On Their Own Terms: Early 21st Century Women ‘s Movements in Pakistan
By Fouzia Saeed
Oxford University Press, Karachi
ISBN: 978-0190702595
306pp.

“Later, they tried to control us, but that is the one thing we peasant women are good at avoiding.” — Aqeela Naz, lead activist, Women Peasant Movement of Punjab

Women in Pakistan have been demanding rights pertaining to matters of land (in Punjab) and to fisherfolk (in Sindh), the protection of female healthcare workers, and action against sexual harassment in the workplace for many years now. Primary data on collective efforts of the last three decades suggests that women hailing from rural and urban areas alike have been successful and influential social rights activists.

In her latest book, On Their Own Terms: Early 21st Century Women’s Movements in Pakistan, activist, researcher and writer Fouzia Saeed writes from her own experiences and presents the outcome of her findings from research that began in 2012 about successful Pakistani women-led movements.

The book often reads like a textbook, which is perhaps a deliberate move to reach wider audiences, as the comprehensive details range from the dynamics of working women and circumstances leading to the birthing of these important movements, to national policies that were created as a result. This marks Saeed’s book as a cumulation of meticulously garnered evidence on these lesser known collective labours. The primary data on social activism, that has been collected first-hand by the author through meeting many key women and men activists from the movements, is the greatest strength of the book.

On Their Own Terms is divided into six main chapters, containing several subsections. Beginning with ‘Women’s Agency and Social Movements in Pakistan’ — which explains key concepts and provides an overview of the situation — the next four chapters are dedicated to early 21st century movements, including Women of the Peasant Movement, Women of the Fisherfolk Movement, Women Health Workers’ Movement, and the Alliance Against Sexual Harassment (AASHA). The book concludes with insights and discussions on each topic.

A research-laden book details how various women’s movements tackled organisational structures of supremacy and control in the country

The “peasant movement” originated in south-central Punjab and centred on claiming ownership and rights over peasant lands that were under the despotic control of corrupt landlords. The text also discusses the “movement of the fisherfolk” that fully evolved as the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF) in 1998, and has since focused on the lives of the indigenous communities that are fighting against the destruction of natural habitats along coastal areas and the areas’ militarisation, and the commercialisation of the fishing industry, which has negatively impacted the livelihoods of the local fisherfolk.

The “women healthcare workers’ movement” began in 2007 and continues; some 100,000 women workers have confronted governmental authorities for harassment at work and the delaying of their wages. Finally, AASHA took root in 2001 because of continual sexual harassment that was faced by women professionals — including Saeed herself — in a United Nations office in Islamabad. After years of struggle, the movement succeeded when sexual harassment was declared a crime at a legislative level, thus making it mandatory for registered organisations to devise anti-sexual harassment mechanisms in workplaces.

The author begins by defining and setting up criteria that categorise these efforts as ‘movements’: (a) they had been led majorly by women in patriarchal social and economic settings; (b) they overcame hurdles and achieved a major part of their goals; and (c) they impacted national or legislative policy or functioning institutes with their outcomes.

Saeed’s method is mostly qualitative, as it draws upon historical analysis and is based on case studies, with the chapters containing overviews and introductory contextual backgrounds, step-by-step actions detailing initial mobilisation, the backgrounds of key players in the movements, and successful outcomes. Saeed also refers to many other texts on social movements, including Ayesha Khan’s 2018 book The Women’s Movement in Pakistan: Activism, Islam and Democracy.

A rally of women from Pakistan’s fishing communities in Karachi, Sindh Awami Caravan 2016 | Photo from the book
A rally of women from Pakistan’s fishing communities in Karachi, Sindh Awami Caravan 2016 | Photo from the book

For readers, several incidents and facts mentioned in the book may generate feelings of general dismayed amusement and shock regarding the social justice system and certain verbal taboos in the country’s governmental organisations. For instance, at one point, the author explains the difficulty faced in reaching out to authoritative bodies because several government officials refused to listen to AASHA activists after hearing the word “sexual” in their speeches or seeing it in their written documents.

On Their Own Terms is the culminative outgrowth of tedious data collection. However, a few times, sources of references that are important to facts in the text are missing. In a research-laden book, this may lead to a little under-gratified reading experience. For instance, references could have been provided in quoting the percentage of women who have experienced sexual assault in Pakistan, or on suggesting that non-governmental organisations have been (allegedly) internationally funded to undermine the efforts of AASHA. In other instances, some sections briefly mention constitutional changes that outrageously impacted women and minorities in Pakistan during the military regime of Gen Ziaul Haq between 1977 and 1988. Additional well-sourced and contextual details could have perhaps better elucidated the history of these movements with respect to government censures of the respective time.

At its root, Saeed’s book is about women tackling the organisational structures of supremacy and control, laying bare hidden hierarchies within the governmental systems, and the egoistic behaviours of individuals in power that hamper the process of securing the rights of the common and largely poverty-stricken masses. The release of this book is another triumph for research on social justice in the country and is a celebration of the many collective agencies of courageous women who have extricated themselves from crushingly patriarchal systems to achieve common goals that have benefitted entire communities.

As an activist for AASHA herself, Saeed’s humongous efforts of negotiating with government officials and corporate leaders, and travel to remote areas within Pakistan, serve as a source of inspiration for anyone who may benefit by understanding the struggle of activists in this book.

Looking at the data provided by the author and the many daring collaborations of women leaders from the movements, On Their Own Terms: Early 21st Century Women’s Movements is highly recommended for all readers and activists who, above all else, desire social change for all Pakistanis

The reviewer is an art historian and an academic of liberal arts at the Institute of Business Administration. She tweets @Nageenjs

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 10th, 2021

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