Women against extremism

Published: March 11, 2012

Written on International Women’s Day, this op-ed piece is essentially a notice of the round-table discussion at which the newly-established ‘Pakistan Women’s Coalition against Extremism’ launched its activities two days earlier in Islamabad. The event challenged several academics from universities and the Coalition members from all provinces of Pakistan to define a shared interface of theoretical and activist opposition to intolerance, extremism and violence in the Pakistani body politic.

The interaction was a welcome reiteration of the fact that the state cannot fight this growing menace alone. There are very good reasons why the women of Pakistan should assert a particular interest in and commitment to the struggle against intolerance and extremism. Women are historically liable to be the major victims of conflicts. The violence that accompanied the fragmentation of Yugoslavia and the genocide in Rwanda is not the only example in recent history of women being targeted in a sordid strategy to demoralise and terrorise a rival community. Ironically, the armies that made great sacrifices to defeat the evil of fascism in 1945 were, in some cases, tarnished by staggering crimes against the women of the vanquished enemies. Again, in the post-war world, women have continued to be a disproportionately large component of large swathes of people uprooted and displaced by internal and externally imposed conflicts.

Pakistan’s own experience illustrates that women suffer grievously not just because of inter-state wars. The dice gets heavily loaded against them by an exacerbation of internal societal contestations, a darkening of ideological, religious and ethnic passions. Insecurities generated by increasing encounters with modernity and its post-modern sequel have exacerbated gender-based biases; there are few categories of social change that are resisted so vociferously as women’s emancipation. This, alone, justifies their mobilisation though the larger interest of society also warrants that they act not merely to enhance self-protection but also to become an instrument of progress across the board. Women have a crucial role to play in promoting social harmony and in building peace across national frontiers.

Asked to wind up the debate at this first round-table of the Coalition, I felt a trifle disappointed by flawed communication –– between the activists and academics –– that visibly led to the latter holding back spontaneous cooperation in devising a framework of understanding and a shared public discourse to meet an otherwise well-defined challenge. One of the possible reasons for this seeming disconnect is the trajectory followed by the perceived purposes of the seats of higher learning in Pakistan. In the 1950s and 1960s, the idea of a university was shaped in no small a measure by a larger paradigm of social responsibility. This was partly rooted in the momentum of the South Asian independence movements and partly in the prevailing anti-colonial, anti-imperialist and assorted left-of-the centre ideas of social engineering. In literature and arts, the ethos of the Progressive Writers Movement coloured the emerging patterns of thought.

Scared alike, the state and its newly found foreign partners in military alliances acted to contain the trend favouring social engagement. Colleges and universities were incrementally depoliticised through coercive measures and inducements. In arts, social realism lost its pre-eminence. Several ardent leftist intellectuals journeyed to an equally strong commitment to the U.S-led western projects. The vacant space was often taken up by quasi-religious student organisations that could count on support from the state and outside powers, at least till 9/11. The senior common room faced threats to jobs and advancement and was no less potently seduced by the siren call of foreign scholarships, travel grants and conferences. There were honourable exceptions where academics continued to apply their knowledge to social and political issues but the main new trend was to leave the task to the lesser beings in NGOs, media analysis and advocacy groups. More than one academic voice at the roundtable meeting seemed to come from the loftiness of an ivory tower.

There is a vast agenda for orderly change but a preliminary need is for a coalition to strengthen the constituency. On one hand, to rid Pakistan of its bad laws and conventions such as the blasphemy law, the laws skewed against minorities, the tribal practises against women, and on the other hand, to devise affirmative action to empower disadvantaged groups. A proactively engaged academic community can make an outstanding contribution to this two-tier task, especially by tapping into critical support from concerned students.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 12th, 2012.

Reader Comments (3)

  • saif mahmood
    Mar 11, 2012 - 10:37PM

    As long as our women make getting married the ultimate goal of their life ,they’ll continue to suffer in our society.To fight extremism,women have to become self sufficient,get financially independent,stand on their own feet rather than waiting for men to meet their expenses.
    As long as women depend on men to provide for them,they’ll always be at the mercy of the world.

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  • beenish khan
    Mar 11, 2012 - 10:45PM

    sadly,the women in our society help to further perpetuate patriarchy.there is so much of self loathing amongst pakistani women for their gender that it has destroyed our social fabric.
    supporting the men in the family no matter how rotten they behave because women have accepted and believed that they are by birth inferior to men,that they need men to survive in this world,that without a man’s support,a pakistani woman is incomplete.sadly,our women have internalised patriarchy.
    women should stop feeling ashamed of their gender and their bodies, stop feeling like they are a burden on their families and the only way they can do that is to start having jobs,start earning to support themselves.

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  • Tanvir Ahmad Khan
    Mar 12, 2012 - 7:48PM

    Beenish Khan’s perceptive comment on Pakistani women internalising patriarchal hierarchies touches the heart of the problem. This process begins very early in the life of a girl child in probably 90% of our homes. There is no instant solution to this ancient legacy but this should be a permanent issue in all programmes aiming at creating awareness of gender related issues in our society. Needless to say that educated women will have to play a major role in this context– in homes, at work place, in social and political organisations and of course through the social media. What complicates matters is that great many women conflate our hierarchical bias with security or, at least, a viable trade off..

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