The struggle began centuries ago Lysistrata in ancient Greece initiated a sexual strike against men to end the war; Parisian women marched in the French Revolution for “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”. In New York, 140 immigrant working women were burnt to death in a tragic fire, which proved to be the catalyst for improvement in labour laws. In Russia, thousands of women marched against war, for “Bread and Peace”. Specific women's days were marked in various countries; eventually, March 8 was agreed upon as the International Women's Day.
This global dimension has synergised women's movement. The UN considers gender equality a fundamental human right. Governments that are signatory to this Charter, as Pakistan is, have agreed to ensure gender equality in their countries, because “no enduring solution to society's most threatening social, economic and political problems can be found without women's full participation” (UN).
Spirited and determined, the Pakistani woman has progressed — despite the overwhelming odds she's faced with. When she joins in the international celebrations, it's with her history of earlier struggles, the worst of which have been the Zia years. But these years also forged women's unity, leading them to break the shackles of traditional bondage, male chauvinism and patriarchy, and resist the brutality of militarisation.
A small group of strong-minded, indomitable women came together in Karachi in September 1981, to fight against the impending cruelty of the infamous Hudood Ordinances. That was the birth of Pakistan's activist group, the Women's Action Forum (WAF).
WAF fought against a judgement prescribing public lashing of a woman and the stoning to death of a man, for alleged adultery, though the couple had chosen to marry of their own free will. Such demeaning punishments were insupportable; WAF succeeded in securing honourable release for the couple.
But more violations were to follow, the worst being the rape, by her employer, of blind maidservant Safia Bibi and her consequent punishment for adultery. Even though Section 144 was in force, and people were afraid to protest in the pall of gloom and terror, hundreds of women, civil and human rights activists marched in Karachi and Lahore, on February 12, 1983, against injustice; in Lahore they were accompanied by the eminent poet Habib Jalib
“Ab dehar mein beyaar-o-ma-dadgaar nahin hum.
Pehle ki tarah bekas-o-lachaar nahin hum,
Ata hai hamein apne muqaddar ko banana,
Taqdir se shakir pas-i-dewar nahin hum”
Ruthless police lathi-charged the procession. Jalib and several women activists were unceremoniously packed off to jail. In commemoration, activists named February 12 as Pakistan Women's Day. Celebrating at the government level for the first time this year, the National Commission on the Status of Women highlighted women's numerous achievements, and recalled their struggles.
The past 29 years have not been easy. In the early '80s, obscurantist laws turned democratic dispensation upside down. Violence against, and abuse of women, endemic in Pakistan for centuries, increased, as thousands of raped women, attempting to lodge FIRs, found themselves imprisoned on grounds of adultery. Family planning, education and health care for women declined sharply. Almost no women were visible at senior official/managerial cadres. Dress codes specified chaadar and hijab; sarees were frowned upon.
Activism continued to curb the worst impact of repressive laws; today, women's lives are improving. The Women's Protection Act, 2006, protects women from unjust accusations of zina; the Criminal Law Amendment Act 2010 prescribes stringent punishments for harassment. Bills on Sexual Harassment and Domestic Violence await passage to enforceable Acts.
National development and gender reform plans have contributed to women's progress; the Parliamentary Women's Caucus successfully addresses women's issues across political party divides. The Speaker of the National Assembly is a woman. The National Commission on the Status of Women is adding to a growing pattern of success.
Statistics indicate that women's enrolment in universities has superseded that of men; a fact that will, according to well-known sociologist and architect Arif Hassan, lead to considerable social change in the coming years.
But sadly, a peculiarly biased attitude towards women still continues. Aurat Foundation's data indicates that violence against women increased by 13 per cent in 2009, with 8,548 incidences of violence reported countrywide. Despite the smooth passage of the Domestic Violence Bill through the Parliament, it has lapsed due to delay in the Senate lack of initiative, or misogynist tendencies of some senators?
Women still have many miles to go on their forthcoming agenda are constitutional reforms, repeal of all unjust and discriminatory laws such as the Blasphemy Law, Qanun-i-Shahadat, and Qisaas and Diyat — and the elimination of deeply ingrained traditional discriminations.
Greater political will is critically needed to achieve change. The Quaid had said that this nation needs its men and its women, if it wishes to move forward no nation can progress if half of its population is forced to endure isolation and immobility, and be subject to discrimination and abuse.
Women's energy has never waned their bonding together into a national sisterhood has been a marvellous plus point in an often discouraging environment. Despite all odds, that critical mass to achieve social change is building up. It's imminent — and nothing can stop it!