Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience


A new face of an old struggle

Published Apr 02, 2013 12:55pm


Your Name:

Recipient Email:

Women at the in 1983 –
Women protesting Zia’s Law of Evidence at The Mall in Lahore in February 1983 – Photo courtesy Azhar Jaffri

Women’s struggle in this particular region goes back a good few decades to the pre-Partition era where women of the subcontinent joined various movements, depending on what roused them most. For example, the renowned Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai joined the Progressive Writers’ Movement, while women like Begum Raana Liaquat Ali Khan were active in the Pakistan Movement.

After 1947, the Pakistani women’s struggle gained much momentum during General Ziaul Haq’s regime. In fact, their struggle had become directed towards the State itself, a protest against the systematic discrimination that the State committed against the women of Pakistan as General Zia tried to ‘Islamise’ the country through laws like the Hudood Ordinance, the Qanoon-e-Shahadat (Law of Evidence) and propagation of the chador and char-dewari concept.

Today, this struggle has taken on an entirely different face. This change, it seems, was destined to happen because the ‘enemy’ that the Pakistani women were fighting against 30 years ago has also undergone a change. The ‘enemy’ is not the formal social control mechanism(s) of the Pakistani state anymore, as in it’s not just the laws, the Constitution, the judiciary, the police that is the ‘enemy’ anymore. Those have broken down to a great extent. The new enemy, of not just the Pakistani women but also of the men, is now the informal social control mechanism(s) of Pakistani society, like the family, friends, colleagues, neighbours, people you meet on the street – in fact the entire society. It is worse, much more dreadful than the lathi-wielding policemen that attacked a rally of women, protesting Zia’s Law of Evidence at The Mall in Lahore in February 1983. I am by no means glossing over the significance of the events of Feb 12, 1983 and possess deep respect for the participants of that rally. This enemy is the mob that brandishes all sorts of physical weapons and its eyes have a manic glint. That sight is scary enough to make us forget that the same enemy has also invaded our homes, our personal spheres. It can be found in our daily surroundings, amongst our family members, both immediate and the wider kin and our friends. It is present at work, at school, at university, even at a public area, like a shopping mall.

This is precisely where all groups comprising the entire Pakistani women’s movement could be uniting, the young and the old both coming together to resist the new enemy. Yet, there is a sense of disconnection. The seniors are exhausted now, yet they carry on. If you, a young one, comes across signs of disillusionment amongst them, don’t be surprised. On the other hand, the young ones have lost faith in the movement itself, even in the concept of feminism. Many of them would agree on equal rights for women but not necessarily consider themselves feminists. Some of them accuse the seniors of the Pakistani women’s movement of being exclusive, of not giving the young ones space to enter the fray. Well then, join the ranks and you will find that spaces would open up for you.

Women are in every field you could possibly imagine. At least half of every graduating class from Pakistan’s best universities in the last decade or so is comprised of women. Those who fought against the patriarchy, against the patriarchal State helped to bring more women out of the chador and char-dewari and into the public and economic life of the country. Yes, the discriminatory laws are still there but just think about it: now there are more people out there to take the movement forward into its next stages and continue the resistance against all the sexism and misogyny.

Of course, like I mentioned above, this misogyny has sprouted up into the very depths of our society and has become deeply entrenched. Now we are not just fighting against laws that discriminate and differentiate between a man and a woman based on the biological differences and consider the physical factors to affect mental and emotional capabilities of each sex. We are, in fact, fighting the collective mindset of the people now, their discriminatory social norms, customs and traditions and of course, the rising tide of extremism where women are just blocked out of the society because we supposedly ‘carry vices’.

Currently, there are talks of the government negotiating with Taliban to maintain peace in the country. That is all very well. Personally, I don’t agree but that would be a digression here. But the worst part is that the recent All-Parties Conference has agreed to let a ‘grand tribal jirga’ negotiate with the Taliban. So, dear sirs, will there be any women involved in your jirga? Does your jirga’s agenda include discussions on how to solve the problems that women have faced due to the actions of the Taliban? Does your agenda include the women’s opinion on the resolution of this conflict with the Taliban? No? Then how can I trust you to deal with the problems of my fellow womenfolk in your areas?

It has been a little over 30 years today since the Pakistani women actively began resisting the patriarchal system, achieving milestones and sometimes failing. But the greatest failure would be when the senior members of the struggle are gone and no one is left to take their place. Luckily, there is still time. But how much? No one knows. It is just a question of consolidating all the individual resistances into a one big movement, a terribly difficult and daunting task that can scare off a lone woman.

The author is a Multimedia Producer at


Your Name:

Recipient Email:

Author Image
The author is a Multimedia Producer at She can be reached at

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (10) Closed

Ram Krishan Sharma Apr 03, 2013 09:32am
There is no feminist Islam as you say . There is only one Islam where women are inferior under the Islamic law .Their testimony in a court of law is worth half that of a man . Their movement is strictly restricted and they cannot marry non- Muslims.
RSS Apr 04, 2013 06:00am
So when do you plan to write your own Holy Book: Al Toronto?
LOL Apr 04, 2013 05:58am
Your statments are flawed.
abbastoronto Apr 02, 2013 12:47pm
After the death of our Prophet A.S. Islam split in two political factions, the Feminist Islam and the Muscular Islam. The Feminist Islam wanted to continue the Mohammedan practice of kindness to women and children and to help the needy and the poor. The Muscular Islam wanted male power, glory and conquest and war booty. The latter Islam won, the rest is history. As long as the muscle power decided fate, the Muscular Islam lasted. But when brain power, not muscle power became the deciding element of growth and progress, this Islam has to go. 85% of Pakistanis still insist on believing in this outdated Muscular Islam. Those 15% who follow the Feminist Islam have educated women and professional men and happy families, but are being killed right and left by the 85% and may seek greener pastures in this Global Village, leaving them behind to rot in place.
Jeevesh Gupta Apr 02, 2013 11:00am
Struggles across the world, which started in the 20th century, are loosing the trust or interest of the youth which is turning out to be the biggest challenge for these revolutions in the 21st century. Even in India where the Aam Aadmi movement is fighting against the government for the rights of the common man, it faces a daunting task of drawing and uniting the youth for a common cause benefiting the society as a whole.
SS Apr 02, 2013 03:04pm
Great- insight and writing after a long time. Articulating what we have been noticing and experiencing but denying within our own families and social circles.
umesh bhagwat Apr 03, 2013 01:01am
These are revolutionary times for women! Given enlightened leadership the whole society can be transformed within a decade!
Khayyam Apr 03, 2013 05:37am
You are right. We are actually fighting the uprising of collective mindset, negative thoughts which slowly with the passage of time developed inside us and now it seems like most of the people including our majority of youth try to give some sort of JUSTIFICATIONS to the happenings. And it feels even more shocking when we see the femine itself donot see it as a problem. Although this issue wont get resolved in couple of days/years, but still women have to play their role being members of this society, to cut short this long thread of sprouted social discrimination, suppressing customs and traditions.
Shagufta Naaz Apr 03, 2013 06:43am
Very insightful observation Soonha; the struggle is harder now because it's against established mindsets - and it's your friends who are judging you!
Muhammad Ahmed Apr 03, 2013 07:10am
I am kind of saddened by the types of struggles Pakistan has to face. gender equality is indeed a noble cause but I think it is not the right time to focus on that struggle. Pakistan will have to come out of the security and economic collapse to focus on this issue. If the price of peace involves subjugation of women in specific areas of Pakistan, then is it worthy price? Probably not, but alternative involves systematic killing of thousands of people in a full scale war. I would rather have peace and allow for slow progress in those areas rather than a full scale war which we really cannot afford. The other problem is that alternative to Taliban in specific regions really do not provide sweeping rights to so we may have to choose the greater evil in this case to allow for peace. I certainly salute the struggle of women and I am a firm believer in their rights but if a Jirga provides peace, even for few years, then we have a better opportunity of getting the message to those quarters regarding gender equality.