A woman gestures next to a burning police vehicle during a protest by the supporters of Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Imran Khan after his arrest, in Karachi, Pakistan, May 9 — REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

She was always there: Pakistani women have a long history of resistance

Scholars, politicians discuss how women’s visibility in the public sphere changes the political culture of Pakistan.
Published May 29, 2023

To protest is an inherent part of any democracy. Protests are fundamental to the success of democratic processes as they highlight the struggles of the people and, therefore, result in social change.

Throughout Pakistan’s history, women have always played a crucial role in public protests. Be it the 2013 women-led protests in Swat for the provision of civic amenities, the Hazara women’s protests against targeted killings or the Gwadar women marching for basic rights — the list goes on and on.

If you go through the popular rhetoric on social media these days, however, some would have you believe that the PTI is the first political party to have created space for women to participate in political activities, that this is the first time women have taken to the streets for a political cause, and that this is the first time that they have been manhandled or detained by law enforcers for participating in protests.

The reality is that women have been passionately mobilising and protesting — often alongside their male counterparts — since before Independence and have also been at the receiving end of brutal repression by the state. Whether it is to support their favourite leader or a political party that they align with, they have never been afraid to be at the forefront of any movement. They have also taken the lead in actively mobilising for social causes that fail to make it to the priority lists of political parties. For the sake of brevity, however, this essay only focuses on women’s participation in political causes.

 A woman PTI supporter shields her younger brother from a baton charge during the party’s protest near Millennium Mall — Shakil Adil / White Star
A woman PTI supporter shields her younger brother from a baton charge during the party’s protest near Millennium Mall — Shakil Adil / White Star

A tradition of rebellion

The phenomenon of women’s participation in politics — mainstream or otherwise — began well before Independence. In the 1946 elections, two women, Begum Jahanara Shahnawaz and Begum Shaista Ikramullah, were elected to the Central Constituent Assembly and continued to be part of the first Constituent Assembly after Partition.

This was also the year women supporting the Muslim League came out on the streets and protested against the government for refusing to allow the political party to form a ministry. They faced violence from the state — very much like they do today — and many were arrested.

 Women leaders of the Muslim League are released from Punjab Jail in March 1947 — Lahore Museum Archives
Women leaders of the Muslim League are released from Punjab Jail in March 1947 — Lahore Museum Archives

Of course, no one can deny the role women played in the Pakistan movement. Women like Fatima Jinnah, Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan, Begum Abdullah Haroon, Begum Ghulam Hidayatullah, Jehan Ara Shahnawaz, Viqarun Nisa Noon, Begum Tassaduq Hussain and many unnamed others fought alongside men against colonial powers and for a separate nation.

Initially, women’s protests for the cause were limited to Lahore and Karachi; however, the Civil Disobedience Movement of 1947 saw Pakthun women in modern day KP come to the fore and register their protests.

After Independence, women’s inclusion in politics as well as other aspects of the democratic process were seriously deterred by long periods of dictatorships.

It is also ironic that it was under a military dictator that women received an unprecedented number of seats in the federal as well as provincial assemblies in 2002 and entered formal political representation. Then again, it was the same military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, who in 2005 had this to say about the rising incidence of rape cases in the country: “This has become a moneymaking concern. A lot of people say if you want to go abroad and get a visa for Canada or citizenship and be a millionaire, get yourself raped.”

Bushra Gohar, a senior leader of the National Democratic Movement (NDM) and former senior vice-president of the Awami National Party (ANP), told Dawn.com that “democracy and the political process in the country has been weakened by long military dictatorships and military control during the brief transition to democracy”.

“The attacks on political leaders have affected political parties as well. They weren’t able to develop a strong democratic political system within parties,” said the former MNA.

 Bushra Gohar — AFP
Bushra Gohar — AFP

In spite of this, women actively participated in protests against several dictatorial regimes. Whether it was during the protests of the late 1960s against Ayub Khan — where students, women, workers and peasants, along with politicians like Zulfikar Ali Bhutto forced the dictator to resign on March 25, 1969 — or during the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) in the early 80s against General Ziaul Haq’s rule, women have always been a force to be reckoned with.

In recent years, Gwadar has seen a series of protests, many of them led by women. The Haq Do Tehreek (HDT), led by Jamaat-i-Islami’s Maulana Hidayatur Rahman, has been staging regular protests in the city for a number of demands, including the banning of illegal trawlers in Balochistan’s waters, a reduction of security checkpoints, as well as the liberalisation of trade with neighbouring Iran.

Despite facing violence from the law enforcement agencies time and again, in the form of tear-gas and arrests, the protesters continue to gather. In late December last year, the Balochistan government imposed Section 144 for a month. Despite the law prohibiting the gathering of five or more people in public, the demonstrators continued to pour onto the streets — and get arrested.

 Maasi Zainab brings women to the maulana’s protests and sit-ins — Dawn
Maasi Zainab brings women to the maulana’s protests and sit-ins — Dawn

Sixty-five-year-old Maasi Zainab is the female face of Gwadar’s HDT and is also the one who helped bring Rahman to the forefront. He was on his way to Turbat when he heard Zainab’s message on his phone and decided to come to the port city and join her for the protests. Since then, she has been a strong supporter of Rahman and continues to go door to door to invite women to the protests and sit-ins.

Before Gwadar, hundreds of women marched in the streets of Swat in 2013 to protest prolonged power outages and load shedding of natural gas in the area. This was the first time in the history of the region that women — most of them housewives from Saidu Sharif and adjoining areas — took to the streets to voice their demands.

During one such demonstration, Tabbasum Bashir, an activist who headed the protest, told The Express Tribune: “This protest is a slap on the face of the government. Despite cultural and social barriers, the women are here to demand for their rights.”

Always there, less recognised

According to academic Ayesha Khan, who is also author of the book The Women’s Movement in Pakistan: Activism, Islam, and Democracy, “women have always been politically engaged in Pakistan, at many different levels”.

“They have joined political parties, protest movements, and community mobilisations to access greater rights and resources. But because fewer women have played visible leadership roles, their contributions to the political culture have been recognised less,” she added.

 The cover of Ayesha Khan’s book
The cover of Ayesha Khan’s book

In 1981, the MRD movement against the dictatorship of Gen Zia demonstrated bravery of women protestors. The PPP, which at the time was headed by former PM Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s widow Begum Nusrat Bhutto and later by their daughter Benazir Bhutto, joined hands with the Awami Tehreek and other secular democratic parties to mobilise people across Sindh against the dictator.

Women affiliated with Rasool Bux Palijo’s left-leaning Awami Tehreek formed the Sindhiyani Tehreek (ST) to call for an end to feudalism and the patriarchy, demanded federalism and provincial autonomy and fought to restore democracy. Although the ST was a women’s wing and not entirely independent, it had an independent working mechanism, a separate constitution and distinct areas of operation. Hundreds of women partaking in the MRD were arrested and faced violent suppression from the state at the time.

 The Sindhiyani Tehreek played a crucial role in mobilising rural Sindhi women for the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy — Sarmad Palijo/Twitter
The Sindhiyani Tehreek played a crucial role in mobilising rural Sindhi women for the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy — Sarmad Palijo/Twitter

“Women in the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy during the 1980s were brutally repressed and attacked by the military for speaking out against the regime and demanding the political rights of the people, particularly in Sindh,” explained Khan.

Farhatullah Babar, a prominent PPP politician and former senator, remembers the women’s resistance against Zia as “heroic”.

“It was heroic because the women had stood up against a military dictatorship with whom the mullahs had also joined hands.”

Farhatullah Babar — Mohammad Asim / White Star
Farhatullah Babar — Mohammad Asim / White Star

Describing the women’s struggle against the “mullah-military alliance as a glorious chapter in the history of women’s rights in Pakistan”, he said: “Zia used the name of Islam to curb resistance to his dictatorship. In particular, religious principles were interpreted in ways that militate against the weakest section of society, namely the women.

“When the Federal Shariat Court at the time decreed that stoning to death was unIslamic, he [Zia] sacked the chief justice and brought in a handpicked head of the Shariat Court and authorised him to also review any verdict of the court. Thus reviewing its previous judgment, the new court declared stoning to death Islamic,” he added. “Zia went too far.”

Gohar also recalled the protests of the Women Action Front against Zia’s “draconian laws [as] very powerful”.

Beyond the mainstream, political parties at local levels have also attracted women members and supporters, whether it is the Hazara, Baloch or Pashtun women fighting against terror and militant attacks in the region and protesting against the abduction of their loved ones — who are often given the misnomer of ‘missing persons’.

“The Baloch women’s movement against enforced disappearances is very inspiring,” Gohar continued.

“Women who protest against the terror attacks on Shia Hazaras in Balochistan face risk to their lives by taking to the streets — many of these women are affiliated with Hazara political parties, for example, the Hazara Democratic Party,” said Khan. “Women in the ANP in KP have been exposed to militant attacks. In fact, which political party has members that have not been suppressed by the state?” she asked.

Obstacles to participation

Afiya Zia, a researcher, activist and author of Faith and Feminism in Pakistan, said that while women have been actively engaging in political struggles over the years, much of their energy has been directed towards the countless cases of violence against them, for example, “Sindhi and Baloch women protesting against dams and honour-based killings and for their right to marry [whoever] they want.”

Gohar, who herself has been a part of many protests since the beginning of her political career, said: “Over the years, starting from military dictator Ziaul Haq, I have been threatened, harassed and my party membership revoked for my rights-based political positions.”

This shows that despite the enthusiasm and bravery women have shown time and again, they have not had it easy. At every stop, they face challenges and harassment to merely have their voices heard within or outside political avenues.

When PTI’s Azadi March took to the streets in the federal capital in 2014, women were seen participating in great numbers. The appearance of famous pop singers such as Abrarul Haq, Shehzad Roy, Najam Sheraz and Salman Ahmad of Junoon were a regular occurrence at Imran Khan’s sit-in.

Like everyone else in the audience, women enjoyed the music and danced — eliciting strong cries of ‘fahashi!’ from the morality police. They were not only character-shamed online but offline too, even inside the parliament itself.

 PTI’s Azadi March in 2014 — Reuters
PTI’s Azadi March in 2014 — Reuters

In 2018 — the incumbent Interior Minister of Pakistan — Rana Sanaullah passed derogatory remarks regarding women who attended PTI’s rally, saying, “The women that were present [there], their ‘thumke’ [hip movement] showed where they had come from. In yesterday’s rally, they hired dancers to attract people to come. This is how the fill their jalsas with people.”

This character assassination of female participants at protests and rallies is not a rare occurrence. Last year, Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman, JUI-F chief, said at a rally that PTI’s female supporters “want him [Imran Khan] to come to their bedrooms”. This misogynistic mindset does not only reflect his individual opinion but also highlights a deep-rooted problem of rampant sexism in all levels of our society.

“Politics in Pakistan is male-dominated and controlled. There is very little space and acceptance of women in politics. Women have to work twice as hard to be accepted as a leader,” asserted Gohar.

“Patriarchy, tribalism and conservatism coupled with Talibanisation as state policy have made the political environment toxic and hazardous for women in politics,” she said, listing the reasons that deter women from entering and staying in politics.

She is now one of the founding members of the National Democratic Movement — a Pashtun nationalist, regionalist, and social-democratic political party — and its Pakhtunkwa chairperson. She said she is a part of all key policy decision-making forums of the party.

But not everyone has been so lucky. According to Gohar, “over the years, political parties have become family enterprises with very little room for ideological politics.”

As a result, women’s participation in protests and movements has shrunk, she lamented. “This is largely because political parties haven’t invested in women members’ mobilisation and facilitation. Security and financial constraints have also affected women’s participation in public gatherings.”

More than anything, this goes to show how complicated women’s struggles are in Pakistan — just like anywhere else — and that they cannot be painted with a broad brush.

“Women’s rise in politics hasn’t been organic nor have political parties taken any internal reform to enable gender mobility or increase representation — not even invested in women voters, “ said Afiya.

In the 2018 elections, for example, only five per cent of the candidates contesting for the general seats were women. Of these 171 candidates, eight won seats.

And yet, Babar feels “it is absolutely important that women are part of the mainstream politics to carry forward the agenda of their emancipation. In a patriarchal society like Pakistan, women will have to take the lead”.

“They have proved that when they took the lead, they also made significant achievements. Women must therefore be an important part of any protest or political movement for their emancipation.”

Header image: A woman gestures next to a burning police vehicle during a protest in Karachi following Imran Khan’s arrest — Reuters/ File