that Asia is the daughter of the soil," Wahab said. "What wrong did he do if he went to her and comforted her and assured her that she will be given clemency?"

Another Pakistani legislator, Sherry Rehman, proposed a bill to amend the laws, reportedly prompting several clerics to issue religious edicts declaring her fit to be killed.

"It's strange, but gradually it is women who are wearing the trousers now," Wahab said. "When Shahbaz Bhatti was killed, I remember so many people came and said: 'And now it's your turn, be careful, run.' "

Despite the danger, she said she won't be silenced by extremists.

"I want my country to become enlightened," she said. "I want my country to become a tolerant society. I want my country to become a plural society, and I want my country to have a strong democratic system."

She is troubled by U.S. moves to open direct talks with the Afghan Taliban, saying their extremist views are spreading in Pakistan.

"Everybody talks about the [U.S.] drone attacks, but nobody talks about the suicide attacks," she said.

Wahab was with Zardari's late wife, Benazir Bhutto, during a devastating 2007 suicide attack on her homecoming rally that killed more than 150 in Karachi.

Bhutto escaped unharmed but was killed 10 weeks later in a gun-and-bomb attack as she left a campaign event in the garrison city of Rawalpindi.

"We need courageous people," Wahab said sadly. "And Benazir Bhutto was one of them."

Wahab, who doesn't wear a veil, said she does not like to be "demonstrative" about her faith. She was raised a devout Muslim but said she was allowed "all kinds of liberties" growing up, including a good education and the right to speak out within the family.

Encouraged to read, she said, she is drawing inspiration from a biography of John Quincy Adams she picked up in the U.S.

"It's an interesting read," she said, "a person who could not be defeated."

Her sister, Bushra Mateen, shakes her head.

"Please," she said, "have some mercy on yourself."

alexandra.zavis@latimes.com

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