Prajnya Gender Talks, August 2021 || Defiant Crossings: The Women’s Movement and Feminist Solidarities in Pakistan by Saba Gul Khattak

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August 2021

Rapporteur: Suhasini Udayakumar

Dr. Saba Gul Khattak

Dr Saba Gul Khattak is an independent researcher, who was worked extensively with governmental and non-governmental organisations on the intersections of gender, governance, structural and direct violence, and development and human rights. During this Gender Talk, Dr Khattak tells us the story of the rise of feminism and feminist solidarity in Pakistan.

Where Did The Peace Go?

In the 1990s, the Pakistani public believed that peace was on the way. But it is 2021 and conflict is still ubiquitous in the country, and governmental structures and regimes straitjacket the population. 

First Wave

The Pakistani women’s movement first emerged in the 1960s. In 1961, feminists won their first battle by getting an ordinance passed that declared second marriages permissible only upon the first wife’s written consent. Fatima Jinnah stood in the elections which led the entire nation, including the influential maulvis, to discuss if women should be allowed to serve as heads of state. This debate was settled when Benazir Bhutto came to power as the first women Prime Minister of the country.

In the early 1970s, the small but defined voices of women began to register. The second partition occurred – which continues to haunt both India and Pakistan – wherein Pakistani women demonstrated their solidarity with affected Bengali women. This was the first time that feminists distinctly went up against the state and criticised it for the actions it performed in the guise of nationalism. Women’s organisations went as far as to apologise on behalf of the state following the 1971 Bengal Genocide. 

In 1975, the World Conference of the International Women’s Year was conducted, displaying support from feminist movements across the world, and leading to increased scholarship and activism. In the 1980s, Indian and Pakistani feminists met to talk about war and militarization. The news organisation Women’s Action Forum became the voice of feminism in Pakistan. Many women took to the streets to protest oppressive laws and to dissent to Islamic Jihad’s (which had its origins in the Russian invasion of Afghanistan) infiltration of Pakistan. Pakistani feminists documented the impact that this idea had on women’s rights in the country.  

Women experiencing and witnessing violence in their lives acted as a significant impetus for the peace movement. Women’s organisations fought for democracy, minority rights, and demilitarization. This resonated in neighbouring countries and resulted in the South Asian Feminist Declaration of 1989 where women did not hesitate to critique their states’ oppression of minorities.

Second Wave

In the 1990s, a semblance of democracy was restored. However, women’s movements in Pakistan slackened, distracted by the flurry of international feminist movements. But the plague of suicide bombings that cropped up at the time took a toll and pushed women to demand that the state dismantle all laws that perpetrated violence in the name of Islam. After 25 years of fight, the movement succeeded and suicide bombings began to dip in the late 2010s.

In the 2000s, women contested and won seats in the local government. They had recognised the importance of making decisions in their Muhallas. They ventured out to the national government eventually, a move greeted by dismissal and disapproval by traditionalists. Women also recognised that they had the right to demand the state meet their needs. At this point, it was common for women to walk into neighbourhood police stations and lodge complaints against husbands for ill-treatment or discrimination. It might be said that Benazir Bhutto was a role model for Pakistani women during this decade. 

Women began to make a change at a national level by participating in the parliament and establishing NGOs. Conflicts persisted and so did people’s preoccupation with peace. The unpredictability and volatility of war pushed women to consistently strive to end the war.

Third Wave

By 2010, a new wave of younger feminists began to make their mark. These women had very different ideas from their older counterparts. They demanded space – quite literally – in the public sphere. Movements such as Why Loiter (where women relax and drink tea at dhabbas) and Feminist Fridays (where women gathered for reading sessions) became popular. 

A socialist approach arose and transformed Pakistani feminism. The Aurat March was an iconic feminist movement which paralysed all institutions. The slogans (pro-divorce, anti-hyper feminisation etc) severely offended men. The movement was accused of succumbing to western feminist agendas and deemed anti-Islamic. Traditionalists filed cases in police stations to prevent the march from taking place but did not succeed. The feminists had moved from questioning the state to questioning women’s roles in the private sphere as symbols of sexuality and caterers to men’s demands. 

Thus, the feminist movement in Pakistan journeyed from a fight against the state to a fight for rights in the private sphere, and for a total reconstruction of gender roles and responsibilities.

Women in Pakistani politics: UNDP news report

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Mehreen Saeed, Pakistan: breaking the glass ceiling, UNDP Pakistan, June 30, 2010.

“Pakistan has a high rate of women in Parliament compared to other countries in South Asia, with women accounting for 19 percent of representatives in the upper and lower houses. However, women in Pakistan still face many difficulties in accessing decision-making positions at the local, provincial and national levels, and are excluded from crucial political, social and economic processes in their country. Such under-representation has a direct – and negative – impact on the health and education of women across the board. In order to address this challenge, in 2006 UNDP supported the creation of a Women Parliamentary Caucus. Today, 93 women parliamentarian members from five mainstream political parties in Pakistan are working together to advocate for gender-sensitive legislation and amend discriminatory laws and practices. The results have been impressive. “

Read more here.

Jennifer Musa, “The Queen of Baluchistan”

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Jennifer Musa (1917-2008): The Queen of Baluchistan, Pakistaniat.com, January 12, 2010.

Read about this redoubtable Irish-Pakistani who did what so many other women have done–left her home, made a new one, made its challenges her own and not allowed herself to be fettered by other people’s rules.

Good work, Adil Najam, for blogging about Jennifer Musa. We hope to read about more amazing, less-known, almost-forgotten Pakistani women and their public works in All Things Pakistan!

Flogging in Swat, Pakistan

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Mariana Baabar, Swat The System, outlookindia.com, April 20, 2009
http://www.outlookindia.com/full.asp?fodname=20090420&fname=Pakistan+(F)&sid=1&pn=1

Year: 1983
• Victim of flogging: Safia Bibi
• Punishment: 15 lashes
• President: Zia-ul-Haq
Year: 2009
• Victim of flogging: Chand Bibi
• Punishment: 35 lashes
• President: Asif Ali Zardari
Between the flogging of Safia Bibi and Chand Bibi, the world has moved on, defining women’s rights and increasingly anchoring the idea of punishment in the secular-liberal realm. But in these 26 years, Pakistan seems to have changed little—crazed Islamists have subverted the country’s liberal laws to deliver punishment redolent of medieval times.

The horror of this subversion was watched in living rooms all over the country: a video recording of the 35 lashes that rained on Chand Bibi, allegedly a resident of Swat Valley. “Oh God, kill me,” she screamed at every stroke of the whip.

There are conflicting reports about Chand Bibi’s alleged ‘crime’. The Taliban initially justified the punishment, saying she had been living in ‘sin’ with her father-in-law. Days later, a new spin came—she had been punished for letting an electric meter reader inside her home when all alone. The third report claims she was framed, and punished, as a retribution for refusing to marry a Talib. Whatever the reason, ultimately Chand Bibi was found guilty of zina, or sex without legal sanction, and subjected to flogging, a method of punishment that the Taliban claim Islam prescribes. The brazen subversion of state laws prompted legal luminary Asma Jehangir to say, “It’s not only Chand Bibi who has been flogged, but the entire nation of Pakistan.”

As the outcry against the flogging reached a crescendo, the Taliban imparted new twists to the tragic drama. They claimed Chand Bibi wasn’t a resident of Swat, that the flogging had occurred elsewhere but blamed on the Taliban to malign them. The reprehensible episode of Swat reminded people of Safia Bibi’s plight in 1983. This 18-year-old blind girl became pregnant after she was raped. Her pregnancy was then taken as irrefutable proof of zina—and she was awarded three years imprisonment, 15 lashes and a fine. And because Safia was blind and couldn’t identify the rapist, the accused was set free.

It’s no wonder that Chand reminded people of Safia, the political dynamics underlying the two deplorable incidents are very similar. In 1983, General Zia-ul-Haq had empowered the religious zealots to bolster the mullah-military alliance. Emboldened, these zealots sought to impose their perception of justice on the people. Today, reeling under the onslaught of militant Islam, the country’s political elite has chosen to buy peace with the Taliban. This has only encouraged them to openly mock the Pakistani constitution and implement their version of Islam. Analysts fear that should President Asif Ali Zardari sign the Nizam-e-Adl Regulation (which would formally allow the setting up of Islamic courts in Swat), every Pakistani woman runs the risk of becoming a Chand Bibi.

The rise of the Taliban has indeed initiated a fight for Pakistan’s soul. Beyond the issue of women’s rights, the country has been rocked by bomb blasts. Nearly 200 people have died in terror incidents in March alone. Following the attack on the police training camp in Lahore last month, Tehreek-e-Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud threatened, “Inshallah, I promise two strikes a week.”

The flogging of Chand Bibi was the proverbial last straw, and civil society activists took to the streets protesting against the Taliban.
Simultaneously, the Supreme Court took up the matter suo motu. But they can do little. The Taliban challenge can’t be countered without the support of religious parties, which alone can wean away those under the spell of militant Islam.

Depressingly, none of the main Islamist parties expressly condemned the flogging. The reaction of Maulana Fazlur Rehman of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F) was typical, “The NGOs have blown the Chand Bibi video out of proportion. Where were they when the drones were attacking us and killing innocent women and children?” Senator Sajjid Mir of the Jamaat-e Adal doubted the veracity of the video, believing there was a grand conspiracy to malign the Taliban.

The reaction of others ranged from ambivalence to opposition. For instance, the amir (chief) of the Tehreek-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi, Izzat Khan, thought the manner of implementing Chand Bibi’s punishment violated Islamic principles (four witnesses are needed to establish zina.) But he wasn’t opposed to introducing Shariat laws. In contrast, the Sunni Tehreek burnt the effigy of Mehsud. A heartening act that, except that the group’s influence is limited.

Few seem willing to condemn the flogging per se. Swat Taliban spokesperson Muslim Khan, though saying his group wasn’t behind the Chand episode, claimed that both men and women could be whipped under the Shariat. Khan said the Taliban couldn’t be held responsible for the flogging as it had been executed during ‘war time’—that is, before the peace deal was signed between the Taliban and the NWFP government of the Awami National Party (ANP). Under the peace deal, the Taliban have been allowed to establish Islamic courts under the qazi in return for putting an end to the violence.

This is precisely the reason ANP information minister Iftikhar Hussain cites to absolve the Taliban. “This incident took place 45 days before the signing of the peace deal. An NGO activist, Samar Minallah, has released this video as part of a conspiracy.” In agreement, shockingly, was a minister in the Zardari government, Najmuddin Khan: “The release of the video is a conspiracy to sabotage the peace agreement between the provincial government and the Taliban. President Zardari will certainly sign the draft of the Nizam-e-Adl Regulation, immediately after complete peace is restored in Swat.”

Zardari’s party has in the past too turned a blind eye to crimes against women. In education minister Hazar Khan’s constituency, Bijrani, in Sindh, dogs were let loose on a girl who died in the macabre attack. It has been alleged that Hazar Khan was complicit in the crime; he escaped because there isn’t a video to bolster the case. In minister Sardar Isrullah Zehri’s constituency in Balochistan, four women were buried alive. He justified the act saying it was a tribal custom.

The News captured well the depressing situation in Pakistan. “There is no doubt that the party (ANP) of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan is dead; so too is the party of Zulfiqar Bhutto. Instead, we are ruled by fumbling idiots who clearly do not have the backbone to take a stand against the militants and rescue us from the depravity into which we have plunged.” With the army backing the peace deal in Swat, the only hope is that the Supreme Court will pull the country out of this morass.