FOR the Women's Action Forum, 2008 was a landmark year. Three new chapters were launched in Hyderabad, Sukkur and Khairpur. To celebrate this expansion, 50 women from the new chapters and WAF Karachi met in Hyderabad for their first Sindh convention on Feb 14.
This amounted to making a strong political statement on women's rights — WAF refused to be intimidated at a time when the Taliban were having a field day in Swat.
Packed in the brief history of this organisation is a long story of courage and pain, defiance and trepidation, heated discourses and consensus (but also some parting of ways), victories and frustrations. All this also marked a period of growth and experience in mobilisation that saw the institutionalisation of the bonds of the sisterhood of women.
Serious issues of life and death were discussed at the Sindh convention. When speaking of karo kari, jirgas, extremism, feudalism and violence against women, it is difficult to be optimistic in Pakistan's context. Aurat Foundation's annual report on violence against women came as a rude post-event reminder of how brutal and nasty life can be for a number of women 7,733 incidents of violence recorded in 2008 — 1,516 women murdered while another 472 killed in the name of honour. But there were many more for whom life was a 'living death' — how else could rape, gang-rape, acid throwing, burning and vani be described?
In the atmosphere of gloom, the inception of WAF's Sindh chapters has brought with it a bright ray of hope to the women's movement in Pakistan. In the land where Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai sang of love and mercy, it is ironical that the major challenge women face is from the male purveyors of violence out to “preserve their honour” — many of them in high official positions. But women are now fighting back and this mood was captured in Faiz's poem Hum jeetein ge that the participants sang with gusto to mark the closing of the convention.
But why has it taken so long for the women of Sindh to fight back? The situation has never been a bed of roses for them since the first couple — Fahmida and Allah Bakhsh — were convicted under the Hudood Ordinance provoking some Karachi women to launch WAF in September 1981.
Two committed young women from Sindh University are the driving force behind WAF's Hyderabad chapter. They are Amar Sindhu (assistant professor of philosophy) and Arfana Mallah (lecturer and PhD candidate in chemistry). Their understanding of the complexities of the crisis that is undermining the status of women in the province is remarkable. When Ziaul Haq gate-crashed his way into politics to undermine the country's nascent democracy and suppress human rights, Sindh reacted vehemently. Not to be left behind, the politically conscious women joined the pro-democracy struggle.
Arfana believes that their energies were channelled into the activism of political parties, mainly the left-oriented student organisations. But they soon discovered that their salvation did not lie with the political parties including the Sindhiani Tehrik that failed to bring enlightenment and emancipation for women whose cause was not even considered important enough to be addressed. After a period of wandering in the wilderness and experiments — the Adyoon Forum (Sisters' Forum) was one — in activism, Arfana and Amar joined hands to link up with WAF.
Amar is very bitter about the role of the nationalist parties that are supposedly progressive but are led by leaders with a pronounced gender bias. According to her, their attitude is discriminatory towards women, including their own female colleagues. In Hyderabad one realises how different are the problems encountered by women in smaller cities and the countryside of Sindh. Women in urbanised Karachi face challenges of another kind.
The two issues — they are also inter-related — most talked about at the WAF convention were karo kari and jirgas. The data released by Aurat Foundation revealed that of the 472 cases of honour killing recorded in Pakistan in 2008, 220 took place in Sindh.
Karo kari is emerging as a burning issue. If proof of that was needed it came in the shape of the large crowds that thronged to the exhibition hall of the fine arts department of Sindh University, Jamshoro, for two days. Here Niilofur Farrukh, a committed WAF activist and art critic, curated an exhibition titled 'No honour in killing making visible buried truth', that was dedicated to the “five victims of the brutal Nasirabad honour killings”.
The jirga system, which has found articulate champions in a number of our male legislators from Sindh and Balochistan, is perceived by the activists as an odious tool to oppress women. According to Amar, who made a comprehensive presentation on the subject, jirgas are anti-women. They do not allow any female participation and a woman judged to be a kari has no chance to defend herself. Amar condemned jirgas as being a parallel system of justice which was known to have sanctioned the sale of women as 'keeps' ostensibly to pacify warring tribes.
So strong is women's anger against the jirgas that within three months of its inception the Hyderabad chapter launched a signature campaign denouncing jirgas as anti-women, anti-peace,
anti-justice and anti-democracy. Already 50,000 signatures have been collected in Hyderabad, Nawabshah, Sukkur, Khairpur, Badin and Shikarpur.
With this stirring among the women, the launching of WAF in Sindh is indeed timely. Amar and Arfana also expressed concern at the emergence of a strong retrogressive streak in the educated middle class of the province. Attiya Dawood, a Sindhi poet, writer and activist, holds the electronic media, especially talk shows, responsible for this phenomenon. It is not doing enough to raise social issues while the political discourse is steeped in conservatism of the worst kind. Amar hopes that WAF's Hyderabad chapter will bridge the chasm between the rural and urban women of Sindh through an open dialogue and bring them on the same platform to struggle for their cause.
This chasm is visible all over the country. Will WAF succeed in stemming the tide of obscurantism? Within a week of the convention came the Swat “peace accord” that has brought women activists face to face with an ugly and formidable challenge.