as a sanctuary
home to conflict
amid military offensives
March 8 every year is time for a token Special Report on women. Sometimes even that does not get done. But journalism’s silence or half-hearted jobs apart, life moves on; at its own momentum. Laws in favour of women get passed in the assemblies. More girls enter and finish schools than before; people even in tribal societies see value in sending their girls to colleges and universities. A video of a girl being flogged generates an angry response from the society at large and builds a movement against what has come to be known as Talibanisation.
These ‘politically correct’ decisions notwithstanding, something is amiss. The society still mourns the birth of a girl child, and this cuts across classes. The gender-related legislation gets unanimously passed and yet there is nothing to stop the abuse of women. There are no women in the public sphere because the male-dominated society shuts them indoors. There is discrimination; an absolute lack of choice.
Alongside, tribal customs have prevailed and gained strength. Incidents of women buried alive and thrown to the dogs have been reported in the media and condoned or watched silently by the politicians sitting in the assemblies. Girls schools have been bombed consistently, as if it was the sole goal for the ideology. Not many have seen the irony in our recent Oscar win over a documentary film about acid-throwing incidents in the country, majority of them not in tribal backwaters but big urban centres.
In short, women’s lives in this country need to improve a lot more.
So where does the women’s rights movement fit into all this. This March 8, we wanted to document the women’s movement in Pakistan. What are its achievements and challenges? Has the movement managed to include all the women, in all the situations, irrespective of class, religion or ethnicity? How has it countered the conservative, patriarchal, Islamist mindset in politics, arts, culture, legislation etc? Has it altered a woman’s perception and attitude? Has the struggle empowered her? Has it increased her visibility in the public sphere? Is she considered equal to a man? Has she grown to be a decision maker?
Of course, there was no way we could have found answers to all these questions in one Special Report. In her excellent and dispassionate piece, Rubina Saigol documents the history of women’s movement, stating at the outset that there is not a movement but “a multiplicity of movements with different aims, methods, ideologies, and class and regional locations”.
But, as Afiya Shehrbano points out, the burdens of women’s rights movement in this country are many. She has divided them into three broad categories — “the dilemma of achieving women’s rights under the tutelage of dictatorship rather than democratic governance”, “the contests between religious and secular identities amongst women activists” and finally “the postmodernist challenge to any form of metanarrative, which includes the universality of women’s rights, has effectively undermined the kind of progress that Pakistani women should be making”.
For us at TNS, an honest critique of the women’s movement would also include the absence of the other gender from the debate. For right or wrong reasons, the menfolk in the country feel antagonised and think the women’s movement remains isolationist and does nothing to include them in its fold. This issue must be addressed to achieve the ultimate aim of a better society because for now men remain as active agents of change as women.
It is somewhat erroneous to speak of the women’s movement in Pakistan because, historically, Pakistan has witnessed a multiplicity of movements with different aims, methods, ideologies, and class and regional locations. There were a number of women’s associations and professional groups which became prominent in different time periods and addressed varying issues. Some of these include organisations such as Voluntary Women’s Service, Business and Professional Women’s Association, Democratic Women’s Association, All-Pakistan Women’s Association (APWA), Sindhiani Tehreek and Women’s Action Forum. Apart from these organisations, most political parties have their women’s wings which work to a greater or lesser extent with women’s movements.
Some organisations, like APWA, focused on women’s welfare work along with legal reforms. Begum Raa’na Liaqat Ali Khan and APWA played a central role in the passage of the Family Laws Ordinance of 1961. This ordinance ensured women’s rights in marriage, divorce and cases of custody and made the second marriage of a man contingent upon the permission of the first one. Although confined within the realm of domestic and family disputes, it was a step forward for the women of Pakistan. The decade of the 1960s was characterised by a relationship of mutual accommodation between the mainstream women’s movement, represented by APWA, and the state. Although the country was ruled by the military, there was no visible and overt resistance by the women’s movements.
A similar relationship of cooperation and accommodation prevailed during the first tenure of the Pakistan People’s Party, from 1972 to 1977. Begum Nusrat Bhutto attended the First World Conference on Women in Mexico in 1975 and the government committed itself to supporting women’s rights. In 1973, the PPP government gave a new constitution to the country and Article 25 (a) in the fundamental rights section of the constitution ensured that there would be no discrimination on the basis of sex alone. The social, cultural and political environment in the country was not particularly antithetical to women, although patriarchal norms, values and mores prevailed among all social classes particularly among the urban middle classes. Even though the freedoms of speech, expression, movement and residence were granted in the constitution, those of the women were circumscribed by the norms and values practised in their family and supported by the society at large.
After the illegal overthrow of the PPP government in 1977, the relationship between the women’s movement and the state underwent a radical transformation — from accommodation to confrontation. An illegal military government needed to legitimise its rule and used a facile Islamisation to justify its takeover. While economy and other sectors, connected with the global system, were exempted from the effects of some of the so-called Islamic measures, judiciary, education and media were subjected to radical changes to conform to the official version of Islam being promoted at gunpoint.
A series of discriminatory laws were passed that targeted the rights and equality of Pakistani women. These included the infamous Hudood Ordinances of 1979, passed in the same year as the United Nations General Assembly passed Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The Zina Ordinance, in particular, equated rape with adultery and made the conditions of proving rape so difficult that women reporting rape were accused of having committed adultery. The Qisas and Diyat Ordinance was proposed but deferred as it would have prevented the hanging of Zulfikar Bhutto. It was passed in the 1990s and is the main law that enables fathers, brothers, husbands, sons and uncles escape punishment after murdering women on the pretext of ‘honour’.
In 1984, the repressive government of General Zia passed the Law of Evidence which equated the testimony of two women with that of one man in a court of law, thus legally rendering women unequal and reducing their citizenship status.
A series of other measures to curtail women’s rights, such as preventing the women’s hockey team from proceeding abroad to play, were a sign of an oppressive regime hand in glove with an obscurantist lobby of self-styled, self-serving religious zealots. Women’s right to work, to participate in sports, to appear in media were threatened. Vigilante groups wielding guns and sticks, believed it to be their duty to make society ‘pious’ and ‘virtuous’ by resorting to armed violence, threats and intimidation.
In the midst of this suffocating and suppressive atmosphere, the WAF movement was born — in 1981. The Fehmida-Allah Bux Hudood case resulted in women finally mobilising to stop the advance of retrogressive laws, measures and atmosphere. The relationship with the state now became openly confrontational and conflicted. The more the state imposed its ideological agenda to prove its Islamic credentials, the more women spoke out openly against it. Women poets, writers, singers, dancers, actors, lawyers and academics all rose up in revolt and condemned the regime.
It was precisely at this point that WAF became the most prominent and internationally recognised face of the women’s movement. As an umbrella lobby cum pressure group, WAF was composed of individuals as well as organisations representing myriad interests and viewpoints. In spite of its primarily middle class origins and membership, the issues WAF raised were those that affected women from the dispossessed classes. Most of the women languishing in jails under the Zina Ordinance belonged to poor and rural households and were raped by their employers or feudal landlords and then put behind bars on the charge of adultery. Most women killed in the name of so-called ‘honour’ did not belong to the elite classes but to middle and lower classes.
While WAF’s approach remained primarily liberal, in that its focus was the removal of discriminatory laws and practices, it paid less attention to bread and butter issues. The Democratic Women’s Association (DWA), on the other hand, was deeply concerned with class and socio-economic issues of women. A left-oriented organisation and member of WAF, the DWA was particularly focused on working and rural women. Its bent was not on welfare of the poor; rather it espoused a political economy approach and emphasised structural change in the class system along with change in patriarchal structures.
Sindhiani Tehreek was another response to the oppressive Zia era and was based in Thatta and Badin. Although it represented the women’s wing of the Awami Tehreek, Sindhiani Tehreek was a vibrant rural women’s movement against patriarchal structures as well as the despotic state. Its radical, action-oriented approach was premised on real, material change in women’s lives.
With the advent of the democratic decade, between 1989 and 1999, the relationship between the women’s movements and the state was less frictional but also more ambivalent. Benazir Bhutto was supportive of women’s rights and attended the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 and, in 1996, Pakistan acceded to CEDAW. The government report for the Beijing conference was prepared by well-known women activists and the relationship was one of mutual accommodation. During the periods of Nawaz Sharif, however, there was much greater ambivalence, particularly when he tried to get the Shariat Bill (15th amendment) passed. This amendment would have made him an absolute dictator as the government would have the right to define virtue and vice and identify who represents each.
Nevertheless, it was also during Sharif’s second stint in power that the National Plan of Action, based on the Beijing Platform, was endorsed in 1998. In spite of a two-thirds majority in parliament, the PML-N government did not remove the 8th amendment which protects all of the discriminatory laws, measures and orders formulated in Zia’s regime.
By the 1990s, the non-government organisations had become a reality and a large number of women’s organisations was established. At this point, the political approach of WAF and DWA gave way to a more technocratic, specialised and professional approach. Paid activism blunted the political edge of earlier years, but donor funding ensured that issues could be taken up more easily. Since the political approach was diluted, there was not much hue and cry when another illegal military regime took over in 1999. Some women’s organisations ended up working with the Musharraf regime on donors’ behest. The peasant uprising of the Anjuman-e-Mazareen in Punjab during Musharraf’s time, in which the women peasants played a leading role, was not taken up by women’s movement in a significant way. While there was support from individual women and organisations, there was no direct and lasting involvement.
The pressure created by the women’s movement led to the passage of the Women Protection Act of 2006 which diluted the Zina Ordinance and allowed rape to be investigated according to the Pakistan Penal Code. However, in December 2010, the Council of Islamic Ideology, created during Ayub Khan’s time, declared the Women Protection Act against Islam. This showed that women’s empowerment could not be taken for granted as it was not a linear phenomenon — rights can be reversed and lost as easily as they are granted.
In contemporary times, civil society organisations seem to have overtaken movements that were not based on paid, nine-to-five-style activism. Some of these organisations have done excellent work in getting favourable laws passed, such as the law against sexual harassment in the workplace, law against anti-women practices to deny women’s inheritance rights and the Act of Parliament to create the National Commission on the Status of Women. The passage of these laws is commendable and the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus and the Standing Committee on Women have worked tirelessly with women’s organisations to bring about legal change.
However, the women’s movements have to consider moving beyond the realms of law and legal structures, to socio-economic and structural change. Without the latter, transformations in law remain futile because the majority of poor women with little means cannot access legal remedies. Women’s movements, therefore, need to focus on issues such as land reforms and redistribution of wealth in order for laws to be implemented and better laws to be framed by assemblies that do not overwhelmingly represent the feudal and moneyed elite.
writer is an independent researcher specialising in social development
The challenges to the women’s rights agenda in Pakistan may be categorised in three broad frames. First, there has been the dilemma of achieving women’s rights under the tutelage of dictatorship rather than democratic governance. Second, the contests between religious and secular identities amongst women activists have stalled what a collective women’s movement could have achieved. Last, the postmodernist challenge to any form of meta narrative, which includes the universality of women’s rights, has effectively undermined the kind of progress that Pakistani women should be making, according to international standards.
Historically, citizenship rights for women have often been bestowed through ‘package deals’ with dictatorships. These either came in the form of rewards for engaging with benevolent authoritarian regimes (Generals Ayub and Musharraf) or, as a result of resisting the crushing ferocity of the anti-women, anti- human rights regime of Gen Zia.
But deals with military dictators, however liberal, have often come with a price. By lending a democratic facade for what were still military regimes, women activists cooperating with military leadership achieved some milestones but these were not necessarily products of popular mandates. Top-down, such rights-based policies may advance women’s causes but are not always representative. Ironically, though, they raise the standards for democratic governments which then have to continue with or increase women-friendly policies to prove their liberal credentials.
Secondly, the Islamic and secular women’s rights activists have increasingly diverged from any overlap towards achieving the broader goals of women’s equality, particularly after the ‘war on terror’. In fact, many Islamist activists now outrightly challenge the very notion and definition of women’s equal rights altogether, insisting on protection rather than rights. The difference between the universalist, human rights, developmentalist approach and the culturally specific, faith-based, welfarist approach has led to a sharp fragmentation of the women’s movements in Pakistan.
The developmentalist agendas of liberal and/or secular women’s rights activism got pushed away by the neo-liberal transformations in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Increasingly, and not coincidentally, development organisations (particularly Anglo-American) have redefined their donor agendas to include religion- and faith-based activism as an entry point into development work in Muslim societies. The stated rationale of donor organisations such as Oxfam GB is that universalist rights-based approaches must be combined with “local complexities”.
Without stating the complexity of the consequences of merging religion and politics, such donor approaches have meant that rights-based issues, such as early marriage in Muslim contexts, is being redefined as a purely development concern instead. The argument is that gender equality is not an accepted notion in several such contexts. However, by transplanting a rights-based issue into a developmental one, it could mean that prevention of early marriage in Muslim contexts may begin to get ‘treated’ by campaigns, like those used for disease prevention, rather than actively countered as a violation of the fundamental right of a girl-child.
Such ‘culturally sensitive’ and ‘non-offensive’ awareness campaigns do not aim to change the social relationships within communities; they do not disturb the current patriarchal binds that control women’s sexualities; and they do not empower women to activate any choice over their bodily rights or, indeed, decision-making over personal matters.
By reinforcing the notion of cultural specificity, particularly the idea that Muslim women are differently gendered, donor intervention is finding not just a new market for their programme interests but also closing off any avenues for disrupting masculinist-defined patterns. So, for example, by demonstrating a ‘cultural sensitivity’ to the fact that early marriages are common in Muslim societies, such initiatives ignore the political economy of biradari marriages or, indeed, the loss of property rights for women in the bargain of marital arrangements or even that the institution of marriage is itself a form of local protection and a welfarist shield. So, why shouldn’t a girl get married early if the transaction offers all these rewards?
Since they are not appealing to the universal principle of a woman’s right to free choice and instead deferring to the limitations of gender inequality in Muslim contexts, such agencies can only approach early marriage in health and development terms.
Similarly, polygamy in Muslim contexts is now being defined as a “culturally diverse practice” in order to avoid a comment on religious inequality. Not only do the donor agencies miss opportunities in their myopic social programming, they often end up undermining local rights campaigns. By ignoring the universalist principle of fundamental rights, the selective, culturally appropriate approach is simply ending up as a sum-zero game for women’s rights or autonomy. It is also clear that increasing engagement of donor agencies with religious groups will mark future development initiatives in countries like ours.
Lastly, there is now a generation of postmodern/post-feminist scholars who are not averse to modern technology or advanced capitalism yet are critical of the enlightenment theories and rights-based movements, especially the liberal/secular women’s movement. Often western-educated themselves, such critics question the relevance of liberal women’s rights activism and invest a hope (like international donor agencies) in the authenticity of religious political actors, however conservative, oppressive and restrictive their agenda may be for the majority of citizens, especially minorities and women.
Such scholars tend to work as individuals rather than as collectives and many are commentators on cyber-space or have their own blogs. Unfortunately, since they are urban based, they tend to target liberal secular activism in urban, upper middle class contexts. In the process, these postmodernists completely ignore the kind of people-based movements we witness in Pakistan and which organise their protests by appealing to universal principles of workers’ rights, class equality or, indeed, minimum wage — all part of a liberal and, often, secular discourse.
So, Pakistani women’s rights activists face an impasse. The democratic political parties may be supporting women’s rights but they are unwilling to offer structural changes that may pave the way for a more inclusive, class-equal democracy. Or, we have the Islamist opposition which offers an increasingly narrow, conservative and bigoted choice for future generations of Pakistanis but is aware of the importance of women’s activism for its religio-nationalist cause and is offering women more internal agency and importance.
And, there is the international development community which remains unhinged by religious resurgence and is trying its best to accommodate it in the most profitable manner possible. Can the women’s movement in Pakistan shoulder all these burdens?
writer is a Karachi-based sociologist with a background in women’s studies
and has also authored and edited several books on women’s issues. She can
be reached at [email protected]
The News on Sunday: How would you look at the women’s rights movement since its creation in Pakistan? To what extent has it progressed?
Hina Jilani: One should remember that the movement started with the Pakistan Movement, because within the latter there were women’s voices that drew the attention of the leadership of the time to serious issues concerning the women’s rights. The new leadership was asked to understand issues on gender identity and equality and the right to non-discrimination. Unfortunately, at that time, these voices of women were pacified by the Muslim leadership with the reassurance that the highlighted issues would be addressed once Pakistan is created. I’d say that the women were cheated. Once the country was made, the leadership had other priorities.
However, as we notice, the political rhetoric was always pro women even though nothing was done in concrete measures. Even if you take the August 11 speech of Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, it points out development in areas where equality and non-discrimination were necessary elements, but there was nothing specifically meant for women.
TNS: What was the effect of General Ziaul Haq’s regime on women’s rights movement?
HJ: Women were not a very active component of any concrete consultation that took place before the 1956 Constitution. Some ad hoc measures were taken but there were no significant stakeholders involved in that consultation. Earlier, there were some positive developments like family laws, Shariah Application Act etc., but our real shock came in 1979 when Zia introduced anti-women laws in the name of religion. They were against the women’s dignity.
The kind of laws that were introduced infused violent energy into the women’s movement. For instance, Women Action Forum (WAF) emerged as a key forum that was not only talking about women issues but was also critical of religion as the basis of the laws and saying that we do not accept the hegemony of the military and the mullah, that we do not accept religion as the basis of law making.
Today, thirty years later, we have been proved right. Since 1988, every political party political is talking about women’s role.
TNS: How do you view the women empowerment in political corridors?
HJ: I think that is one of the most positive experiences. We had been fighting for the 33 percent allocation to women in all tiers of political representative houses and bodies. When these seats were reserved, we were a little skeptical, especially, when a lot of political elite or women with clout had entered through this quota. I am happy to say this proved wrong. Over the years the performance of these women really improved. If you see it is no less than male politicians and even better than them. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) report says most of the human rights legislations tabled in the parliament are by women. I think people objecting to women’s seats are talking nonsense if they are not looking at things objectively and are seeing them with some biases.
Look at how women are performing and do not talk about individuals. See how much is being performed by men. Look at Sherry Rehman, Marvi Memon, Bushra Gohar, Sitara Ayaz and many other such parliamentarians and members of the provincial assemblies and their thoughtful work. Where there is the weakness, we still feel their ability to work within their party and to convince their own party leadership on many issues that they want to take up.
TNS: What is the situation of working women’s rights since past several years? It seems it has improved.
HJ: Working women situation has improved. When Benazir Bhutto came in power in 1988, there was a lot of confidence seen in women. We used to be working with telephone operators and we saw confidence and from there it has not gone back. We need, of course, to put more protection system. The new law on sexual harassment is a very good addition to the legal framework and I am sure women who are working will get much more safety and dignity than before in future.
TNS: There has been reasonable legislation on women issues from time to time. But when we see the implementation the pace seems very slow.
HJ: In my view, implementation is a second step. First, there should be a law.
This is true that all women related legislation and also rights based legislation have a very weak mechanism. More laws are being proposed but what we need is mechanism on the ground. Like, in violence against women you need to have access to the complaint procedure. Who will take the case forward; the mechanism and process have to be settled. State should play its role when a complaint is there. The burden of victims, which face different social pressure, has to be shifted to the state. Also, victim has to be protected.
Secondly, if a system exists and we do not use we will rot it. My philosophy is that we need certain basic things in the law if we don’t agree with the thing we can amend change as per requirement.
TNS: How do you see the pace of women’s rights movement and what gaps do you find in it?
HJ: Nobody can stop progress and change. However, it has been very slow, and it also gets reversed from time to time. There has been a regression. When you talk to somebody from my mother’s generation, they have enjoyed much more freedom even in a conservative environment. They were able to operate in a very different way. If you talk to somebody of my age generation, again there will be a little deterioration. The younger generation is now worse off. It is because the society has deteriorated in its own values. Very strange notions have come in like what women should be like and how should they be active.
The empowerment of this generation is more because of information not because of social support. A more serious thing is that the movement could not improve its outreach accordingly. Given the circumstances and environment in which this movement grew, it is phenomenal. But at the same time the reality is that it had no outreach.
The danger is that women are more aware of their rights than ever before but the society’s consciousness has not risen to the parallel of awareness.
Samina Ahmed is emancipated, opinionated, a trail-blazing female actor who embarked on her acting career when the realm of acting was highly male-dominated; the first woman (particularly in Punjab) to have started her own television production house, a serious performer who dared to venture into comedy to challenge stereotypes. And, most importantly, a proponent of and activist of rights for women.
Nothing synthetic about this woman of substance. She is who she is.
A whole lot of carefully thought and some not so carefully thought, extempore questions followed with an equal amount of succinct and poignant answers — about media, drama, acting and especially about the women of Pakistan.
The News on Sunday: As a female actor in a male dominated field of work, what has the journey been like for you?
Samina Ahmed: Initially, it was not easy for me. But over the years, I have to say it has become easier, partly because I have carved a place for myself and am an established actor now.
More importantly, I think social attitudes are changing. Today, men have the heart to take orders from a female colleague if they are working under her. Back then, it was not so. I worked at Lahore’s Alhamra for about 20 years, and I remember that one had to face resistance even from stage hands, carpenters and helpers, let alone co-actors and co-workers. I would have to work doubly hard to prove my mettle as a female, and for them to take me more seriously. At times, I felt they were waiting for me to fail. But over the years, things have changed.
TNS: And, how have things changed for women in the media?
SA: When we talk of media, particularly television, we are basically talking of two sub-divisions — there is news and current affairs and then there is the entertainment side of it. And, I feel women have managed to carve a place for themselves in both areas. A lot many women are hosts and anchors of political talk shows and morning shows. They are producers and directors. When we look at entertainment, a lot more roles are being written for female actors than ever before. On an average, if we have 10 channels in the country that are airing 4 dramas a day, may they be comedy or serious, we have about 40 being aired daily!
When the volume of work has gone up, so have co-incidentally opportunities for female actors. They are behind the camera and in front of it as well. It is still a young industry, but things are looking up for women in the media and for Pakistani women in general.
TNS: You were associated with the more potent phase of the women’s rights movement in the 1980s. What do you think it has achieved? How do you see the status of Pakistani women now?
SA: That phase of the women’s rights movement was so potent because it immediately followed an era of severe repression. We were extremely charged up, the women activists that is, following the oppression of women as an aftermath of the Hudood Odinance. Over the years, the work done for women rights has progressed. So many non-government organisations and activists are in the field and working on many issues. To me it seems things are looking better. While legislations may not wave magic wands, we at least have progressed to a point where there are bills and legislations for victims of domestic violence, harassment, honour killings etc. It’s a step forward for sure.
TNS: How was your experience as the first woman to have your own production house in Pakistan?
SA: I believe Sultana Siddiqui started her own at around the same time, but yes, I was definitely the first one in Punjab. The experience was not smooth all the way and it had its risks like anything new one does in life. But in life, nothing’s easy. So I took the challenges in my stride and enjoyed the experience. It gave me a free hand to do the kind of roles I wanted to. If you remember, in Family Front, people saw me and Saba Hameed doing comedy, though we were recognised as serious actors. And, that was not a random decision. It was a product of deliberation, because I wanted to create chances of diversified roles for women. Comedy remains a focal interest for me.
TNS: Are you satisfied with the portrayal of women in media?
SA: People complain that drama today shows women only in melodramatic, weepy kind of roles. But I don’t worry over this. I think this is natural progression and over time female actors will find themselves getting diversified roles outside of the box.
As I said they have a lot more opportunities now compared to earlier decades.
TNS: So as an industry, would you call media women-friendly?
SA: It is not women-unfriendly, but television production as a business is still very male dominated. The United Producers Association still has just a sprinkling of female producers, which means major decision making and power still rests with the men. But we still have a Sultana Siddqui and a Seema Taher Khan in positions of control, which is positive.
TNS: Any parting thoughts — hopes and dreams, especially for women?
SA: I hope to see the television industry grow further and wish to see the progress of Pakistani theatre and film industry. I am lucky that I still enjoy what I do. I want the same for other actors, especially female actors, because they are sidelined at times and come with a lot of baggage. My hope is that the baggage of being a woman doesn’t pull them back from reaching the top.
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