Womansplaining: Navigating Activism, Politics and Modernity in Pakistan
Edited by Sherry Rehman
Folio Books, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9697834273
274pp.

On Feb 12, 1983, a group of women led by the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) marched through the streets of Lahore to resist Gen Ziaul Haq’s military dictatorship and its draconian anti-women laws. They did so in defiance of a ban on social gatherings under martial law, and were met by tear gas and baton charge by the police. Several women were arrested.

Thirty-five years later, on March 8, 2018, young women in Karachi organised the first Aurat March to celebrate International Women’s Day. A smaller march was held in Lahore. Aurat March became an annual fixture as every year, more and more women spilled into the streets from across the country — from Multan, Peshawar, Quetta, to Bannu — to protest entrenched patriarchal norms that harm women and marginalised people in Pakistan. As the number of participants grew, so did the backlash. Women organisers and marchers were pelted with stones, faced intense vilification and received death threats.

The women who march today — myself included — do so being fully aware that we stand on the shoulders of the pioneers who paved the way. Many of them continue to join in and lend their support to Aurat March. Womansplaining: Navigating Activism, Politics and Modernity in Pakistan, edited by Sherry Rehman, brings the past and present together in a valuable resource that combines testimonies of the trailblazing old guard with the new voices taking the movement forward.

What does the Women’s Movement in Pakistan look like presently? Is there one? How does it align with social movements led by women in the past? What issues are Pakistani women facing today? How far have we come, and how much further do we still have to go?

A collection of essays on the women’s movement in Pakistan brings the past and present together in a valuable resource that combines testimonies of the trailblazing old guard with the new voices

These are some of the questions asked by the book’s 22 writers, that include Senator Sherry Rehman (on the relationship between women’s rights and parliament), Rafia Zakaria (how the pandemic has exacerbated violence against women), Bina Shah (on Pakistan’s literary feminists), Fifi Haroon (on the portrayal of women in television), Sarah Malkani and Sarah Belal (on women’s interactions with the law), Zeenia Shaukat (on women workers’ rights) and Zofeen T. Ebrahim (on the impact of climate change on women).

In the book’s first half, we hear from several pioneers of the Women’s Movement — Farida Shaheed, Hina Jilani, Zohra Yusuf and Khawar Mumtaz — who narrate the movement’s history, WAF’s formation and the political gains made as a result of women’s activism of the 1980s, particularly success in positioning the women’s agenda on the national stage and legislation of laws to benefit women.

Author of The Women’s Movement in Pakistan: Activism, Islam and Democracy, Ayesha Khan — in her essay ‘The Politics of Activism: Bridging the Generational Arc’ — widens the discussion by including activism of the 1950s and ’60s which “sought to shape a new Pakistan”, as well as grassroots mobilisation such as the Sindhiani Tehreek, which aimed to protect women’s rights in rural Sindh, and the Okara peasant movement for land rights in Punjab today.

One of Womansplaining’s goals, outlined in Rehman’s introduction, is “to probe the connection between the fairly coherent movement of the 1980s and the post-millennial activism that is challenging norms and pushing the boundaries of patriarchy today.” Interestingly, the question of whether today’s feminist activism can be seen as a continuation of the ’80s movement is one only the older generation seems to be concerned with. There is also the question of who decides, and whether it is necessary for a unified and linear connection between the two at all.

On this topic, the different voices in the book converge and sometimes disagree. Older feminists generally share a conviction that the younger generation must ground its activism by engaging with political parties and the state to enact legislative change — as the WAF-ers did in the past.

An argument can be made that the decision not to make formal links with political parties is itself a political act. For human rights activist and writer Rimmel Mohydin, Aurat March ‘is’ political and, in fact, the perfect example of the union of the old with the new. Aurat March organisers recognise the importance of people power waged on the streets (as WAF-ers did before them) as well as the impact of the internet, which has changed the game for political participation around the world.

Mohydin’s ‘Field Notes from the Aurat March: The Millenial Megaphone’ recounts how she witnessed the march unfold on the internet from Colombo, Sri Lanka, where she works with Amnesty International as South Asia Campaigner. She explains how the internet is a vital tool for activism, on which millennials know how to capitalise. The impact has been seen in recent cases where the only reason some perpetrators of violence against women were caught and prosecuted was because videos of their crime went viral online.

Digital rights activists Nighat Dad and Shmyla Khan engage with this discussion in more detail in their essay on the #MeToo movement in Pakistan. They argue that, while on the surface the movement may appear to “disregard the law and state institutions, with women taking matters in their own hands” to seek accountability and justice, in doing so, “it offers a powerful critique of the legal system, exposing the inadequacy of the courts and their inability to provide justice to victims of sexual violence and harassment.”

A defining moment from the Women’s Action Forum rally in Lahore, Feb 12, 1983 | Dawn file photo
A defining moment from the Women’s Action Forum rally in Lahore, Feb 12, 1983 | Dawn file photo

They continue: “The movement seeks accountability across the board, both for behaviour that has been legislated against as well as behaviour and attitudes that perhaps lie outside the purview of the law.” In fact, the legal system has often been complicit in placing gag orders on women who share their experiences. The writers also make a strong case for digital activism building collectivist solidarities.

However, they point out the obvious limitations. Because of its digital nature, the movement inevitably excludes those without internet access — which, in Pakistan, is most of the population — and Dad and Khan question whether the movement will spread to other industries such as the informal sector of domestic staff, for example.

But not all essays in this collection centre on the dichotomy between old and new feminisms. The most informative essays are buried at the end, such as Sarah Belal’s ‘Caught in the Crosshairs: The Criminal Justice System’ on the plight of women prisoners in Pakistani jails, particularly those on death row. And Zeenia Shaukat’s ‘Women Workers: Bargaining Basic Rights from the Margins’, where she charts the history of the push for women’s economic rights beginning from pre-1947, and argues for the need to “address issues that define inequities in the women’s workplace, economic and labour agendas” in the national conversation around the women’s movement.

In ‘On the Frontlines of Disaster: Adapting to Climate Change’, Zofeen T. Ebrahim talks about how one of the most important issues of our time affects women, especially rural women, who “play a critical role in managing natural resources including water, fuel and food.” She argues for the need to acknowledge women’s knowledge capital when making strategies to combat the effects of climate change “owing to their proximity to the environment and their first-hand experience of climate change.”

Some essays in the book are heavy on statistics and light on analysis, or explain issues that have already been written about a lot and offer little in the way of new perspectives. In short, they could have been omitted.

On the other hand, what should not have been omitted — but glaringly were — are the voices of the young feminists who organise the Aurat March in different cities every year, who have formed feminist collectives such as Girls at Dhabas, the Feminist Collective, Feminist Fridays, the Women’s Collective and the Women’s Democratic Front. These organisations are mentioned by Farida Shaheed in her opening essay ‘The Women’s Movement in Pakistan: Anatomy of Resistance’, but are not part of the conversation around the Aurat March, which would have benefited from more nuance had the voices of the women who organise and mobilise for it each year had been included.

The fight for women’s voices to be heard and counted started with women-led activism before the country was born, and continues today. We owe what success we have had to them, but there is so much more ground to cover. The Aurat March and the conversations around it have heralded a new movement led by young feminists both on the streets and in digital spaces. Women today are protesting not just regressive legislation and the right for women to participate in political structures, but entrenched patriarchal norms that make life difficult — and often dangerous — not just for women, but for all marginalised communities.

Recently there has been a sense of an ending with the demise of some of the most inspiring activists of the past, including Asma Jahangir and Rubina Saigol. I’ll end with Mohydin’s poignant words from her concluding essay: “If we were worried that the silence at Asma’s funeral was in mourning for the death of women’s activism, then the noise at Aurat March should have reassured us that women will not be silenced.”

The reviewer is the founder of The Writing Room and talks about books on Instagram @thewritingroom.co

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 26th, 2021

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