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Karachi

August 21, 2018

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Oblivion threatens a symbol of women’s decades-long struggle

Adjoining the Regional Director Colleges Karachi office, on the premises of the Government College for Women Shahrah-e-Liaquat, is a double-storey building that has held little attraction for visitors in the past decade or thereabouts.

This run-down structure on Burnes Road that resembles a haunted house is not to blame, however, because most people are unaware of its splendid history and what is represents. This abandoned building houses the head office of the Pakistan Federation of University Women (PFUW), which was formed in the late 1950s to promote female education across the country.

The PFUW struggled for women’s rights for almost five decades, but now it seems to be at risk of fading into oblivion. While there is no other organisation like it in the country even today, young women have shown zero interest in joining it.

Since its founder Zeenat Rashid Ahmed passed away in 2005, the PFUW has become almost non-functional. Now one of the entrances to the building leading directly to the first floor remains locked, but the college’s gatekeeper and his family have been allowed to take up residence on the ground level.

The Karachi Metropolitan Corporation has declared the entire structure one of the most dangerous buildings in the city. The relevant authorities have also put up a sign on its wall warning people to park their vehicles at their own risk.  

A valuable forum

“Mrs [Zeenat] Rashid formed the organisation to provide a valuable forum for the advancement of senior teachers and scholars as well as for educating women,” said Rahimunnisa Aziz, one of the founding members of the PFUW and its present vice-president.

Mrs Rashid was the organisation’s president for about three decades. She also set up more chapters across the country, including one in the then East Pakistan, and made the PFUW a prominent part of an international network.

Rahimunnisa said the office-bearers were selected from among the founding members, who were mostly college teachers. The organisation’s mission statement was based on the aim to promote girls’ education.

Mrs Rashid’s charismatic personality, stature and reputation helped the PFUW take off. “After putting together the manifesto and setting up branches in Dhaka, Rawalpindi, Lahore, Peshawar and Hyderabad, the first elections were held at all the branches in the late 50s.”  

Major achievements

The members initially decided that the PFUW would create education opportunities for women and voice concerns for their rights. “Developing female education was one of the main objectives of the organisation,” said PFUW President Akram Khatoon.

The organisation later set up a skill development centre at its head office with the aim to arrange communication and English language classes as well as to provide other professional training to women. The PFUW also linked Pakistani female academics with international women organisations to create further opportunities.

Akram said the organisation used to publish two magazines: ‘Scintilla’ for the members, focusing on education, social and cultural issues, and ‘Sayyarah’ for children. “We also established two colleges for women: one in North Nazimabad and the other in Dhaka that is still considered one of the best educational institutions.”  

A bitter battle

After the country’s eastern limb was lost, all colleges were nationalised. The government put a stop to social and political activities of faculties and students. “The organisations that had actively worked for the well-being of women were easy targets,” said PFUW founding member Prof Dr Aquila Islam.

Political upheaval increased in the country later, especially during Gen Ziaul Haq’s regime, making life unbearable for women. “The PFUW’s branches in Lahore, Peshawar and Hyderabad became almost non-existent. The organisational structure was rendered dormant in those cities,” recalled Dr Aquila, presently the PFUW’s coordinator for international relations.

“The members, however, fought a bitter battle with the military wing of the women’s national guard to reclaim possession of the PFUW’s head office, and succeeded.”

In the following years the organisation was strengthened after illustrious women such as Begum Tazeen Fareedi, Shaista Suhrawardy Ikramullah, Miss Taimuri and Saleema Ahmed joined its ranks and subsequently led it. Their sole mission was to promote female education among Pakistani women.  

On the wane

The PFUW affiliated itself with the Saarc Federation of University Women as well as the International Federation of University Women (IFUW), which was renamed Graduate Women International (GWI) in 2015.

While the PFUW had defaulted on the IFUW’s fee and lost its affiliation, Dr Aquila claimed that her organisation has since re-affiliated with the GWI.

Over the years the members of the PFUW have presented noteworthy research papers at various international seminars. “These events were held in Bangladesh, Singapore, South Korea, India, Mexico, the US, Canada and European countries,” said Akram Khatoon.

The last triennial conference that the PFUW members had attended was held in 2010 in Mexico, where an impromptu presentation by Dr Aquila earned a warm applause from the 700 international delegates.

In its glory days the organisation not only sent delegations to a number of European countries, but also hosted those visiting from abroad. Now, however, the PFUW is no more in a position to host such activities or provide such opportunities to female students and academics.  

Slim survival odds

The PFUW is registered with the Sindh government and a paltry annual grant of Rs3,000 used to be released for it until a few years ago. “The funds have stopped coming, though,” said Dr Aquila, adding that the organisation is facing losses and the odds of its survival are slim.

She said the PFUW is not in a position to start new projects in Karachi. The organisation’s Islamabad chapter, however, is quite active, conducting seminars, providing scholarships to students as well as amenities to public schools.

“We’ve tried to reclaim the head office, but red tape is creating hurdles.” Despite the fact that the country lacks organisations representing female educators and students, the PFUW is finding it hard to recruit new members. “Young women cite domestic chores and the demands of city life as reasons for not joining us.”

Dr Aquila said today’s materialistic culture does not allow them to spare time for volunteer work. However, the women of the PFUW are still striving for the survival of the organisation by approaching colleges and universities in the hopes of finding new recruits.

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