Women in Pakistan have been fighting for their rights and challenging patriarchal norms and structures since the inception of the country. In Pakistan, there is a common misconception that feminism and women’s issues are solely western constructs, whereas this is not the case. In the early twentieth century, there were bold women who spoke out against patriarchal norms, for example, the Faizi sisters advocated for the representation and empowerment of women, and the elderly Bi Amma, a political activist, who boldly lifted her veil to address an all-male political gathering in 1917. Moreover, several pro-women magazines were published in those days including ‘Huquq-e-Niswan’, ‘Rahbare-Niswan’, ‘Akhbare-Niswan’ and ‘Tahzeeb-e-Niswan’. Women in pre-partition India also lobbied for their rights and enfranchisement, including figures such as Begum Hasrat Mohani, Lady Abdul Qadir, Begum Jahanara Shahnawaz, Lady Martab Ali, Miss M Qureshi, Salma Tassadduque Hussain, Shaista Ikramullah, and Fatima Jinnah. These women established various platforms and organisations, held conferences and meetings to advocate for women’s rights. During nationalist movements, women also organised marches and protests to fight for their rights.
After gaining independence, the political discourse in Pakistan shifted away from women’s issues. During the first constituent assembly, only two women present as representatives who boldly raised important issues related to women’s political representation and property rights. They presented a Charter of Women’s Rights and challenged the misogynist attitudes of those who opposed their participation in committee meetings.
Raana Liaquat Ali was a champion of women’s rights and played a key role in establishing various women-centric platforms and organisations in Pakistan. She founded the Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS), the National Guard and Naval Reserve, the Karachi Business and Professional Women’s Club, and the Federation of University Women, among many others. These initiatives focused on health, family planning, and skill development for women. One of the most prominent organisations she established was the All Pakistan Women’s Association (APWA). APWA aimed to improve the economic participation of women in national development and create awareness about education, social, and cultural issues impacting women.
Women campaigned against polygamy (1955 - 1961)
In 1955, women’s groups in Pakistan launched a campaign against Prime Minister Mohammad Ali Bogra’s second marriage. The All Pakistan Women’s Association (APWA) played a leading role in this campaign and later became a driving force behind legal reform efforts. The campaign led to the formation of the United Front for Women’s Rights, led by Jahanara Shahnawaz. The combined efforts of the United Front and APWA pressured the government to establish a commission, headed by Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Justice Rashid, to review laws governing marriage, divorce, child maintenance, and custody. Although the report was not published due to opposition from orthodox groups, it marked the beginning of women’s movement against patriarchy and religious conservatism, even in the absence of a coordinated and organised effort for change.
The Muslim Family Laws Ordinance (MFLO) of 1961 gave women some rights regarding marriage, child custody, divorce, and registration of marriages and divorces. APWA played a significant role in the passage of MFLO, which aimed to discourage polygamy by requiring a husband’s first wife’s written permission for his second marriage. Although MFLO has its flaws, it was still a noteworthy accomplishment and a demonstration of the strength of women’s activism in Pakistan.
In 1975, a group of working women came together to form ‘Shirkat Gah’, Pakistan’s first women’s collective forum. Their approach was consensus-based decision making, with a focus on empowering and raising awareness for women. One day in 1981, news of a couple sentenced to 100 lashes and stoning under the Zina section of the Hudood ordinance sparked outrage amongst the women activists. They contacted their networks to oppose the new laws and the severity of punishment. This led to the formation of the Women’s Action Forum (WAF), which included various organisations and activists who dissented against state policies that marginalised women from public life. During Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorial rule, which imposed strict dress codes and prohibited women from participating in sports, foreign visits, and banking, WAF organised a powerful public demonstration in Lahore. The martial law authorities launched a clampdown against activists and responded with tear gas and violence against women demonstrators. Sociologist Farida Shaheed, in her research article, ‘Maintaining Momentum in the Changing Circumstances: Challenges of the Women’s Movement in Pakistan’, writes, “Print media was a major ally greatly magnifying activists’ reach by giving them more coverage but the pivotal factor was women’s defiance of street protests, despite martial law and prohibitions against the public assembly.” WAF’s street activism numbered a few hundred people but they compelled the regime to tone down its aggressive Islamisation policies and modify laws including eliminating the whipping of women. Later, WAF activists established their organisations and worked for advocacy, support and policy-making for women’s rights.
In 1988, political animosities focused against the dictatorship of General Zia resurfaced when martial law was lifted. Finally, in 2006, the Women’s Protection Bill annulled the Zina laws.
Street activism and aggressive demonstrations were replaced with networking, and women activists initiated various efforts to monitor and take action against domestic violence and the marginalisation of women. Organisations such as ‘Aurat Foundation’ and ‘Shirkat Gah’ undertook initiatives to spread legal and political awareness among women at the grassroots level. They organised forums for discussions with stakeholders, engaged in research to propose inclusive measures for representation, and lobbied for a permanent commission on the status of women. The decade of the 1990s saw the proliferation of women’s organisations.
The feminist movement shifted towards NGO involvement and legal reform as its main focus. In the 2010s, smaller feminist groups like ‘Girls at Dhabas’, and ‘Women Democratic Front’ emerged, which aimed to reclaim public spaces for women. The emergence of these new groups and the increased involvement of young feminist activists eventually led to the inception of the ‘Aurat March’.
The #MeToo movement is a social movement against sexual harassment and sexual assault that began in the United States in 2017. It quickly gained momentum globally, with people sharing their stories and experiences of sexual misconduct on social media platforms, often using the hashtag #MeToo.
The debate around rape culture, child pornography, and sex education has progressed to some extent. The movement has had its impact on Pakistani society too. A lot of women were encouraged by this movement to share their stories. However, there is still a long way to go in terms of changing the mind-set of people and addressing these issues that were previously concealed for the sake of honour and dignity, causing decay from within.
Scholar Tahmina Rashid, in her article, ‘#MeToo: A Mixed Response from Pakistan’ notes, “Along with the public, it can be difficult to get a fair response from institutions in Pakistan. Those implementing a response are often themselves subject to wider cultural issues such as the notion of female honour. On top of this, unfair weight is often given to the testimonies of the accused when compared with the accuser.”
Aurat March - the feminist tide that reignited the debate on gender issues (2018 - present)
On March 8, 2018, the first Aurat March was held in Karachi, followed by marches in other cities like Lahore, Islamabad, Quetta, Peshawar, Multan, and Hyderabad. This movement reignited the debate on women’s rights and stands out due to its bold, assertive, and secular nature. This activism has socialist tendencies and challenges not only male dominance in the domestic sphere but also expresses dissent with the state on issues of human rights violations
The organising body of the Aurat March is non-hierarchical and self-funded, with different chapters in big cities. Every year, they declare their plans and charter of demands to hold marches in their respective locations.
This year, organisers of the Aurat March across Pakistan put a spotlight on social security, and economic and climate justice. According to a report by the World Economic Forum, Pakistan ranks 151 out of 153 countries on the Gender Gap Index, indicating significant gender disparities in access to education, health, economic participation, and political empowerment.
Natural disasters add to the difficulties faced by women in Pakistan by exacerbating existing challenges related to access to basic services, caregiving responsibilities, livelihoods, and recovery from disasters.
Granaz Baloch, founder and CEO of ‘UDaan’, an organisation that works to raise awareness about menstrual hygiene among girls and women in Gawadar and Turbat, emphasises that economic independence and climate justice are interlinked. “Financial and economic independence is crucial for women in Pakistan. However, the real problem is that the money generated from their work is often inaccessible to them, preventing them from using it for their own purposes. When it comes to climate change, people often focus only on natural disasters and flooding, without realising the impact that climate change has on women specifically. Women have suffered greatly due to loss and damage caused by climate change, but their struggles often go unnoticed. The deluge in 2022, destroyed crops, homes, and infrastructure, making it even more difficult for women to access basic services like healthcare and education,” elucidates Granaz.
However, despite its reasonable manifesto and demands, Aurat March has been facing a lot of criticism from extremists and different segments of the society. In 2019, the KP assembly passed a resolution against the march. This year, authorities initially denied NOCs to Aurat March organisers in Lahore but have now decided to provide NOC (as of 6th March, 2023). Aurat March and its participants also face internal strategic weaknesses that could lead to the movement’s disintegration in the future.
Women in Pakistan have a long history of activism, starting from the early twentieth century to the present day. Despite facing challenges such as patriarchy, religious conservatism, and state repression, women have consistently challenged and advocated for their rights and empowerment. However, despite decades of struggle, women continue to face discrimination, harassment, and violence, and there is still a long way to go before gender equality is achieved in Pakistan.
To channelise the discourse on feminism effectively, a proper network with knowledgeable women at the helm of leadership is needed. Instead of sparking debates on social media, feminist collectives can establish online magazines, and organise seminars and workshops for discussions in a more systematic process including collaborating with the state to promote women’s rights. According to Farida Shaheed, a feminist human rights activist, “If the younger generation remains disinterested in engaging the state, they risk creating a vacuum that the state might well exploit in the future.”
When it comes to localised contexts, using local language, history, and literature to promote feminist ideals, Granaz Baloch, who hails from Baluchistan, thinks that it has its unique challenges.
“The idea of feminism is often criticised as being an elitist concept, but this perception is primarily due to the fact that the discussions and lobbying efforts for women’s rights are being carried out by the elite. Unfortunately, in my province, women are not represented in government or public institutions, which means that discussions on feminism are a rare occurrence.”
Aurat March has emerged as a powerful force for feminist activism in Pakistan, challenging societal norms and demanding equal rights for women. However, it has also faced significant backlash from conservative elements in society, highlighting the need for continued and sustained efforts to advance gender equality. Significant improvements are needed in terms of education, legal protections, and social attitudes in order to create a society where women can thrive and achieve their full potential. It is only through sustained and collective efforts that we can hope to build a future where gender equality is a reality in Pakistan.
— The author addresses social and political issues through her work. She tweets @zaraahmedH and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.