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Home > Women’s Rights > Tales of women’s resistance in Pakistan

Tales of women’s resistance in Pakistan

by Ammar Ali Jan, 10 September 2008

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The News on Sunday

History shows that women’s rights movements in Pakistan have never been separate from the society"s overall struggle for social justice

In the land of the pure, we often hear the endless accounts of oppression and tyranny against the female gender. Our society already faces complex problems while gender discrimination compounds these problems for women. However, what is missing from this master narrative about the ’hopeless" plight of women in Pakistan is the glorious, yet unrecognised, struggle that Pakistani women have waged against all attempts to silence them. Not only have they fought for their own rights, but women have been part of every major struggle for justice that this country has witnessed.

Women rights" movement in Pakistan had started with the very inception of the Pakistani State. The All Pakistan Women"s Association (APWA) emerged as a group advocating women"s representation in the new parliament. The Women"s Guards were part of the new State"s initial defense machinery while Fatima Jinnah had already created a name for herself with her untiring efforts in the struggle for independence, alongside her brother, Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Fatima Sughra, at that time only 14, was the first person to hoist the Pakistani flag on an official government building during a protest campaign against the British and had the honour of receiving the first Gold medal of service in Pakistan"s history. It is ironic that the State that would later oppress the female gender had not only its first flag hoisted by a woman, but that flag was also made from a woman"s duppatta!

Tahira Mazhar Ali Khan, a veteran of the women"s rights movement, was one of the founding members of the Democratic Women"s Association (DWA) in 1948. DWA was a radical women"s rights group that worked closely with the socialist movement in Pakistan and linked their movement to the cause of the working class.

"DWA was the first group to celebrate the International Women"s Day in Pakistan on the 8th of March, 1948," recalls Tahira Mazhar, who actively participated in the event. "We were not aligned with the government and believed in a struggle for women"s rights as well as a fight for a classless society."

Opposition to the government had severe consequences. The government refused to give permission to the group to acquire a meeting hall to celebrate the International Women"s Day in 1949. This did not deter these women.

"We celebrated the second International Women"s Day on the streets. We gave a clear signal to the government that we will fight for the emancipation of women, come what may," reiterates a defiant Tahira Mazhar.

Ms Tahira believes that the (women"s rights) movement in Pakistan has never been completely separate from the society"s overall struggle for social justice. "We worked with our male comrades in strikes and other forms of resistance. Within the radical movement, we pushed the agenda of women"s emancipation."

Describing one such strike in a Batapur shoe factory in the 1950s where the government banned the entry of women activists near the striking workers, Tahira remembered with a smile, "We all wore burkas to escape the authorities and reach our striking male comrades."

The visit to Pakistan by Paren Borocha along with other women resisting the US occupation of Vietnam in the 1960s and the warm welcome they received in Lahore showed the maturing of the women"s movement in Pakistan which it increasingly integrated into the international movement for social justice.

Despite these successes, the Pakistani state was able to restrict the momentum of the movement with the backing of the US during the 1980s. The regime of General Zia-ul-Haq had banked on Islam to attain some form of legitimacy for itself. Women were the most affected during this era. The Hudood Laws and other Draconian measures against women led to the formation of the Women"s Action Forum (WAF) in 1981.

"WAF was a reaction to the oppression against women in the 1980s," claims Nighat Khan, a noted scholar on gender issues and a social activist. "WAF was the first group to organise a large protest against the Zia regime on Feb 12, 1983. This historic protest on the Mall road saw the likes of Asma Jehangir, Shahtaj Qazalbash, Tahira Mazhar and Habib Jalib gather to voice their opposition to the discriminatory laws against women. Needless to say, most of the demonstrators, including Jalib, were arrested."

The unique feature during this period was that despite the oppression against women, for the first time the struggle for democracy was being led by a woman, Benazir Bhutto. Not only was she confined to the walls of different jails around the country, but female members of PPP such as Sajida Mir and Shahida Jabeen were tortured in the notorious Red Fort.

"The election of Benazir as prime minister was a historic moment for women in Pakistan," asserts Tahira Mazhar. "Her performance in government is debatable, but the fact that after all those laws formulated against women, a woman was elected by the people of Pakistan as their leader was a slap on the face of the oppressors."

Women have not only been active agents of change in urban spaces, they have also played a pivotal role in rural movements.

"Women in rural areas, contrary to the popular belief, have been extremely active in all political activities," claims Nighat. "The Hari movement in Sindh was the first mass movement in Pakistan. It was initiated after Mai Bakhtawar (Benazir"s daughter is named after her) refused to accept the laws formulated by feudal lords and was consequently murdered. This led to a massive revolt amongst the Haris and to this day Mai Bakhtawar remains a folklore legend in Sindh."

More recently, the Thaapa women"s brigade was set up in Okara military farms to fight for the rights of tenants against the encroachments of the military. In May of 2002, some military officials tried entering the villages of the tenants. However, they were met by stiff resistance from the women of the Thaapa brigade outside the village while men preferred staying inside their homes. These women not only physically fought against the military personnel, they also forced them to retreat. More than a dozen women were injured in these clashes. However, to this day, they have stood firm and, despite repeated threats, refused to give an inch of their land to any outsider!

The list is long and one article cannot do justice to the heroic struggle of women against the tyranny of society and the state. Even today, we see the likes of Bushra Aitzaz, Asma Jehangir, Firdous Butt, Tehmina Daultana and many others asserting themselves in spaces previously considered taboo for women. The many freedoms won by women, as well as the media and civil society, have come about as a result of a long struggle. The greatest tribute to those who took part in these struggles is to guard our freedoms as well as further their cause by working for the emancipation of the oppressed in our society.