Can the current generation of Pakistani women achieve the impossible? Can they set Pakistan’s women free?
The women-led movement for justice, equality and rights, has had a long history in Pakistan. From pre-Partition women Muslim Leaguers fighting alongside Jinnah to realize an independent nation, free from British colonial rule, to the post-Partition formation of the All Pakistan Women’s Association (APWA), to the relentless protests by the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) that were tear-gassed and baton-charged in the 1980s, the fight has come a long way.
But has it changed anything for women in Pakistan?
This is not a critique of the women’s rights movement, in any way. Nor is it disrespect or disregard for the struggle and sacrifice that thousands of women across the country have made for decades to ensure women have equal rights. We are where we are today because of these sacrifices.
But the truth is that where we are today is nowhere close to where we want to be, or more importantly, where we deserve to be.
Recent events have galvanized Pakistan’s women for all the right reasons. We as women – young, old, privileged, under-privileged – are at risk every day in Pakistan. In our families, in our workplaces, in our social environments. Even in our digital environments. We remain at risk with men in our lives and without them.
So what is missing in our struggle and sacrifices that over 70 years on, women in Pakistan still remain one of the most at-risk groups across the country? An at-risk group that comprises almost half of the total population and cuts across class, wealth and religious barriers. And a group that is in physical danger of its life, not just legally or socially.
Social movements that have led to structural and systemic change, today’s buzzwords, have been relentless in their cause. They have faced ostracization, vilification and even death in the face of resistance. But these sacrifices have often led to strengthening the movement rather than diminish its influence.
The role of female peasants in the Tehbaga uprising in 1940s Bengal, or the Abeokuta Women’s Tax Revolt in 1940s colonial Nigeria, and the Mexican Zapatista Movement in the 1990s, are only a few that come to mind. Movements that not just impacted laws and unjust practices against women, but also led to defining what a sustained and organized social movement could achieve.
Our very own struggles to push for the Muslim Family Law Ordinance in the 1960s and against the Hudood Ordinance in the 1980s are examples of sustained and powerful engagement with the establishment. Engagements that saw massive street protests, violence against women by law-enforcement and even imprisonment.
These were the movements that I grew up around and which influenced my life. A coming together of women from all walks of life, young and old, urban and rural, bound by one purpose and one purpose alone – to demand that they be given their due share.
But somewhere along the way, the movement lost steam and faded away. Even when we played host to the first female prime minister in the Muslim world. It remained in the shadows, but it was overwhelmed by a political storm. In my own profession as a development activist, it was hidden away under international donor fantasies of ‘empowerment’. I cannot help but correlate a decline in the rights and status of women during that time to what it is now.
The beginnings of the annual Aurat March in 2018, was meant to have been the tectonic shift in the progressive women’s movement in Pakistan. A phoenix rising from the ashes of patriarchy and political oppression. And to some extent it has been. Spawned by a new generation of Pakistani women who are technologically savvy, creative, self-aware and entrepreneurial, it has the makings of something better.
But it also has far, far more to fight for now, than we did 30 or 40 years ago. The extent to which women are now seen as mere objects that can be violated and ignored has grown manifold in this time. Where only streets were the location of dissent and disdain, now we have the workplace and digital realms as well. Where we had a more limited section of male society who were a threat to us, now it is society as a whole that is the threat, – both men and even women of all sorts.
Growing wealth and income inequality and overlapping beliefs between tradition and modernity are also impacting the fight. We can no longer assume that those who belong to the high end of the spectrum may be more tolerant, liberal and believing in equality. Or that those who fall at the bottom end of the spectrum are more conservative, rigid and rights-averse.
It is all this and more that this new generation of women have to fight against. And they can and they must. But the fight is also more fragmented. Because the things to fight for have become more fragmented. Provinces have drifted apart. Some worse off than others, making some women’s issues worse off (and possibly further away) than others. Twitter is the urban female activists’ best friend and enemy. Rural women barely have any platform at all, let alone access to the internet.
The fight is long and hard and the new generation is largely committed to it. But such fights need sustained momentum, sacrifices above and beyond what we can perhaps allow in our lives in this global age of capitalism and it must be relentless at all levels – public, private, online, offline. It cannot just be defined by the Aurat March. It has to be more. Much, much more. As the recent action taken by female journalists has been against their online vilification.
Mine and previous generations may not have been entirely successful in giving Pakistani women their due share. I can only hope this ‘naya’ generation of women is more successful. Naya Pakistan certainly hasn’t been very kind to us so far.
The writer is an independent specialist and researcher in
international development, social policy and global migration.
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