WHEN JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman waved to the crowds in Islamabad on Friday, he loomed over a large banner featuring a picture of Maryam Nawaz. That image may have been the only meaningful female presence at the Azadi March. Those who support the protest — and particularly the JUI-F’s democratic right to public protest — may counter that a focus on the Azadi March’s gender politics unfairly distracts from its legitimate demand for transparent, interference-free elections. But you cannot defend democracy while excluding more than half the population.
Asad Umar in a tweet rightly pointed out that the lack of women betrayed the JUI-F’s vision of a “Pakistan … where women have no place in the public space”. The party apparently disinvited its female members, and asked other opposition parties to do the same. Two female journalists covering the march reported they were harassed by JUI-F workers and forced to leave.
This is shameful. The act of restricting access to the march has undermined its organisers’ stated commitment to democratic and constitutional norms. But it also reveals a major political blind spot. One of the few charms of the PTI dharna and pre-poll rallies was the large presence of women, many of them young, arriving with faces painted in the colours of the PTI flag. Before reality set in, these women heralded a ‘naya’ Pakistan. This contrast has been an easy attack by the government against the Azadi March, but one that points to significant issues of democratic access.
Though we have romanticised it, the PTI dharna’s high number of female participants was driven by socioeconomic reasons rather than a gender inclusive attitude per se. These were predominantly middle-class women who could swarm to the protest in the evenings, then return home in chauffeur-driven cars. This is not the typical profile of a female political party worker.
The JUI-F apparently disinvited its female members.
Moreover, that female presence has not translated into feminist discourse, proportionate cabinet representation or policy. Have we already forgotten Imran Khan’s statement about how feminism undermines motherhood? Or that this government delayed the implementation of the domestic violence bill in KP? Or that the PTI’s education adviser in that province recently notified female students at government schools to wear chadars or abayas to protect themselves against ‘unethical’ incidents?
And before Umar gets too smug, he should recognise that while female reporters have safely attended PTI rallies, they are mercilessly trolled online by PTI supporters.
Moreover, religious political parties have historically had relatively organised and empowered women’s wings and intra-party elections; in terms of providing inroads to politics for women at the grass roots, their record matches or surpasses that of other parties.
The broader point is that the resurgent politics of protest is gender biased. At the most basic level, a country like Pakistan does not present the infrastructure required to make sustained street agitation an option for most women. This extends from the lack of safe public transport options to bathroom facilities and accommodation for women travelling alone or in small groups.
This is besides the social mores, which prevent female participation in public, male-dominated events. Few families would support their daughters and wives travelling between cities among a sea of political protesters. Human rights groups have globally reported that women who are involved in political protests are more likely victims of sexual harassment and violence, and that their participation is deterred by threats to their reputation that would have long-term consequences on both personal and professional fronts.
But there’s another angle — the link between women’s participation and the substance of the protest. As climate activism has surged around the world, it has been dominated by women. Well before Greta Thunberg became the face of climate activism, the 2014 People’s Climate March in the US was organised and attended mainly by women. This trend has persisted even as climate activism has spread around the world. This is because women are more affected by climate change: they are mothers concerned about their children’s futures; they are homemakers responsible for feeding their families at times of drought and scarcity; they are the most vulnerable poor who are disproportionately affected by climate change.
Perhaps women’s participation in political protests in Pakistan (access being equal) would still be low because it would be perceived as irrelevant? As politics becomes more ideological, polarised and internecine, and less about rights and service delivery, participation in protests like the Azadi March will likely become more skewed. And a growing sense among the majority of the population that protests have nothing to do with them will be a greater threat to democracy than institutional power plays.
The writer is a freelance journalist.
Published in Dawn, November 4th, 2019