In conversation with Huma Chughtai: Chair of the GLO.ACT Women’s Network Advisory Board
Huma, thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. In a couple of sentences, how would you describe yourself?
By nature, I am a very positive, friendly, and open minded person. I like to troubleshoot and fix issues and, when needed, can be firm too. I guess bearing witness to two wars as a child and being daughter of a soldier, resilience was inculcated in me. I don’t scare easily. I have also learnt to be open to new ideas.
Looking back, who was the most influential person in your life?
Without a doubt, my mother. She is a strong and very talented woman who made sure that her three daughters are achievers. She always said to us: Make sure you study and build a substantive life. She always told us to orient ourselves upwards. That we shouldn’t feel lost when faced with a challenge but that we must learn to deal with obstacles. That one must find the balance between faith and society and learn how to lead while being true to what’s right. In fact, she was a trailblazer of sorts, riding motorbikes and horses back in 1964, was into creative art like painting, poetry, classic dance, embroidery. She is also deeply spiritual and religious. She is well read and has a great interest in comparative religions and Indian history. She is a woman of substance, with great artistic flair, and she has always been there for us girls. She did her best to polish same skills and talents within us.
Who has inspired you to do the work you do?
Several people. Apart from my mother, father and my sisters, my teachers have always supported and believed in me. I am the middle child, and there is always a joker in every family. That was me, but people had faith in me. My upbringing made me aware of many issues, especially regarding Human Rights. This inspired me to go into law. Believing that “readers are leaders”, I studied Islamic law and quickly understood the facts and, more importantly, how these can be manipulated. This inspired me to do my LLM in International Human Rights law. Looking back, I know that that knowledge base is my strength. It allows me to speak with authority, which makes people listen to me. Her idea of a young Muslim lady is “educated, smart, talented, fearless, decent, respectful and respectable,” and that’s what she wanted to see in us.
Looking at your body of work to date, what impact do you think you have had so far?
I think the impact that I had can best be described as multifaceted. It was a blessing that I could positively influence policies and lawmakers through my knowledge base and ability to communicate in the right way. Initially, as a legislative researcher in the Parliament, my research work informed policies and legislative business, and later, as technical advisor to the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus, I ensured that women parliamentarians could believe in me and have confidence in my work. I helped them redefine their agenda and shaped how they understood issues. Being able to guide and provide these women with credible and reliable information created a space of mutual trust between them and me. My work also ensured that institution became more robust or that new bodies were made, such as the Caucus on environmental disaster management. Parliamentary Caucuses bring together its member across party lines and ensure that the members discuss issues and challenges and propose solutions on a minimum agreed agenda. My work with institutions also involved lobbying, awareness-raising, and the development of policy guidelines for vulnerable groups. My work in academia, especially teaching legal and judicial ethics, means that I can bring a different perspective to my students, including human rights and gender responsiveness. I am also always actively working on ensuring that we mainstream human rights and gender considerations into our curriculum, with special focus on the needs and concerns of persons with disabilities.
On a personal level, I continuously try and have an impact. I don’t really accept wife jokes, but I try and constructively tackle them if they come up. Because that’s where I bring the attention of women being intimidated and made to be seen as silly, stupid, harsh, and difficult etc. I always point out, that it’s a global systemic mind-set/(mis)perception about wives. Otherwise, how come there are more wife jokes than husband jokes? It’s because I see my role as one that shows multiple perspectives and often find myself breaking the ice between people with opposing viewpoints.
How have you helped change the story about women’s role in the criminal justice sector?
I tried to do that in the Academy. I have wanted to make sure that the development and promotion of women judges, lawyers and prosecutors is a priority. I did this by asking how people do not see that there are not enough women in the sector. I showed why having more female prosecutors and judges matters and why their perspective matters in courts. But we also need those women who have made it into leadership positions to support those that follow them. They need to advocate for them and promote them, even if there might be a personality clash. Through my work, I have ensured that women are represented at international fora. If there have been issues, I have always opted to resolve them later. We need our work not just to change our own story, but we need to change the story for other women as well.
Huma, what do you say to people who underestimate you or women in general?
To be honest, I laugh it off or smile away. I am a realist. I believe in Justice. I think that if somebody deserves something, they should be heard and given a chance. I just need to be convinced. I don’t argue with people just for the sake of it. I am not an aggressive person. Nor am I particularly confrontational unless I feel challenged aggressively. Often, I will counter somebody’s assumption about myself or about women in general with an anecdote. I like to redesign the narrative rather than outright challenge it. One needs to understand and respect each other’s opinions and perspectives. I have learnt that usually, this is more productive.
In your role as Chair of the Women’s Network Advisory Board, what are your hopes for the Network? What challenges do you anticipate and how can the Network best address these?
I hope that we build on what we have achieved so far as a Network, which is impressive given the ongoing circumstances. I want the Network to grow and become even more vibrant to be able to fully operate and its mission. The challenge will be to do this whilst faced with obstacles such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Although we have managed to do a lot, how much more can we keep doing remotely or in a virtual manner? We all know that inter-personal, face to face meetings are different to having Zoom calls. It’s not the same as sitting together, brainstorming, or going on site visits together and getting a real sense of each other. Part of our role is to advocate and lobby. For that, we do need to meet key people, but COVID -19 made constituency outreach very difficult. We do need to work it out, to keep this Network alive in letter and spirit.
Last but not least, what motto do you live by?
In a classic novel ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ that my brother owned, there was a saying that goes something like this:‘Live and be happy, and never forget that all human wisdom is contained in two words: wait and hope’. To me, it means: be patient, and things will work out: Never lose hope. I don’t believe in hopelessness.
The Women’s Network of Gender Champions against Human Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling is an active community of female officials and male champions of women’s rights working in policy making, the justice sector, law enforcement, civil society, and other relevant local entities. Work undertaken in the framework of the Women’s Network is based on the Network’s Roadmap to Action, developed and adopted by the Networks Advisory Board. The Chair of the Women’s Network Advisory Board is Huma Chughtai. Ms Chughtai is a leading governance, Human Rights, and gender specialist who has held various key positions within the Government of Pakistan, the development sector and academia.