“WOMEN to reclaim public spaces a programme of defiance and resistance”. That is how the Women's Action Forum defined the meeting it held last Friday to mobilise public opinion against extremism.
Although WAF's concern to protect the space women have created in the public mainstream has been on its agenda for some time, this goal has acquired urgency in the wake of the events in Swat. The Nizam-i-Adl Regulation in Malakand Division has brought people face to face with the ugly reality of the Talibanisation phenomenon in the rural backwaters as well as in modern urban centres.
The Karachi meeting was well-attended by WAF's standards. It is not easy to mobilise women for any cause in this city of multiple identities. The metropolis has a diversity of populations, cultures, languages and economic interests posing a challenge to bring women together on a single platform. Learning from its experience of the lawyers' movement that had succeeded in uniting the extreme right and centrist political parties and the professionals on a single-point agenda for two years, WAF also decided to make Talibanisation and women the focal issue.
That strategy paid off. Women had already been galvanised by the video showing the flogging of a teenaged girl in Swat that activist Samar Minallah courageously brought to the world media's attention, invoking in the process the wrath of the Taliban whose fatwa declared her as wajibul qatl. The oppression of women is an issue that cuts across classes to touch every female raw nerve. Whether it is the smartly turned-out high-society woman or the working woman who slaves all day long to feed an army of children and a drug-addict husband or even the heavily veiled orthodox woman, each type, with few exceptions, has expressed her horror at the flogging incident.
Hence on this occasion WAF managed to bring a diverse crowd together — the activists reaching out to the grassroots such as Amar Sindhu from Sindh University Hyderabad, Parveen Rahman from the Orangi Pilot Project and Sadiqa Salahuddin whose Indus Resource Centre runs schools in the interior of Sindh, as well as the elites sitting side by side with the three van-loads of women from Neelum Colony who clean the homes of the rich and will be starting their adult literacy classes from next week, courtesy Shabina's Garage School.
The variety of speakers focusing on the theme of women's oppression by the Taliban found a responsive audience. But the question that made many ponder was what next? Can this interest be sustained? If they had not already started probing for answers, the thought-provoking speech by Arundhati Roy, the renowned Indian writer and activist, did the trick. Coming from New Delhi on a solidarity mission to WAF's meeting. Roy raised four issues
â€¢ What do we mean by the Taliban and what gave birth to them?
â€¢ Define your own space and do not surrender it.
â€¢ Don't allow yourself to be forced into making choices of the “with us or against us” type.
â€¢ Don't be selective in your injustices.
These should provide food for thought for those struggling against oppression. Without being specific, Roy exhorted her audience to look into the structures and systems that lead to a situation of such extreme oppression, some of which is rooted in the class conflict. She believes one has to take a “total view” of the matter, which she admitted she had come to Pakistan to understand.
The fact is that we live in a largely grey area where the lines are not sharply drawn. There is a lot of overlapping between issues touching gender, class, ethnicity, culture, political power and economic gains. It is this reality one has to recognise and see how the contradictions can be addressed. The demand to take sides unambiguously, expressed so vividly in the days following 9/11 by George Bush as “You are with us or against us”, can create a dilemma for people when negotiating these grey areas.
Roy's advice to avoid being “with us or against us” has implications she didn't elucidate. In times when action is needed and a position has to be taken — even if verbally — inaction or neutrality unwittingly props up the status quo. If the status quo has been created by inimical forces ostensibly now fighting their self-created Frankenstein, where does one go?
The practical approach would be to prioritise strategies that can be adapted to changing circumstances. And what should these be? Here Roy has a point when she says that one cannot be selective in the justices one espouses and the injustices one denounces. In this context Pakistanis find themselves trapped between the devil and the deep sea. Attempting to rectify a problem here and another there really doesn't help because our entire state structure is colonial, as a booklet titled Making Pakistan a Tenable State points out.
Produced by 17 intellectuals, with Dr Mubashir Hasan as the driving force, the book describes the state structure as being “based on the concentration of political and administrative power in the steel frame of the civil services under the protection of the armed forces. The structure could be defined as feudal-military-bureaucratic”.
The problem is systemic. In a state ruled by “a government of the elites, by the elites, for the elites” it is inevitable that it is authoritarian and exploitative. Change can come when there is mobilisation of the people for change. When WAF mobilises women to fight against injustices it prepares them to also fight for change. The need is to empower them and instill confidence in them.
Two women I have written about who are fighting for change come from the poorest of the poor and theirs is not a feminist agenda. They are fighting to have a roof above their heads. One is the wife of Walidad from Muhammad Essa Khaskheli who came all the way to Karachi in the heat of summer to save her goth from being snapped up by a feudal in the neighbourhood.
The other is Parveen whose one-room 'mansion' in a katchi abadi of Clifton is now under threat of demolition. She is resisting the exploitative system that cannot provide shelter to the poor. Initially she hesitated — was it 'proper' for a woman to protest she had asked me. When encouraged she decided it was. These are women on the way to empowerment and that is WAF's agenda.