The Story Behind Pakistan's Feminism Of The 70s And 80s

The first thing that comes to mind when speaking of Pakistan's society is definitely not feminism, or a history of feminism. But the country has a vast history of activism and women activists. The young women of Pakistan know Asma Jahangir and Mukhtar Mai, icons of women empowerment in the country, but not many know of the women who preceded them. India, too, isn't entirely well versed with its feminist history, but at least scores slightly better on the feminism prevalence scale than our neighbour at present.

Bolo Bhi's “The Women's Movement HerStory Project” aims to bring the focus back on women who started the movement for women's rights in Pakistan. As part of the project, Bolo Bhi interviewed feminist activists who fought for the rights that the modern Pakistani women enjoy today.

Activist Anis Haroon compares the activism and protests of today with those seen in Pakistan in the '80s. She says, “Now I look at the protests and it is surprising how thousands of women are part of rallies. They get cooked food, cranes accompany them, as the state just watches.”

In 1983, the Pakistan government passed the Law of Evidence, which stated that the testimony of two women in a lawsuit is equal to the testimony of one man. The passing of this draconian law sparked outrage across Pakistan and one of the consequences was an iconic protest on February 12th in Lahore by approximately 200 women, which garnered widespread global attention.

In an interview, which is part of the HERstory Project , Ms Haroon gives an eyewitness account of the protests and the illegitimate force the government used against the protesters. “Our protest had just 200-250 women. They had only papers in their hands, resolutions as we were protesting against the Law of Evidence. We wanted to submit an application in the Lahore High Court. That demonstration was met with the brutal force of the state. There was helmeted riot police, they baton-charged and tear-gassed us. The demonstration was forcibly broken up and women dragged and thrown into police vans and locked up in Kot Lakpat jail, Lahore.”

“The government was threatened by just 200-250 women, when this was a time of martial law and military control,” says Anis Haroon. “No dissent was tolerated but this crackdown made international news.” In commemoration of the day, February 12th is now celebrated as Pakistan's Women's Day.

Chairperson of the Shirkat Gah , a leading women's rights organisation operating across Pakistan, Hilda Saeed spoke to Bolo Bhi about Fahmida Allah Baksh and the infamous Hudood Ordinance passed by Zia ul Haq's government, which brought back the archaic punishments for whipping, amputation, and stoning to death, and made adultery and fornication criminal offences.

In 1981, 18-year-old Fahmida's parents lodged an FIR against her and her husband, Allah Baksh, saying their marriage is illegal. This was the first case filed under the Hudood Ordinance and the Shirkat Gah members were in a meeting when they got the news. The women decided that they could not stay quiet about this outrage. Ms Saeed says, “The punishment under the Hudood ordinance was a 100 lashes to Fahmida and stoning to death for Allah Baksh. We thought that this could have happened to anyone. For what crime? They married according to their wishes, that's not a crime.” This case sparked the formation of the Women's Action Forum, established by the Shirkat Gah, which made justice and equality their mandate. The organisation fought till the courts acquitted Fahmida and Allah Baksh.

In the 1980s, misuse of the Hudood Ordinance became rampant among the law enforcement agencies in Pakistan. “The police started filing cases of rape or gangrape under the Hudood Ordinance, which made no distinction between adultery and rape. All these women were languishing in jail. Thousands of women who were raped went to jail during that time. We couldn't stay quiet. WAF protested against Hudood in all major cities in Pakistan.” After decades of protests, some of the outrageous Hudood laws were repealed in 2006 with the Women's Protection Bill. But social and familial acceptance is still a long way off for victims. “The Hudood laws added to the medieval mindset. Earlier such punishments were heard of in rural areas but, with these laws, such acts reached the cities too.” says Ms Saeed.

Ms Saeed recalls another case that has stayed with her through the years. 29-year-old Samia Sarwar was shot dead in her lawyer's office in 1999. Samia's family called it an “honour killing.” Samia left her husband after he abused her and moved back with her parents. When she fell in love with another man four years later and sought a divorce from her estranged husband, Samia ran away from home fearing her family. At a meeting between her mother and her at the lawyer's office, Samia was shot dead by an assassin hired by her parents and former mother-in-law. Her lawyers, Asma Jehangir and Hina Jilani, also received death threats from several extremist groups for defending Samia. “We had to fight,” says Ms Saeed. “This (honour killings) continued for a long time. In those years, it was agonising.”

Ms Saeed says a major problem lies with the larger mindset in Pakistan, even today. In a morbid comparison of sorts, Ms Saeed says, “Look at our neighbour India. When a journalist was raped, half the nation was on the streets. Here, our nation has been brutalised, I don't understand the situation, soch so gayi hai .”

Despite Musharraf's reign being denounced as a dictatorship, Ms Saeed says that some substantial changes started coming around in his regime. She brings to light the fact that it was Musharraf's reign that saw the maximum number of women parliamentarians, which started making a difference in the women's rights movement.

Rights activist Uzma Noorani speaks of the time when WAF, or Women's Action Forum, came about. “We used to meet every Monday, in office spaces offered by other members. This is what we had to do on Mondays, all of us had that jazbaa that we have to do this.”

“Women are still being killed, you hear of grotesque crimes against women. People ask what have you done if women are still being killed, what have you changed? If we hadn't spoken up, there wouldn't have been any laws against these crimes. We have made achievements but mindsets will take time and that will only happen when governments become serious about equality for women.”

“People didn't talk about rape, it was completely taboo,” says Ms Noorani. “Once I went on radio and started using the word 'rape' and they stopped me saying that you can't use this word. If you don't use the word, how will you talk to people about it? We created the awareness that rape is an issue that needs to be addressed.”

Another icon in the history of feminism in Pakistan is Mahnaz Rehman , the Resident Director of Aurat Foundation and a former journalist. “While working for labour rights with the Left in the late 60s, we didn't feel the need to start a separate movement for women's rights,” says Ms Rahman . “We assumed that when the poor got their rights, women would get them too. Marx had also said that no movement can be successful without the role of women. So I had never thought about feminism separately.” Her focus changed with the tyranny of Zia ul Haq and the laws against women brought by this government. “I asked a judge about the Laws of Evidence. I asked him, “On one side, if we have a woman who is educated, has an MBA degree and, on the other, if we have an illiterate man, how can you say that the value of the educated woman's testimony is half of the illiterate man's testimony?” The judge just hung his head. He had no answer to my question.”

The HERstory project started by Bolo Bhi is an attempt to inspire the young feminists of Pakistan to not give up the fight. Activists from decades past say, that before the government of Zia ul Haq and the Hudood ordinance, Pakistan was a liberal, progressive society. Since the late 70s, the women of Pakistan suffered oppression and viciously unfair laws, but it is because of these women that the modern Pakistani woman can live a relatively better life. There is much more to do and achieve for women's rights in Pakistan and the movement needs to be taken forward by the young women of today. Icons like Mahnaz Rehman, Anis Haroon, Hilda Saeed, Uzma Noorani, and their contemporaries hope that the movement they started with so much zeal and fervour does not die and carries on till all the women of Pakistan feel safe in their homeland.

Poet Habib Jalib summed up the movement in his poem recited during the 1983 protests.

“Ab dehr mein be-yaar o madadgar nahin hum

Pehley ki tarah be-kas o lachaar nahin hum

Aata hai hamain apne muqaddar ko banana

Taqdeer peh shakir pas-e-deewar nahin hum”

“We are not helpless or powerless anymore,

We are not naive and innocent anymore,

We can shape our own destiny,

We are no longer grateful for the writing on the wall dictating our fates!”

Featured Image Source: Tribune





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