Nothing’s Wrong With Pakistani Feminists

Is there something wrong with Pakistani feminists? Yes, according to the author of this piece in the Daily Times. He’s an acquaintance whose enthusiasm for women’s rights I do recognise, but here he calls Pakistan’s feminists “so-called” and that they give feminism everywhere a “bad name”. And yet he’s got it terribly, terribly wrong on so many counts that I felt I had to write a rejoinder. 

TL;DR (this means if it was Too Long and you Didn’t Read), the author asserts that Pakistan’s feminists have managed to achieve nothing of substance in the last 30 years. He says that women are each others’ worst enemies in the push for women’s rights, and that men have been pivotal to any success seen by the women’s movement in Pakistan; he uses the example of white men being central to the abolition of slavery and by extension, the civil rights movement in the United States as grounds for comparison to any similar triumphs women have made or ever will make in Pakistani history – in other words, that it won’t happen until and unless men step in and take the lead.

Furthermore, he calls the new generation of Pakistani feminists “incapable of reading critically or understanding the diversity of the feminist movement worldwide”. The unequal status of women in Pakistan, he argues, is a “cash cow for milking”, and this is why Pakistani feminists have been unable and unwilling to actually enact change.

On his original blog post, I commented that Pakistan’s feminists have united on many fronts and worked hard to enact legislation that is pro-women: the Honor Killing Bill, the Sexual Harassment Bill, the Domestic Violence Bill, the Acid Attack Bill, to name a few in recent times. Historically, the seminal group WAF (Women’s Action Forum) has been instrumental in women’s advocacy, and so has WAR (Women Against Rape) for the last 40 years, especially during the Zia times. Concerted agitation against the Hudood Ordinances has led to their becoming largely defunct, although no leader has been brave enough to actually try to get them repealed. 

Here’s what the Women’s Action Forum has been doing for the last thirty years:

(WAF is) A women’s rights organization and has a presence in several cities in Pakistan. It is a non-partisan, non-hierarchical and non-funded organization. It is supportive of all aspects of women’s rights and related issues, irrespective of political affiliations, belief system, or ethnicity. Women’s Action Forum came into being in Karachi in September 1981. The following year, the Lahore and then the Islamabad Chapters were formed. Some years later, the Peshawar chapter came into being. And in May 2008, a Chapter of WAF started in Hyderabad, in the Province of Sindh. WAF does active lobbying, advocacy on behalf of women in Pakistan. It stages demonstrations and public-awareness campaigns. It is committed to a just and peaceful society based on democracy. The issues picked up by WAF have included challenging discriminatory legislation against women, the invisibility of women in government plans and policies, the exclusion of women from media, sports and cultural activities, dress codes for women, violence against women and the seclusion of women. WAF’s activism has led to the birth of many women’s rights groups and resource centres thereby increasing its outreach. WAF considers all issues as “women’s issues” and has taken positions on national and global developments. It allies itself with democratic and progressive forces in the country as well as linking its struggle with that of minorities and other oppressed peoples. (From Wikipedia; click on the link to find out more about its impressive history)

The author replied to me that the Hudood Ordinance is not defunct, and that only the Sexual Harassment act was signifying of real progress; that too because it was supported by men such as Makhdoom Ali Khan and Javed Ahmed Ghamidi, and pushed through by General Pervez Musharraf when he was in power.   The women’s groups I mentioned had nothing to do with it, he said.

Well, here’s proof that the author is wrong: this article by Dawn’s Naziha Syed Ali outlines exactly what Pakistani women activists and legislators “(not least those belonging to the women’s parliamentary caucus) have been doing to convince the parliament to enact hugely important pro-women legislation,” as Syed said an email to me. She notes that all the bills, incidentally, were tabled by women legislators. It is an excellent roundup of what has been achieved so far, what still remains to be achieved (the Domestic Violence bill, for example, still needs to be passed) and the hideous, regressive attitudes that male lawmakers still hold towards women’s rights.

I simply cannot understand how anyone calling themselves a supporter of women’s rights can overlook the pressure that women’s groups such as WAF and WAR and other advocacy groups exert upon policymakers. Pioneering journalists such as Zubeida Mustafa, Beena Sarwar, Sherry Rehman, to name our best, are also feminists who changed public opinion in favor of women’s rights. And excellent work has been done by the National Commission for the Status of Women, led until recently by the feminist Anis Haroon, in terms of recommending changes in policy and law with regards to women’s rights.

It’s true that men have to be 100% committed to the battle for gender equality for us to see any progress.     What’s even more true is that patriarchy and inequality is so deeply embedded in our society that the women’s rights movement has active opponents – in the religious front which joins forces with the conservative elements of political society – that do their best to push back against any kind of progress made in the name of gender equality. That “lack of progress” the author writes about in his piece is  based in reality, but the causation is mistakenly described as women attacking one another and their male supporters, when it is actually caused by men who do not want to see any change that threatens their stranglehold over one-half of the entire population of Pakistan.

There is nothing wrong with Pakistan’s feminists; they’re doing remarkably well in the face of so many decades of blatant opposition. For argument’s sake, I could have appreciated a more detailed analysis of all these groups and consortiums, with an evaluation of both their triumphs and failures. But this one-sided post feels much more like an opinion piece than an unbiased examination of the women’s movement in Pakistan. Perhaps someone has doubted the author’s feminist credentials and he is reacting to that accusation, but that’s no reason to discredit Pakistani feminists as a whole, who have sacrificed so much in their fight for women’s rights. 

That a Pakistani man sees fit to attack Pakistani feminism as a whole is a disappointment, but it is not very much of a surprise.

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