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Women empowerment: The spring of hope

Updated February 14, 2016

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It was a violent and brutal handling of a Zina case under the newly introduced Hudood Ordinance which gave birth to a social movement: a 16-year-old girl from Karachi, Fehmeida Allah Bakhsh, had been sentenced to flogging for merely exercising her choice in marriage. It was an injustice that needed to be righted, but those dispensing justice had changed the rules and not many dared to speak up.

But 17 like-minded women in Karachi weren’t about to accept Fehmeida’s fate without a fight. On Sept 16, 1981, the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) came into being in Karachi, pledging to resist Gen Zia’s newly formulated Hudood laws that reduced the status of all Pakistani women to second-class citizens.

Perhaps even these 17 women didn’t realise at the time what WAF would mean to many young Pakistani women and activists in the years to come: WAF was simultaneously an identity as well as an expression of identity. In the throes of the pro-democracy struggle, where women’s sexuality was being caged by law, WAF created space for women’s voices to be heard in the larger democratic movement. No longer was politics a man’s plaything; no longer would women have to rely on men for their representation.

Within a few years, WAF emerged as a social movement for women’s empowerment. The forum emerged as a vanguard of the democratic movement and women of WAF became crucial to Pakistan’s democracy.


After a lapse of a decade, the Women’s Action Forum is organising its National Convention. Will the once great social movement reattain its lost glory?


But WAF fell away in the decade of the 1990s, leading some to argue that the feminist movement in Pakistan had been dealt a hammer blow. Founding members kept the flag flying though, and now, after a decade-long drought, WAF is holding its National Convention in Karachi, this weekend.

This year’s convention is being billed as the spring of hope, with a younger generation of feminist activists participating in the debates and discussions around the future course of action to be adopted by WAF. The convention aims to regroup, re-strategise and rebuild what was once a powerful social movement for women’s empowerment in Pakistan.

In previous years, the absence of a newer generation to join the struggle has been WAF’s major shortcoming and the excitement generated by young feminists is palpable. The agenda, this year, seeks to revisit and critically assess the feminist quest for a secular, democratic and inclusive state; and to devise strategies to reclaim public spaces and narratives for women.

But will WAF manage to regain its past glory?

Genesis and evolution

While this forum was formed by middle-class professional women, soon after its launch, it became an alliance of different women’s rights groups committed to the cause of seeking justice for women and attaining basic human rights for them, including education, employment, physical security, choice of marital status, planned parenthood and equality.

A fair few founding members were from liberal family backgrounds while many others arrived from left-wing political parties. In fact, WAF had cut across party lines and brought together women from a wide spectrum of parties.

“We deliberated on many names and in the end opted for ‘forum’ because it was supposed to be a platform where like-minded individuals and organisations could come and share their ideas. A lot of thought was given to the word ‘action’ as we didn’t want to be seen as a social welfare organisation, rather we were interested in political activism and mobilisation,” late Najma Sadeque had said in an earlier interview.


“WAF is committed to the ideals of a just, secular and peaceful society and believes in a democratic, pluralistic, multi-ethnic, open-minded and peaceful realm which takes diversity in its stride.”


Such decisions were crucial in the eyes of WAF’s founding members, since personal emancipation, liberty, freedom of expression, democracy and political rights and activities had all become a distant dream during Gen Zia’s era. Marginalised sections of society, including women, minorities and the poorest of the poor, were subjected to his draconian laws and discrimination.

Lahore, Feb 12, 1983 — a defining moment when WAF’s rally was brutally dispersed
Lahore, Feb 12, 1983 — a defining moment when WAF’s rally was brutally dispersed

Yet, it was women, more than any other group, who were the direct target of the dictator’s misogynist regime under his ostensible Islamisation endeavour.

Explaining WAF’s politics, Anis Haroon, says, “The network doesn’t follow populist demands and we don’t strategise on that basis. The collective has always been against the stream and we have taken the most radical positions and have never been bothered about the numerical mass support.”

Afia Shehrebano, another veteran and feisty activist says, “WAF’s strength lies in its ideological clarity and the shared historical positions. These have always emerged as a response to their located experiences and understanding of issues and the Pakistani state and its patriarchal expressions at every level. The organisation is not a place for fashionable postmodern type of tourist activism or PhD subject matter. It is invested in women’s and minorities’ equal and secular rights. How many other organisations do you know which take a stand across the country as a collective?”

So what makes WAF different from other networks and coalitions?

Hilda Saeed, one of the founding members of the forum, argues that its main strength is its structure as it was decided at the start that WAF would be a non-structured free floating group of active people rather than a structured organisation.

“The policy has been to focus on its collectivism and as a result it remains a non-funded, street-politicking and non-hierarchical community of pro-democracy activists,” she argues.

Over the last 35 years, WAF has been involved in active advocacy and lobbying, for women’ rights. In its activist struggle, WAF members have fought against martial law regimes and condemn their brutal treatment as well as publicly apologised to Bangladeshi masses for maltreatment and support negotiations with other disgruntled ethnic groups.

“We have often been alone in our protest as no other civil society organisation or mainstream political party is willing to take a firm and righteous stand on different issues plaguing the country,” claims Haroon.

Mahnaz Rehman, another veteran of the struggle, says that the network is supportive of all aspects of women’s rights and related issues, irrespective of political affiliations, belief systems or ethnicity. “It is committed to the ideals of a just, secular and peaceful society and believes in a democratic, pluralistic, multi-ethnic, open-minded and peaceful realm which takes diversity in its stride,” she says.

Limitations and the way ahead

The coalition is not without its detractors who level various charges, ranging from its elitist approach, the privileged background of its cadres, little or no following among the working classes, and the failure to attract young feminists into its fold.

It was never a deliberate policy but is a historic fact that most of the founders were middle-class professional young women based in the cities that were perturbed by the growing trend to segregate women in the early ’80s and believed it to be a part of a larger move to push women out of the public arena.

In their book, One Step Forward, Two Steps Backward, Farida Shaheed and Khawar Mumtaz dealt in detail on this issue and explained that “… the repercussions of the Hudood Ordinances, in the shape of criminal cases, imprisonment and flogging, have not been felt in the upper classes at all but amongst the poor, rural and urban middle and working classes. Yet the perception of the discriminatory nature of the law and the need to mount resistance came from professional women in the urban centres, who were jolted into action.”

Saeed argues that women in Zia’s regime were already being hounded, ostracised and marginalised. It was repeatedly stressed that women were the keepers of family honour, and as such, their behaviour had to be in line with Islamic precepts.

Gen Zia’s era was also about the demonisation of politics proper; with many activists incarcerated or flogged for expressing an opinion, politics itself became unfashionable. Most parties suffered from this phenomenon and WAF was no exception either.

“WAF fell short on two fronts: the first is a generational lapse, when after the ’90s, new members could not be encouraged to join and the organisation itself was split due to competing NGO activism,” says Shehrebano.

“But the revival of a new spirit was seen during the lawyers movement. The struggle for defining democracy is a strong imperative and resonates with Pakistani women, and WAF has used this impetus to revive itself and increased the level of its activism without losing its identity or focus,” she says.

“The other weak area is our inability to harness technology in our favour. Now we are trying to introduce and streamline our energies and contributions and document them and use information technology to the advantage of our causes,” adds Shehrebano.

“Younger women have joined us from time to time; some have stayed, others have left, which is to be expected. The ones who have remained with us are as committed as their senior colleagues. Of course, we need a lot more,” argues Saeed.

Despite all obstacles, the network is on the march. Over the years, WAF has expanded from Karachi and Lahore to having chapters now in Hyderabad, Peshawar and Islamabad. Another chapter is due to be launched from Quetta shortly.

The big hope for this convention is to emerge with a consensus over expanding the definition of women’s work to include the multi-dimensional nature of their work, including unpaid work and work done as caregivers. The road to freedom is long, but at least, the journey is restarting anew.

The writer is a member of staff and tweets @MonizaInam

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, February 14th, 2016