THE seed for the women’s rights movement in Pakistan was sown decades before August 14, 1947, in that other epic struggle for rights, the freedom movement against the British Raj. In 1917, Bi Amma, the redoubtable mother of Muslim Leaguers Shaukat Ali and Mohammed Ali Jauhar, made history when, clad in a burqa, she addressed the annual meeting of the then all-male League in place of her younger son who had been arrested by the British. She went a step further in 1921 when she cast aside her veil while speaking at a mass meeting in Lahore. Both acts symbolised how exceptional times call for new thinking; in this case for women to step out of the confines of their homes and participate fully in momentous political events of the time.
And women repeatedly demonstrated they were equal to the task, taking out demonstrations, facing tear gas and beatings, courting arrest, and going to jail. The civil disobedience movement in 1947 even galvanised women in what at the time was the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). That year, Pakhtun women marched unveiled in a procession, something unheard of in that conservative social milieu. The presence of Fatima Jinnah, standing shoulder to shoulder with her brother and president of the Muslim League, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, was reflective of women’s equal participation in the campaign for a separate homeland. Nevertheless, women’s rights in the new nation would be achieved piecemeal, as a result of campaigning inside the assemblies and on the streets, and progress was far from linear.
Post-1947, nation-building activities saw women take on a more traditional, welfare-oriented role although they continued to push the envelope. Led by Begum Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan, some of them formed a women’s voluntary service to assist and help rehabilitate the exodus of refugees. But the wife of Pakistan’s first prime minister also took the initiative to set up the Pakistan Women’s National Guard and the Pakistan Women’s Naval Reserve, programmes under which women were given military training. In an address to the PWNG, Begum Ra’ana said: “…[T]his is not the time for the 40 million women of Pakistan to sit quietly in their homes.” However, the concept was too far ahead of its time. Photographs in the local press of the National Guard women marching with heads uncovered and being trained by men attracted public censure, especially from the clergy, and both programmes were discontinued in the mid 1950s.
The struggle for equality in the battle for women’s rights persists today against entrenched mindsets. From the violent street battles of the Zia years, we are now witnessing the attempt to pass pro-women laws in parliament.
The women’s voluntary service, meanwhile, was the precursor to the All-Pakistan Women’s Association (APWA) set up on Feb 22, 1949, with Begum Ra’ana as its founder president. APWA, comprising mainly women from the elite class, led the way in setting up girls’ schools and colleges and industrial homes where income-generating skills were imparted to lower-income women. It also had a women’s rights and legal aid section, and the first legislation enacted to protect women in marriage, the Muslim Family Laws Ordinance (MFLO) 1961, was a direct result of APWA’s campaigning.
“The MFLO did not come out of the blue,” says former chairperson, National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW) Khawar Mumtaz. “Women, under the banner of United Front for Women’s Rights that included members of APWA, came out to protest the second marriage of then prime minister Mohammed Ali Bogra. They demanded that family laws be codified, and second marriage be banned or at least restricted. That is what led to the formation of a commission headed by Justice Mian Abdur Rasheed which drafted the MFLO.”
Pakistan’s first legislature had only two women representatives, Begum Jahanara Shahnawaz and Begum Shaista Ikramullah, who kept up the pressure to promote women’s rights despite the misogyny they repeatedly encountered. As recounted in the book Women of Pakistan: Two Steps Forward One Step Back by Khawar Mumtaz and Farida Shaheed, in the Zakat committee of the first Constituent Assembly, “the ulema refused to sit with [them], arguing that only burqa-clad women over 50 should be allowed to sit in the Assembly”.
It was on account of agitation by the early female legislators, including from the Punjab Assembly, that the Muslim Personal Law of Shariat 1948 was passed which recognised women’s right to inherit property, including agricultural land; the issue had very nearly been put on the back burner.
Even Gen Ayub Khan’s military regime, although it had supported the APWA-led demand for regulating Muslim marriage laws, did not include women in the decision-making process and there were only six female legislators in the assemblies, all indirectly elected on reserved seats. The sham that was the government’s liberal façade was clearly exposed by its blatantly misogynistic campaign against Fatima Jinnah when she stood as a candidate against the general for the 1965 presidential election.
Perhaps for the first time in the country, which was shortly to lose its East Wing, the run-up to the 1970 elections saw mass mobilisation of women across all socioeconomic classes. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), whose manifesto promised women equal rights, reached out directly to them both as voters and campaigners. The unanimous adoption of the 1973 Constitution during Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government, according to which women were deemed equal under the law, was a landmark. Opportunities for women opened up, including in the civil services.
Women also began to join the workforce in droves, especially in the burgeoning cotton textile mills. As Sheema Kermani, founder of women’s rights organisation Tehrik-e-Niswan, puts it: “Bhutto’s roti, kapra aur makaan rhetoric and façade of a people’s movement helped change the social environment and encourage female labour.”
For a time, it seemed nothing could stop the upward trajectory. Then came Gen Ziaul Haq. The military dictator’s ‘Islamisation’ drive led to a perceptible shift in social attitudes. In 1979, the Hudood Ordinances were passed, and just two years later, in 1981, its implications became clear when a court sentenced Fehmida and Allah Bux for fornication under the provisions of the law. That lit the spark for women to rise up and demand their rights in feminist terms not collectively expressed until then.
“Early women’s rights activists believed in reform, they didn’t believe in structural changes,” says Anis Haroon, member of the National Commission for Human Rights and former chairperson NCSW. “Unlike the older women of APWA, for us it was an issue of rights, and not welfare only. We believed that as long as the structure was the same, nothing would change.”
The platform for the resistance was the Women’s Action Forum (WAF). Zohra Yusuf, former chairperson Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), recalls the day WAF came into being one afternoon in September 1981 at the home of Aban Marker, a co-founder of Shirkat Gah, who had called the meeting after news of the sentence that was handed down to the young couple. “There were about 25 to 30 women at the first meeting. There was a lot of passion, the mood was very angry and we were all determined to do something.” A number of organisations joined WAF over time, including the Sindhiani Tehreek based in rural Sindh.
Gen Zia’s government sought to marginalise women in public life and to reduce them to second-class citizens through a slew of discriminatory legislation, including, among others, the Law of Evidence. Hundreds of women at any given time languished in prisons across the country on charges of zina brought by vengeful ex-spouses or families under the Hudood laws. More and more women came out on the streets openly challenging not only the military regime’s misogynistic laws, but also the subversion of the democratic system and the banning of all political activities.
On Feb 15, 1983, the state unleashed its might on some 400 women protesting against the Law of Evidence in Lahore. Police rained blows on them with their batons, and tear gas shells were lobbed at them. Several women were injured. Ms Mumtaz and her 12-year-old daughter were among the 50 people arrested. “We were taken to the Police Lines thana where those arrested were in high spirits … we raised slogans, sang, wrote a statement and released it,” she recalls. It was a watershed event that catapulted the women’s rights issue, and WAF, onto the national stage.
The conservative media painted the activists as ‘westernised women’ who were not to be taken seriously. But several of them, such as Najma Babar, Najma Sadeque and Ms Yusuf, were themselves journalists. The latter was at the time editing the weekend edition of The Star eveninger. “Earlier it was an entertainment rag, but I turned it into a more political magazine and it became a platform for women’s rights. In fact, my editor Mansuri Sahab was one day called in by the management who complained I was turning it into a feminist paper! But he was totally supportive.” In fact, the movement had many male supporters among the journalist and legal communities who also protested alongside the women.
The status quo continued through the civilian governments of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. She never had the required two-thirds majority to overturn the Hudood Ordinances, and Mr Sharif’s party, the PML-N, was itself very conservative and few concessions were given to women during its years in government. Indeed, his habit as PM of visiting female rape victims to show ‘solidarity’ with them, all in full view of the cameras, showed total insensitivity to the trauma of rape.
Muslim world’s first woman PM
Having a woman as prime minister, the very first one in the Islamic world — even one tiptoeing on eggshells around right-wing political forces and the power brokers in uniform — was a tremendous boost for women emerging from the bruising Zia decade.
The atmosphere also became less stifling in the years following. Ms Kermani’s Tehrik-e-Niswan was one of the pioneers of using the performing arts to effect change. “When we first started, it was very difficult to get girls from lower-middle-class families to participate,” she says. Later, however, it became easier to obtain families’ consent to their daughters becoming part of the group’s creative endeavours.
Ironically it took another military dictator, Gen Pervez Musharraf, to bring about a significant revision of the Hudood Ordinances, when he signed into law the Women Protection Act, 2006, which separated rape (zina bil jabr) from adultery/fornication (zina), moved them to the penal code and also made it difficult to abuse the zina provisions.
In the years since, much pro-women legislation has been passed, especially during the PPP government’s 2008-13 tenure when it had cross-party support from women members; building such a consensus appears highly unlikely in today’s polarised atmosphere. There are now on the statute books laws to protect women from sexual harassment in the workplace, forced marriage, acid crime, etc. as well as legislation to strengthen laws against honour killing and rape. All the provinces have by now passed domestic violence laws, some more watered down than others, but implementation is either non-existent or proceeding at a snail’s pace.
Commissions on the status of women exist on the national and provincial levels, but are handicapped by bureaucratic meddling, inadequate and inconsistent funding, and delays in appointment of members and chairpersons. Suffice to say, the road ahead is long, especially given the shift towards conservative values.
In its latest phase, the most visible manifestation of the movement is Aurat March. The annual event to commemorate International Women’s Day on March 8 is unapologetic in its demands for a more equitable social construct and refuses to be cowed down by threats from right-wing elements. “As far as personal rights are concerned, the younger generation has much more confidence and clarity,” says Ms Haroon. “I remember in early WAF discussions for the platform’s charter some members weren’t comfortable with including a line about women having rights over their bodies, although eventually they agreed.”
Nevertheless, there is an arc connecting women’s rights activists of today with their pre-partition forebears. “The days have gone when Punjab’s Muslim women were considered fit only for cooking food and minding children. It is now essential for them to take an equal share of responsibility with their menfolk in the field of politics,” said Lady Maratib Ali, wife of a prominent businessman, in 1942. Even decades later, as the ‘controversy’ sparked by some of the slogans at the Aurat March illustrates, nothing triggers the conservative lobby’s deepest insecurities than women breaking out of their gendered roles.
The writer is member of staff.