Thirty-four years after it first mobilised women against a law reducing their citizenship status, Women’s Action Forum reaffirms its resolve to fight for women’s rights
It was February 12, 1983. Around 400 women gathered at Regal Chowk Lahore to protest against the proposed Law of Evidence which equated the testimony of two women with that of one Muslim male in a court of law. At a call given by Pakistan Women Lawyers’ Association, WAF mobilised women belonging to different ages, classes, religions, sects and ethnicities to march to the Lahore High Court with a petition against the proposed law which would in effect reduce their citizenship status to half that of Muslim men.
It was one of a series of draconian laws passed since the military takeover of July1977, a period during which a facile Islamisation ideology was adopted to provide legitimacy to an illegal military regime.
On the cool February morning, hundreds of indignant and defiant women carrying placards, banners and flags chanted slogans against the oppressive regime, and waited anxiously to march to the halls of justice. The police cordoned off the area to prevent the advance of the crowd to the High Court. The legendary poet of the people, Habib Jalib, ever a fighter against dictatorship, arrived on the scene with a moving poem about the equality and rights of women. As he recited his poetry about women no longer willing to remain in chains, about women demanding freedom and equality, he was pounced upon by the police who began a sudden baton charge.
Stirred by the moment of resistance -- the moment of speaking out and breaking the silence -- the women began to move like the waves of an angry sea buffeted by the winds of change. Passion and determination, induced by years of suppression at the hands of a ruthless dictator, led them to break the police cordon. A virtual battle with the police followed. Wielding their batons with the full weight of state power behind them, policemen and policewomen fell upon the resolute crowd and showered the women with official strokes.
Undaunted, the women fought back with bare hands, shoes and batons wrested from the police during scuffles. Many were injured, some arrested while others were rushed to nearby hospitals for treatment. It was the first time in the history of the country that nerve gas was used on a women’s peaceful demonstration. State repression intensified the anger and the determination to break the cordon erected to prevent the women from seeking justice.
Supportive lawyers and friends of the movement cheered from the sides while eager journalists captured the historical moment on camera. The next day the event was splashed all over every newspaper in the country. International media too picked it up, and there were write-ups about the repressive regime and its courageous opponents in other countries.
Six years of Pakistan’s most oppressive, brutal, obscurantist and bigoted dictatorship had led to intense frustration among all those who believed in democracy, justice and equality.
Today, 34 years after that day of defiance, women are compelled to reflect on the significance of the watershed event and subsequent history. While celebrating and remembering the day of resistance against an oppressive regime is important, troublesome thoughts plague the minds of many. Despite the myriad countrywide struggles for the political, economic and social rights of women, not much has changed.
In terms of political rights, women still do not have even 33 per cent of the seats in the local, national and provincial legislatures; political parties are still reluctant to award tickets to women candidates; in several areas, women are not allowed to vote in elections, and the pacts to prevent them are often signed by both religious and relatively more secular parties.
With regard to economic rights and equality, women still earn far less than men at various levels of the economy and constitute the bulk of the informal (casual, contractual, temporary and part-time) labour across the country. They often have little control over their earnings and land even when they do own it. Women seldom receive even the legally-sanctioned half share of family land or property.
With reference to social and cultural rights, women continue to be subjected to violence by the family, community and the state. They are murdered in the name of ‘honour’; bought, sold or otherwise exchanged in transactions between men, and their bodies and minds (deemed to be the property of male kin and the community or nation) are controlled by others. In spite of Article 25 (2) of the constitution which prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender, women receive less education and health, and their freedoms, including those of speech, expression and movement are curtailed by families and communities.
To date, discriminatory laws such as the Hudood Ordinances, Law of Evidence and Qisas and Diyat laws remain intact, protected by the infamous 8th amendment which was not changed even by the 18th amendment due to the pressure of the religious lobby.
Women’s rights invariably become the bargaining chips when political parties capitulate to the demands of the religious right wing in return for other measures.
From time to time, the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), constituted by a military dictator in 1962 as an advisory body, seeks reversal of the Muslim Family Laws Ordinance of 1961. And the Federal Shariat Court, constituted by another dictator and inserted into the constitution through Chapter 3 A, announced the reversal of the few gains made by women in the Women Protection Act of 2006. The few strides forward by women with regard to the legal structure are constantly contested and resisted by the conservative right.
The women’s movement has to constantly be vigilant and resist the attempts by various arms of the state to push them back. The latest example of this is the National Assembly’s passage of the bill legalising Jirgas and Panchayats, notorious for their judgments against women’s rights.
Permanent resistance and continuous vigilant activism are needed to ensure that all measures designed to reduce women’s rights are contested and prevented.
In spite of the constant and severe backlash, women have managed to get significant legislation passed against sexual harassment in the workplace; anti-women practices such as forced marriage, abduction and depriving women of their share in property; the establishment of the National and Provincial Commissions on the status of women through an act of parliament. This is due to sheer determination and persistence by the women’s movement over decades of struggle since the formation of Pakistan.
The Women Action Forum (WAF), which played an important role in galvanising large numbers in the February 12, 1983 demonstration, is perhaps still the most articulate and politically radical women’s group in Pakistan and has chapters in Karachi, Hyderabad, Islamabad, Peshawar and Lahore. Its membership is open to women who stand for its charter which includes the demand for a secular state, and it believes in non-hierarchical decision-making. Entirely voluntary and steadfast in not taking funds from donor agencies, government, and multinational enterprises, it depends entirely on the political commitment of its membership.
The proliferation of donor-driven NGOs in the 1990s took some of the steam out of the autonomous and self-financed movement, nevertheless WAF remains deeply committed to the agenda of challenging patriarchy wherever and whenever it manifests itself.
On this day, WAF reaffirms its resolve to fight all steps taken to curb women’s rights, while remaining actively committed to social, economic and political transformation towards a society based on justice and equality.