By Zubeida Mustafa
Activism is action for change. And if change is to result in progress and not chaos, the process must have leadership. In Pakistan most changes that have been experienced in the lives of women have been driven by activists or in other cases they have evolved from socio-economic compulsions. By its very nature, activism has been a risky game because it seeks change that undermines the power of the upholders of the status quo. In the case of women, activism has called for greater courage because it has an impact on society as a whole and not just a narrow section.
Take the Women’s Action Forum. It was born in the Zia era which is widely acknowledged as being the period when the most anti-women laws in Pakistan’s history were enacted in the name of Islamisation. Where would have we been today had the 17 founder members of the Women’s Action Forum not reacted to the harsh judgment handed down under the Hudood Ordinances in 1981?
Hence the decade of the 1980s may be called the golden age of women’s activism in Pakistan. Not that nothing was done to better the lot of women before that. But the country hardly saw an organised women’s movement for concerted change. There were a number of women’s organisations working for reforms but there was little coordination among them and no common strategy or goals were chalked out. They were more of social welfare organisations with an approach that bordered on charity. They worked with the establishment when laws had to be changed and depended on the government to protect laws that were perceived to bring about an improvement in their lives such as the Family Law Ordinance.
However the pre-1977 period should not be underestimated for the role it played in paving the way for the activism of the 1980s. It saw the growth of education and the resultant economic empowerment of Pakistani middle and upper class women that proved to be crucial for the activism of later years.
Education also brought in its wake awareness among women and created in them the ability to organise in public life — that became the key of success of feminist activism in Pakistan. The basic approach that was adopted was to seek gender equality through the integration of women in the national mainstream. As such, all national issues — whether they had an exclusive bearing on women’s lives or had an impact on all — became matters of concern to these activists. That saw a growing interest of women in politics and their struggle acquired a political dimension. Women activists emerged on the streets at a time when men were cowed down. The women suffered at the hands of the police in February 1983 when they were demonstrating against the law of evidence. The injustice of the Hudood Ordinance helped mobilise women even in times of oppression.
But the change in the status of women was slow in coming for all sections of society. While the women in WAF who spearheaded the movement could forge a sea change in their lives, the vast majority was slow in relinquishing age-old ideas and conventions. The failure of the state to educate its citizens hit the women harder. Even today many of them continue to be oppressed by men and fall victim to male perpetrated violence. Poverty has also compounded the situation for them.
The momentum in the women’s movement that the Zia era brought slowed down when ‘democracy’ came to Pakistan, especially when a woman prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, took up the reins of government. The focus and energy of the 1980s were weakened.
But it would be wrong to say that female activism has dissipated. It has not. But it certainly has not brought about the far-reaching changes in society it had initially promised. That is because of the stratified character of Pakistani society which makes it difficult for social change in one class to penetrate another. Education which should have been an equaliser has, on the contrary, deepened the class divisions.
As a result feminist activism stands bifurcated. On the one hand are those who have concentrated on advocacy which is aimed at changing the laws and influencing policy-making. The importance of this goal cannot be underplayed. It alone can bring about a paradigm shift. On the other hand, are the activists who actually try to change the lives of women at the grassroots. It is something worthwhile they are doing but the challenge they face is colossal given the size of the population that needs help and the limited resources.
Unfortunately, these two strands of the women’s movement operate quite separately and have no links between them. They need one another to reinforce their activities and goals. In a democratic framework where numbers matter a lot, those concentrating on advocacy need the backing of women generally to demonstrate their strength. They cannot be seen as working in isolation. As for those working at the grassroots, mainly NGOs and Community Based Organisations, are fully aware of their constraints. They are aware that only the state can really help. Hence the need to effect changes in policy by generating pressure on the state.
At present the major challenge women activism in Pakistan faces is from militancy and extremism. These are hard times for advocacy. The masses, especially the women, feel vulnerable as they receive no protection from the state and have been reduced to a state of helplessness and despair as images on television show.
These are difficult times. One hopes the women’s movement will bring together all the strands of women activism on a common platform to struggle against the evil forces that are out to destroy the country. Previously, women have emerged at their best in times of crisis. They should do it again.