Don’t let Najma Sadeque’s soft voice fool you. This women’s rights activist believes in fighting the good fight and has held her ground in many an unequal contest. But you won’t find her in the vanguard of a procession, shouting slogans. Instead, she’ll be one of those shoring up the campaign behind the scenes, asking the important questions, doing the vital work needed to make such efforts successful.

For Sadeque, being a journalist has often meant writing about it. The main themes that inform her writing — women’s rights in a patriarchal set-up and land/development issues from a gender perspective — took root in the unlikely setting of a bucolic family farm while she was growing up in the erstwhile East Pakistan.

When an old beggar woman turned up at the door asking for shelter, Sadeque’s mother gave her an allowance and a little cottage on the land to live in and told her to pick whatever she needed for herself from the vast vegetable garden on one condition — that she stop begging. When Sadeque, a young girl at the time, asked why she couldn’t live in a room in the main house, her mother replied that would compromise the woman’s dignity and independence.

Sadeque’s mother also had a tube well dug in a corner of the property especially for women and children from the community so that they could draw as much water as they needed for bathing and washing without being pushed out of the queue by the men at the village well.

Her family relocated to Pakistan’s west wing in the late ’60s, a move she describes as a “culture shock”. Even back then in Karachi, she found people far less tolerant than in liberal Bengal. According to her, “The men were extremely conservative and I had to get used to what I said where.” Little did she know things were going to get much worse further down the line.

By1975, while working as a journalist with the Dawn group, Sadeque and seven other professional women started Shirkat Gah, which she describes as a lobby-cum-pressure group for women’s rights — although to be registered by the stodgy bureaucracy of the time they had to go with the innocuous term “women’s upliftment” and delete any reference to “lobby-cum-pressure group”.

It was volunteer work and the funds they raised by holding concerts and getting corporate sponsorships went into placing newspaper announcements on women’s rights, hosting the occasional seminar, etc. Their focus was largely on the lack of socioeconomic support for women post-divorce (the right of khula had been given to women during the Ayub government.) Zia’s arrival on the scene in 1977 thrust them into a far more challenging environment.

In the beginning all was quiet, although given that Zia had promulgated the Hudood Ordinances by then it was bound to be the calm before the storm. Then came the Fehmida Allah Bakhsh incident.

Fehmida, a young woman from a lower middle class family and Allah Bakhsh, a bus driver, had fallen in love and, in the face of opposition from her family, eloped and married. Her parents filed a case of kidnapping against Allah Bukhsh. The police went to their house where, finding him and an obviously pregnant Fehmida, they arrested the couple on the charge of zina or extramarital sex — a crime punishable by death under the newly instituted Hudood laws. In September 1981, the Federal Shariat Court sentenced the couple to 80 lashes and death by stoning.

It was a watershed moment. “I remember reading about it in Dawn the next morning, it was such a shock. Aban Marker, another founder member of Shirkat Gah and I were both frantically trying to call each other and getting extremely frustrated upon finding the other’s phone busy. When we finally did get through we said that if we don’t take cognisance of this now, it’s going to snowball.”

Their first reaction was to call a Shirkat Gah meeting but then they decided the matter concerned women from all walks of life and warranted broader participation. Their call, to NGOs and individuals alike, spread like wildfire and a host of outraged women showed up.

That was the beginning of the Women’s Action Forum (WAF), an umbrella group of several women’s organisations that, from its inception in Karachi, evolved into Pakistan’s first full-fledged national women’s movement. Besides Najma Sadeque and Aban Marker, the first WAF working committee comprised Ghazala Rahman, Humaira Rahman and Farida Shaheed.

Meanwhile, the Fehmida Allah Bakhsh case had gone into appeal. Members of WAF made sure they were present in court for every hearing. Under growing national and international pressure, the conviction was finally overturned.

That was a small victory: the activists knew that a long battle lay ahead of them in their campaign against the General Zia’s discriminatory laws and the culture of misogyny he promoted under the guise of religion. Meetings were intense and spirited, remembers Sadeque. “We were young, we were very angry and often we felt very helpless.”

From the platform of WAF, they took up issues pertaining to women’s rights, held seminars, and voiced their demands. The Karachi Press Club, which then did not have the conservative bent it later acquired, was very supportive and offered its venue free of charge for their events.

Some incidents brought unlikely, albeit temporary, allies. Sadeque recalls that women from the Jamaat-i-Islami joined WAF when it called for a protest rally in support of a Christian nurse who was raped by a doctor at Karachi’s Civil Hospital. They even asked the activists for placards, some of which said, ‘How would you like to have a rapist for a doctor?’ This incident, she says, illustrated the fact that when diverse people come together on issues, some understanding can emerge along the way. “Unfortunately it doesn’t happen often enough because their men won’t allow it.”

A cadre of sympathetic women journalists wrote about the issues picked up by WAF. Her own beat — she was writing for The Star Weekend at the time — was women’s rights. In those days, when most politicians were either underground or in exile, WAF’s was often the only political voice on the landscape.

Sadeque had her own close encounter with the repressive forces holding sway in the country when she was called in for questioning by the police. She had just written about a baby who had been stoned to death by a mob in Karachi’s Old Golimar area on suspicion of being illegitimate. Her editor accompanied her to the station. The police officer questioned Sadeque — over and over again — to know the identity of her sources, which, of course, she refused to divulge knowing that would put them in harm’s way.

Next day a press statement appeared in all the newspapers (it was compulsory at the time to print every such statement) that the entire story was a fabrication and no such thing had ever happened. Sadeque was crushed. She thought she was discredited and her career as a journalist over. However, if the incident had shown her what the regime’s henchmen were capable of, it also showed her the support she could count on among friends and colleagues. The next week, Zohra Yusuf, her editor who had been present throughout her grilling at the hands of the police, wrote a report titled, Interrogation of a journalist. “And that,” says Sadeque, “saved the day for me!”

In 2001, she began working full-time with Shirkat Gah and, although she has continued to write, now describes herself as a “former journalist”. Sometimes she works on documentaries with her daughter, Deneb Sumbul, an independent filmmaker, on subjects that are close to her heart — women, and their relationship with the land and the environment.

Work commitments have also reduced her involvement with WAF. She mulls over the possibility of returning to it later this year. You get the feeling she’ll bring a renewed sense of purpose to her involvement — one that has been shaped by her experiences in the field talking to peasant women struggling to keep their heads above water in a manifestly unjust system. “Governments have learnt how to maintain a facade of being poor- or women-supportive,” she says, “such as through the creation of endless committees sans conclusion or action, without doing much about real problems.”

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