The Pakistani woman’s crusade against the system

By Sadef A. Kully
Thursday, 15 Apr, 2010

KARACHI: Although, it has been twenty something odd years since Dr. Kauser Saeed Khan has been participating in and witnessing women protest for equal rights, there still seems to be some fight left in her…probably more than just some.

“We are not going to be quiet, or give up,” said Dr. Khan, one of the founding members of Women’s Action Forum (WAF), who is an Associate Professor at the Department of Community Health in Aga Khan University.

The women’s movement in Pakistan started with one woman, who married a young man against her parents’ wishes. She had committed Zina (adultery) according to the Hudood Ordinance, and her punishment was to be flogged in public.

“[WAF] actually started when a colleague called a meeting and said enough is enough, what is happening here,” said Dr. Khan. “We got women together from various organizations including individual women and from that group came WAF.”

Under President Zia-ul-Haq’s regime, the Hudood Ordinance left women socially paralyzed, and prevented them from to pursuing their rights as equal members of a society under a strict interpretation of Islam.

The Hudood Ordinances dealt with different crimes; rape, murder, adultery, alcohol, and theft. But in order to accuse a person of a crime under the Hudood Ordinance, the offence had to be proven by a testimony or witnessed by four Muslim male adults. In some cases, only two witnesses were needed. This left women helpless to make any criminal accusation against any person because their testimony was considered less than a mans’.

As a result, the Women’s Action Forum was born. WAF became a leader in women’s rights which paved the way for many different organisations fighting for the same or similar causes, even today.

“Thus protest has remained our way. Whatever has an [negative] impact on women – we have taken up that cause,” said Dr. Khan

Women and others who protested against the Hudood Ordinance faced beatings from police officers, were tear-gassed and spent nights in jail.

As WAF grew, organisations such as the Aurat Foundation and the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER), were given a path to address the social and judicial battles women and men were fighting in Pakistan.

“The focus has not changed exactly – I mean at that time we were working for women and we are still working for women,” said Mahnaz Rahman, Resident Director of Aurat Foundation in Karachi. “How can the focus change when laws like the Hudood Ordinance still exist? Laws have not been repealed – this was our demand from day one.”

Since 1995, the Aurat Foundation has formed political watch groups, lobbied to reserve 33 seats for women representatives of local bodies, had housewives recognized in statistical surveys, and currently are addressing the jirga system, a community council, where women are not welcomed.

“We are such a strange nation, we are carrying feudal values with us, we are carrying tribal values with us, and we are carrying capitalist values,” said Rahman. “They think that we are targeting them – we are not targeting them. We are targeting those things that are horrible and lead to women not being treated as human beings. Women cannot be bought, given or sold.”

Women, from all walks of life including the labour class, struggle with an array of issues on a daily basis. PILER, an organisation dedicated to the rights of the labour class in Pakistan has dealt with women in the labour industry.

“The labour class is extremely exploited in our society in all sectors, labourers have to face a list of problems,” said Zulfikar Shah, Deputy Director for PILER, in an email exchange.

Over the years, PILER has organized workshops for female workers to educate them about their rights and rights of unionization as a part of labour force. This includes publishing information through research reports, working papers, booklets and advocacy material in English, Urdu and Sindhi languages.

“Gender discrimination is a burning issue of our society and it also reflects in the labour force,” said Shah. “Women have been under paid or even unpaid while doing equal work like men. Absence of maternity benefits, no compulsory weekly holiday, sexual harassment at the work place, long working hours even after sunset are the general problems which a woman worker faces.”

WAF has been a catalyst for major political parties such as Jamaat-e-Islami, Pakistani People’s Party (PPP), and Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) who realized that women, as voters and citizens, needed their support. Each party established a womens’ wing to address diverse issues. Although each has a different viewpoint, but all acknowledge that Pakistani women need more rights.

Jamaat-e-Islami, a right-wing political party since 1941, practices an internal democratic process, whose main objective is for the establishment of the Islamic way of life, because Pakistan is an Islamic state.

“We are a religious group and therefore, we educate women and give them Islamic knowledge about their rights as Muslim women,” said Tasneem Muazzum, the Director of Jamaat-e-Islami’s women’s wing in Karachi.

Even though Jamaat-e-Islami has an independent women’s wing, the women still hold onto strong cultural traditions and put Islam first in every aspect of their lives. The party has been known to oppose the Women’s Protection Bill, as well as any other views considered ‘western’ because of the party’s general anti-American sentiments.

“Islam allows women to live like princesses, with respect and pride for our families and our homes,” said Muazzum. “The religion has given us many rights.”

But they stand against any type of actions that harm women or the use of a warped interpretation of Islam as an excuse to repress women.

“We hope that honour killings and marrying a woman to the Holy Quran are seen as wrong – these are un-Islamic practices,” said Muazzum. “Once women learn more about Islam then the men will follow suit.”

Unlike Jamaat-e-Islami, political parties PPP and MQM, both are secular parties, support basic rights and progress for women through a social change rather than spiritual change.

“Men and women being equal, is a religious right, as well as a constitutional right,” said Nergis Khan, Minister of Social Welfare, who worked with PPP women’s division during Benazir Bhutto’s regime. “She is working in her home and looking after her children and he is working outside the home – therefore both are working and are equal partners in a marriage.”

Pakistan Peoples Party was created by its’ founder and fourth President of Pakistan, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who was hung by General Zia-ul-Haq. Khan stated that, historically, because of long-term dictatorships, the civil and democratic government has not had the proper chance to implement the right laws.

“It is the responsibility of the government to bring awareness to the masses,” said Khan.

Muttahida Quami Movement, founded by Altaf Hussain in 1978, is known for its support for minority groups. MQM has gained momentum, despite past controversy, in the last decade – it has become a voice for the middle class and a major proponent for addressing women issues.

“What I have seen with MQM, their definition of politics is serving the community – it doesn’t matter what community you are from – no matter if you are a minister, senator or a tea boy,” said Nadia Gabol, Minister of Human Rights.

As Minister of Human Rights, Nadia Gabol has had first-hand experience with extreme violence against women in the past three years. According to Gabol, MQM has been instrumental in helping her address domestic problems before they become crimes.

“We have to sit with the people and educate them about their rights,” said Gabol.

The Human Rights department, since its separation from the Law department, is in the process of introducing the child protection bill, and amending the underage marriage bill to include fines and sentences, which have been enacted. The department has created a rehabilitation center for victims of sexual violence, and requested a DNA laboratory in Karachi; currently there is only one DNA facility in Pakistan, located in Lahore.

“I think the only problem we have when it comes to women’s rights is that, in this country, people do not really understand the definition of rights,” said Gabol. “Women’s rights are a human rights issue, in every aspect.”

According to the United Nations Development Programme 2009 report, the current population of Pakistan is an estimated 180 million, and of those 180 million people almost half are women. Women have overcome different issues but there are many matters that need to be addressed in order for a Pakistani woman to become an equal citizen and fully progress in society.

“In the case of Mukhtaran Mai, I couldn’t help but compare it to the first case – only WAF protested then. We were used to finding ourselves alone – now women have strengthened in numbers and spirit,” said Dr. Khan, a witness to the women’s rights movement at a grass-root level.

“Given our old-age structures – if change comes through, it will come without outside intervention. I found it heartening that when the earthquake happened in Pakistan, Pakistani doctors from all over the world came here and helped. That solidarity needs to be strengthened.”

“A friend once said, ‘change will not happen in our lifetime but instead what will I change while I live,’ – every step is fearful but you continue.”

2 responses to “The Pakistani woman’s crusade against the system”

  1. Women and men are the two most essential and EQUAL part of any society. The role of women has been suppressed deliberately in Pakistan due to the pressure from the Mullah clergy. But the women, who stood up and spoke for their rights, deserve to be applauded.