Do we need a women’s movement?

By. Zubeida Mustafa

On international women’s day last year, we had a torchlight March in Karachi to commemorate the occasion. I still remember how the flickering flames of the torches captured the powerful emotions on the faces of the participants. Most of them were familiar faces. Many had been turning up every year on March 8 for nearly two decades and the bonds of sisterhood held them together. It was reassuring to observe their strong commitment to the women’s cause. But it was saddening to note that there were not enough young faces around.

The movement was aging — more in terms of the age of its members. Hence it also appears to be losing its vigour. Young blood is known to bring new strength to any institution. As a token of my support for the women’s struggle in Pakistan, I brought my torch back with me. I fixed it up in my office hoping that it would provoke younger people to ask what it was and why it was there.

To my disappointment, not many have asked — either they are not curious or they are not observant. Or worse still, they know what it is all about and believe the struggle for women’s rights has seen its days. Does that mean that all that we have struggled for in the last few decades has been achieved and the struggle should now be wound down? Or, the struggle was misconceived and was not really important?

It would be a pity if that is what people have generally come to believe. The fact is that these efforts have not come to naught and the women’s movement has made an impact on the country. Its major achievement has been in the field of consciousness raising. Arguably, female activism has succeeded in placing the issue of women’s rights and equality squarely in the forefront of the national agenda. By acting as a pressure group, the women’s movement has pre-empted the worst from happening — not that horrible incidents haven’t taken place — but today one can expect a strong reaction when women are brutalized or victimized individually and collectively. Previously, a woman who suffered at the hands of a man would conceal her agony because she herself was convinced that she was the guilty party and the one to be blamed for her fate. Today, the issues of familial violence, rape and incest have been brought into the open. They are no more private matters beyond public scrutiny.

So something has after all emerged from the efforts women put in to hold rallies for countless causes, stage peace marches, stand for hours in the sun, banners in their hands protesting the discriminatory laws, and join in the campaigns demanding democracy and constitutional government. True most of these causes still need espousing but the process of struggle itself invigorated the movement and imperceptibly introduced changes in social values and cultural norms, thus helping to expand the space for women in public life.

But paradoxically, the changed circumstances, which encouraged women and gave them hope, have also weakened their movement. As the situation has eased somewhat for the next generation of women, they do not feel the need to struggle for gender equality. The absence of a strong and overt anti-woman thrust from the Establishment has robbed the women’s movement of the focus it needed to spur it on. Small gestures are offered as a sop and accepted by women who don’t realize that the basic power structure remains unchanged. Hence their efforts are now diffused. The feminist zeal of the early days is not so visible now. Not surprising then that, the question being asked today is “Where is the women’s movement?” In fact, those who are not afraid to break ranks even ask, “Do we really need a women’s movement any more?”


The answer is a clear and categorical ‘yes’. The fact is that we are passing through a process characterized by contradictions. As the gender disparity has decreased somewhat in some spheres, other factors have emerged to enhance poverty levels, violence, and intolerance.

Take the case of education. The female enrolment ratio at every level of education is growing. In fact with the awareness that education brings dignity and economic empowerment, women have begun to take the need for schooling more seriously. In the decade of the nineties, the female enrolment at the primary level has more than doubled — the growth was 166 per cent. This is a much faster increase than that of boys. In the universities the women’s presence has also increased enormously and much more rapidly than that of men. But has this expansion of education made much difference in the status of women at the macro level?

There are more women in the labour force today — 12 per cent — than there were in the eighties (three per cent). But what gain has this increase in economic empowerment brought to women? Have they been able to assert themselves against the oppression that continues to be there? Hardly any of them are at the top rung of the management ladder. Better education and more employment have not enabled women to enter the decision making process. Their voice is still not heard in policy making.

Yet, the number of disadvantaged women is still unacceptably large. Nearly 25 million adult women are illiterate. Nearly 29 million female adults are not economically productive. The main reason is that the women’s movement has failed to reach out to the poor and the rural population. They constitute the bulk of the oppressed. Since the middle class and the affluent women have won many of the advantages they were striving for they do not feel the need for a struggle any more. They don’t feel involved.

It is this lack of sense of involvement in the younger generation, which has the capacity to wage a struggle that has undermined the women’s movement. It is a pity that women began to make some headway at a time when the influence of capitalism and the marketplace gained ascendancy. This changed the social culture and the empathy and concern for the underdog, which regrettably has never been very strong in our society, was weakened. In a milieu where consumerism and materialistic values came to dominate the scene, it became easy for those who had won a place for themselves to distance themselves from feminism and feel proud of their stance.

There is need today to redefine social values generally and within the framework of the women’s movement. This is important if the women’s struggle is to gain strength again.

Source: Dawn, 7 March 2002