Standing for freedom

June 19, 2022

Fouzia Saeed’s latest book focuses on prominent women in Pakistan and how they contributed to the collective struggle of women for their rights

Standing for freedom


r Fouzia Saeed is a well-known author, social activist, women’s rights campaigner and incumbent of some of the most prestigious positions in Pakistan’s cultural world (head of Lok Virsa, Pakistan National Council of Arts and several NGOs). Her book Taboo was reprinted several times, and her personal account of harassment in an office of the United Nations Organisation (UNO), Working with Sharks (2011), was not only a best seller but was one of those rare writings which actually fed into the struggle of women against harassment in the country. Another book On Their Own Terms (2020), is about the movements of women – peasants, fisher folk, health workers and anti-harassment ones – to gain their rights, to claim agency. I have had the privilege of reviewing all these works and it is a pleasure to be reviewing this latest work of one of the most accomplished people of our times.

Tapestry: Strands of Women’s Struggles Woven Into the History of Pakistan is about the struggle of women to gain their rights as, indeed, are all of Saeed’s works but the difference is that it focuses on profiles of prominent women, to illustrate through their individual biographies, how they contributed to the collective struggle of women for their rights. These profiles are collected under seven heads or ‘strands’ of activism in Pakistan: political awakening (pre-1947); social welfare (1947-1950); political collaboration (1950-1977); reactive confrontation (1977-1988); development orientation (1989-2000); strategic activism (2000-2016) and virtual activism (2016 which is ongoing). I will omit the profiles of women who are already prominent like Fatima Jinnah, Raana Liaquat Ali Khan (who defied segregation conventions); Shaista Ikramullah and Jahanara Shahnawaz(who dealt with partition issues and got the Bill of Women’s Rights passed); Asma Jahangir (known for her struggle against dictatorship and for protecting human rights), Madiha Gauhar (defied Zia-ul- Haq’s policies through her Ajoka theatre), Samar Minallah and Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy (made films on women’s issues). I will try to refer to the achievements of those who are less well known by the public and to some who were instrumental in bringing about legal changes in the system in the interest of women.

One from the first strand is Noor-us Sabah Shah who was born in a conservative family in India and yet joined politics to contribute to the struggle of the Muslim League to create Pakistan. Mai Bakhtawar of Sindh, who physically defied the landlords from taking away the produce of the actual tillers of the soil and got wounded, is one of the similarly unknown inspirers of the Sindh Tenancy Act of 1952.

In the second strand of political collaboration women engaged with the government to get legal and institutional support for women. Among the struggles of this period was the bill of women’s rights, the recognition of reproductive rights (family planning) and increasing awareness among women around patriarchy. This style of lobbying through important political figures continued during Ayub Khan’s rule and a historic bill, the Muslim Family Law Ordinance (1961), was passed. This curtailed the right of the husband to marry for the second time unless the first wife permitted him to do so. Though many of women’s rights have since been eroded and curtailed, this law remains unaltered.

Ayub was, at least as far as social and cultural matters were concerned, a modernist Muslim. Gen Zia-ul Haq who took over the government in 1977, was not. It was, thus, during the years of his rule that women had a very difficult time. Zia-ul Haq proclaimed what he called the Hudood Ordinance. Among other things, fornication and rape were not distinguished and women’s evidence was considered only half that of men. Thus, women who were raped were convicted for fornication which carried the death penalty. It was under such circumstances that collaboration gave way to opposition and confrontation. While in the Bhutto years women had become active in all fields including politics with Fazila Aliani from Balochistan becoming the first woman member of the provincial assembly (MPA), during the Zia years they found themselves in the streets protesting against one highhanded measure or the other. The protest sometimes took on a personal and iconic form such as Mahtab Rashdi’s (nee Channa’s) refusal to cover her head on the national TV as directed. Among the working classes, it took other forms. For instance, Hameeda, a Sindhi woman, struggled to get tillers of the soil their right to the land they tilled as promised by Bhutto. Her husband was killed while in police custody but she kept up the struggle while also continuing her education and ending up with a master’s degree. Among other important things, the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) was formed, which continued an organised struggle against the various discriminatory laws promulgated by the dictator. By the end of the Zia era funds from Western countries began to flow in for social development projects and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) became all the rage. Those who had been active in leftist politics, liberals of various hues and development-oriented people joined them with fresh enthusiasm and a new kind of women’s movement was launched.

It is, in fact, the only major work we have on the movements of and for women in Pakistan. Indeed, this book is probably the richest archive of the female leaders of Pakistan to date.

When Benazir Bhutto became the prime minister of Pakistan, the first woman in the Muslim world to have attained that powerful position, the government again became the main agency for women’s development. Bhutto established police stations for women as well as the First Women’s Bank in which women were the managers as well as the clients. Those who joined the PM in her endeavour included people like Shahnaz Wazir Ali and Zarine Aziz. The latter played a major role in making the First Women’s Bank a viable entity. Meanwhile, the NGOs multiplied and prospered. Some of them made a genuine difference in the lives of ordinary people. One of those was Khawendo Kor (the house of sisters) established by Mariam, a Pashtun woman from a conservative family, who had to struggle both against her family and the society in order to study and then embark on an initiative that helped women of similar background.

During the period of strategic activism, from 2000 to 2016, a long period covering the rules of Gen Musharraf, the PML(N) and the PPP, women tried both confrontation and lobbying to make changes. The examples of confrontation and negotiation are given in detail in Saeed’s earlier book entitled On Their Own Terms while those of lobbying are her own efforts to get the bills against sexual harassment passed by the parliament. When they were passed the implementation was overseen by her equally committed sister, Maliha Hussain. This was the crowning achievement of the Alliance Against Sexual Harassment (AASHA) – which, incidentally, also means ‘hope’ – and was achieved through lobbying pro-women parliamentarians. Saeed names Khursheed Bano and Maliha Hussain as contributors to this achievement though she modestly leaves her own part out. It is known, however, that she was the main contributor to this success.

The ongoing phase is one of working through social media to bring about change. Among the most interesting developments in this phase is an initiative called Girls at dhabas. A dhaba is a roadside food stall which is traditionally reserved for men. This is an initiative for girls to go out and eat at dhabas encouraging other young women to claim spaces which are known to be masculine privileges. There are many other such initiatives that have been discussed in the book. The lack of space makes it impossible for me to go into those.

I do think Dr Saeed should have adhered to the practice of her scholarly books of giving a review of literature and references to the most authentic sources for her assertions. The theoretical framing of feminism which is implicit should have been made explicit. Perhaps, among the relevant literature, Sabiha Mansoor’s book, Successful Women Educators & Human Development in Punjab 1974-2007 (2019), though limited only to the Punjab and educators, should have been referred to. As for ignoring the paradigmatic work on a subject, there are several instances. For instance, when referring to the Bengali language movement, Badruddin Omar’s seminal work on the subject should have been cited.

These minor lacunae do not really detract from the intrinsic strengths of the book. As far as its original contribution goes, it is certainly unparalleled and on very strong ground. It is, in fact, the only major work we have on the movements of and for women in Pakistan. Indeed, this book is probably the richest archive of the female leaders of Pakistan to date and is a must-read for both women and men who want a progressive Pakistan.


Strands of Women’s Struggles Woven Into the History of Pakistan

Author: Fouzia Saeed

Publisher: Lightstone Publishers, 2022

Pages: 378

Price: Rs 2,295

The reviewer is an occasional contributor

Standing for freedom