Tapestry: Strands of Women’s Struggles Woven into the History of Pakistan
By Fouzia Saeed
Social scientist Fouzia Saeed’s recent book, Tapestry: Strands of Women’s Struggles Woven into the History of Pakistan, follows a spate of emergent writing and public debate on feminism and women’s movements in the country.
In recent years, the Aurat March has catalysed discussion around the experiences and struggles of women and gendered minorities in our society, inviting controversy and hope in equal measure. In the wake of the resurgence of what was framed as ‘The Woman Question’ in post-colonial societies, a diverse range of voices have served to highlight the complexities of feminist politics and ideology in Pakistan.
For example, while queer and transgender perspectives have called attention to their marginalisation by the state and within women’s movements alike, Baloch women have spotlighted the intersection between patriarchal and national oppression in their own context.
Thus, any national feminist politics faces the important task of forging intersectional solidarity — that is, building a dynamic political project that can resonate across class, regional and religious divides. This is a job easier said than done, given the fraught and contested historical terrain of politics in Pakistan. Saeed addresses this complex context and responds to these questions with a wide-ranging historical survey of women’s struggles and political action in the region.
Social scientist Fouzia Saeed’s latest book takes a bold step towards acknowledging the place of women in Pakistan’s trajectory, but is sometimes limited by its conceptualisation
Tapestry attempts a two-fold intervention. One, it excavates the contributions of key figures, centring these women as agents of history who have shaped important conjunctures in Pakistan’s trajectory. Two, it integrates a focus on women’s participation and experiences into dominant narratives of the nation, retelling Pakistan’s story through the lives of women who witnessed and, in their own capacities, worked to transform the society in which they lived.
The ‘Introduction’ outlines what Saeed analyses as the “seven strands of women’s activism in Pakistan”: “Political Awakening (pre-1947)”, “Social Welfare (1947-1950)”, “Political Collaboration (1950-1977)”, “Reactive Confrontation (1977-1988)”, “Development Orientation (1989-2000)”, “Strategic Activism (2000-2016)” and Virtual Activism (2016).” With these, she maps the marginalised and invisibilised political labour of women through the coordinates of Pakistan’s national historiography.
The author begins with the attempts of Muslim women to foster social reform in colonial India and then moves on to chronicle women’s role in, for example, refugee resettlement in the aftermath of Partition and debates around constitutionalism and national culture.
Studies and public remembrances of these historical processes and debates have seldom included women’s voices — a gap that Saeed’s book plugs through the life histories of figures ranging from Fatima Jinnah, to lawyer and human rights’ activist Asma Jahangir.
Apart from these prominent figures, Saeed also details the struggles of lesser-known actors, such as Mai Bakhtawar, a 19th-century peasant leader in Sindh who resisted the dispossession of poor tenants at the hands of landed magnates aligned with the British Raj.
Others of this ilk include Nasreen Munawar, president of the Punjab chapter of the All Pakistan Lady Health Workers’ Welfare Association. The two-page section bearing Munawar’s photo and political biography draws on interviews conducted by the author and details the challenges of women’s employment in the public health sector in Pakistan and their struggle for better work conditions. Munawar’s story highlights the issues of sexual harassment at the workplace and the gender pay gap, which are key sites for feminist politics to engage and resist the patriarchy of the state.
The book’s simple, direct prose has the quality of being able to address a diverse audience.
It is divided into passages that provide historical context, photographs and biographical notes on key figures and, if appended to school curricula, can provide for younger audiences an important corrective to the narrow and masculinist history that populates Pakistan Studies textbooks.
The accessible and wide-ranging overview of women’s movements in Pakistan gives lay readers a useful introduction to a gendered lens on history, politics and culture. The final chapter, which elaborates on the contemporary “strand” of women’s politics in the country, discusses current debates and themes in feminist organising and connects the legacies of past women’s movements to the present moment.
Titled ‘A Continuation of Democracy and Virtual Activism’, it addresses the entry of feminist politics into the digital sphere. With the ever-increasing penetration of social media and virtual technologies, practices that exclude, oppress and marginalise gendered bodies continue to take on new forms that demand fresh analysis. Saeed captures this changing political landscape by presenting interviews with contemporary activists engaged in answering these questions.
However, while Tapestry must be commended for its ambitious span cataloguing the life histories and political movements of Pakistani women, there are some serious limitations to its conceptualisation.
Chief among these is the uncritical acceptance of a dominant nationalist framing of history. For instance, the first two chapters focus solely on Muslim women and, more specifically, on women active within the ranks of the All-India Muslim League. This myopic focus on Muslims and the Muslim League while discussing colonial India excludes others who contributed to the anti-colonial struggle and articulated feminist critique outside — and in some cases, against — the politics of the Muslim League.
Because of this limiting framework, Saeed’s account passes over key figures such as Dr Rashid Jahan and Ismat Chughtai — prominent Muslim women writers active between the 1930s and 1950s. Jahan and Chughtai were active members of the All-India Progressive Writers’ Movement and close associates of the Communist Party of India. Both were notable public intellectuals whose analyses of gendered life under colonial and communal patriarchal frameworks remain seminal to the development of South Asian feminisms in the postcolony.
Further, the book entirely excludes queer and transgender perspectives that are crucial to contemporary debates within women’s movements in Pakistan. While no account can be comprehensive, the problem with Tapestry’s selective methodology is that, in some instances, it attempts to weave together strands that are wholly incompatible.
For example, it celebrates Pakistan’s “First Woman SHO of a Regular Police Station” alongside anti-dictatorship organisers of the Women Action Forum (WAF) and one wonders if the incorporation of women into repressive state institutions belongs alongside histories of women’s resistance against police brutality and state violence.
Tapestry takes a brave step in the right direction and undertakes, in part, some much-needed historical revision. At the same time, it serves as a reminder that feminist thought and scholarship on women’s movements still have a long journey to do justice to the struggles that inspire them.
The reviewer is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Gurmani Centre for Languages and Literature at the Lahore University of Management Sciences
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 4th, 2023