Women’s struggle in this particular region goes back a good few decades to the pre-Partition era where women of the subcontinent joined various movements, depending on what roused them most. For example, the renowned Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai joined the Progressive Writers’ Movement, while women like Begum Raana Liaquat Ali Khan were active in the Pakistan Movement.
After 1947, the Pakistani women’s struggle gained much momentum during General Ziaul Haq’s regime. In fact, their struggle had become directed towards the State itself, a protest against the systematic discrimination that the State committed against the women of Pakistan as General Zia tried to ‘Islamise’ the country through laws like the Hudood Ordinance, the Qanoon-e-Shahadat (Law of Evidence) and propagation of the chador and char-dewari concept.
Today, this struggle has taken on an entirely different face. This change, it seems, was destined to happen because the ‘enemy’ that the Pakistani women were fighting against 30 years ago has also undergone a change. The ‘enemy’ is not the formal social control mechanism(s) of the Pakistani state anymore, as in it’s not just the laws, the Constitution, the judiciary, the police that is the ‘enemy’ anymore. Those have broken down to a great extent. The new enemy, of not just the Pakistani women but also of the men, is now the informal social control mechanism(s) of Pakistani society, like the family, friends, colleagues, neighbours, people you meet on the street – in fact the entire society. It is worse, much more dreadful than the lathi-wielding policemen that attacked a rally of women, protesting Zia’s Law of Evidence at The Mall in Lahore in February 1983. I am by no means glossing over the significance of the events of Feb 12, 1983 and possess deep respect for the participants of that rally. This enemy is the mob that brandishes all sorts of physical weapons and its eyes have a manic glint. That sight is scary enough to make us forget that the same enemy has also invaded our homes, our personal spheres. It can be found in our daily surroundings, amongst our family members, both immediate and the wider kin and our friends. It is present at work, at school, at university, even at a public area, like a shopping mall.
This is precisely where all groups comprising the entire Pakistani women’s movement could be uniting, the young and the old both coming together to resist the new enemy. Yet, there is a sense of disconnection. The seniors are exhausted now, yet they carry on. If you, a young one, comes across signs of disillusionment amongst them, don’t be surprised. On the other hand, the young ones have lost faith in the movement itself, even in the concept of feminism. Many of them would agree on equal rights for women but not necessarily consider themselves feminists. Some of them accuse the seniors of the Pakistani women’s movement of being exclusive, of not giving the young ones space to enter the fray. Well then, join the ranks and you will find that spaces would open up for you.
Women are in every field you could possibly imagine. At least half of every graduating class from Pakistan’s best universities in the last decade or so is comprised of women. Those who fought against the patriarchy, against the patriarchal State helped to bring more women out of the chador and char-dewari and into the public and economic life of the country. Yes, the discriminatory laws are still there but just think about it: now there are more people out there to take the movement forward into its next stages and continue the resistance against all the sexism and misogyny.
Of course, like I mentioned above, this misogyny has sprouted up into the very depths of our society and has become deeply entrenched. Now we are not just fighting against laws that discriminate and differentiate between a man and a woman based on the biological differences and consider the physical factors to affect mental and emotional capabilities of each sex. We are, in fact, fighting the collective mindset of the people now, their discriminatory social norms, customs and traditions and of course, the rising tide of extremism where women are just blocked out of the society because we supposedly ‘carry vices’.
Currently, there are talks of the government negotiating with Taliban to maintain peace in the country. That is all very well. Personally, I don’t agree but that would be a digression here. But the worst part is that the recent All-Parties Conference has agreed to let a ‘grand tribal jirga’ negotiate with the Taliban. So, dear sirs, will there be any women involved in your jirga? Does your jirga’s agenda include discussions on how to solve the problems that women have faced due to the actions of the Taliban? Does your agenda include the women’s opinion on the resolution of this conflict with the Taliban? No? Then how can I trust you to deal with the problems of my fellow womenfolk in your areas?
It has been a little over 30 years today since the Pakistani women actively began resisting the patriarchal system, achieving milestones and sometimes failing. But the greatest failure would be when the senior members of the struggle are gone and no one is left to take their place. Luckily, there is still time. But how much? No one knows. It is just a question of consolidating all the individual resistances into a one big movement, a terribly difficult and daunting task that can scare off a lone woman.