LAHORE: Dozens of women gathered outside the Quaid-i-Azam Library in Lawrence Gardens on Tuesday to remember the iconic women’s demonstration of 1983. They raised slogans and sang songs, and formed a casual collective where various issues were discussed.
The collective was led by members of Women’s Action Forum (WAF) as well as students.
In Pakistan, Feb 12 is a milestone in the country’s women’s rights movement. On this day in 1983, several women defied the military dictatorship of Gen Ziaul Haq by taking out a public demonstration on Lahore’s The Mall road despite martial law regulations that banned all political activity, processions and public protests.
“The primary reason for this demonstration was the proposed law of evidence, which would effectively have reduced the testimony of women to half of that of men,” said Farida Shaheed, who was a part of the historic protest.
The accumulative trigger was the dictatorship’s unrelenting push to rescind women’s rights and reduce their status to half a human. This demonstration became a symbol for women’s resistance to all forms of oppression and belief in an equal, equitable and just democratic order.
Like many others who were present at the 1983 protest, Ms Shaheed remembers it vividly. “Section 144 had been imposed so Hina Jilani had an idea that we should reach the high court in small groups of twos and threes and protest there,” she recalls. “But when we reached Hall Road, we could see that there was already a lot of police who had cordoned off the road so we couldn’t go ahead.”
The sheer number of police meant that the state was prepared to fight the civilians, so it was bad news for everyone.
“At Hall Road, Habib Jalib began reciting his poetry and then all of a sudden we realised that one of the protesters, Mubaraka, from Democratic Women’s Association had slipped through the barriers and was gesturing for us to follow her,” said Ms Shaheed.
Suddenly, there were clouds of tear gas and a brutal baton-charge by police on the demonstrating civilians. Several women were dragged to the police station and locked up.
Activist Diep Saeeda was only in college and was passing by The Mall when she was caught up in the demonstration. “I did not know her personally, but saw that Madeeha (Gauhar) was bleeding after being hit by a baton,” she recalls. “I was crying as well as trying to take care of her bleeding head.”
While there was a smile on the women’s faces who were shouting slogans for freedom and justice, a serious underlying issue remains relevant even today.
“State oppression in those days was through a military dictatorship,” added Ms Saeeda. “Today, even in a so-called civilian government, our freedom is being snatched from us and we are being pushed to the wall.”
Takreema, a theatre artist and activist, said that young women at that time were more in touch with their identities and desires.
“Today, the average educated woman is weighed down by responsibilities as well as pressure from family and society; there is active discouragement for students to take part in such things while families believe girls’ reputations are at stake.”
Sixty-five-year-old Parveen looked wistfully and smilingly at the women and girls who were loud and clear about their identities and what they wanted from society.
“I was stopped from studying further – as most women are, but after I had three daughters, my mindset changed and I pushed them to educate themselves and be economically independent,” she said.
WAF released a statement that stated that the forum would always stand up to the “state’s deliberately created and fostered religious terrorists as part of its security doctrine, the groups who hold the country hostage through violent protests against any attempts to make Pakistan a tolerant and progressive state, those undermining the fundamental rights guaranteed in the Constitution, violence and injustice against women and other marginalised sections of society”.
Published in Dawn, February 13th, 2019