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


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.