Women protesters during Zia regime remain undefeated

Published: February 12, 2013
A file photo of women protesters on street. PHOTO: MOHAMMAD NOMAN/EXPRESS

A file photo of women protesters on street. PHOTO: MOHAMMAD NOMAN/EXPRESS

ISLAMABAD: Few know that February 12 – officially declared National Women’s Day in Pakistan – commemorates a march by women three decades ago, which marked the “beginning of democracy”.

Exactly 30 years ago, a group of women suffered the brunt of police action for defying Section 144 (which bans public assembly)  to protest against the proposed Evidence Bill during former ruler Gen Ziaul Haq’s regime.

The protesting women had planned to march to the Lahore High Court to submit a petition against the bill, which reduced the legal status of women by proposing that the evidence of two women should equal that of one man.

This protest was additionally significant as being the first one in the history of Pakistan in which the police used tear gas and batons on women. They injured many in the process and arrested nearly 50. Pictures of the courageous women being baton-charged by the police resulted in a national outcry for women’s rights.

“Thirty years have flown by and we feel as if it was just yesterday,” said Madeeha Gauhar, head of the Ajoka Theatre, who was among those at the forefront of the march.

“As the first ever public protest against marital law, there was silence everywhere. We were lathi-charged, held up and arrested, but for us it was a start to democracy in the country.” Gauhar, who was part of the Women’s Action Forum, now feels that the movement for women’s rights has drastically changed. “At that time there was a definite goal… legislation was anti-women and anti-minorities. But I feel now that the focus is no longer there, other issues dominate the national discourse.”

“Pakistan’s civil society needs to realise there can be no democracy when there are laws and Constitution based on religion. It’s not about women’s rights now, it’s about human rights,” she adds.

With the march etched in the minds of those who participated, the Women’s Action Forum members believe that the 12th of February is simply a reminder to continue the struggle.

“For three decades, we have been demanding 33% seats for women in the legislatures, but we have not yet achieved this,” stated Tahira Abdullah, a human rights activist and member of the Human Rights Commission. “So our struggle continues. Similarly, while there has been some legislation, violence against women continues to this day.”

According to the Aurat Foundation, a total of 7,516 cases of violence against women were reported from all over Pakistan  in 2012. “Although the Women Protection Bill has been passed, that is not what we were asking for,” said Nageen Hayat Nomad, a founding member of the Women’s Action Forum (Rawalpindi /Islamabad chapter). “We have been demanding equality and we are still talking about it.”

“How many times are we going to protest when the state should be able to protect its citizens,” she added.  Perhaps the best way to celebrate National Women’s Day is not only to remember the march led by those women three decades ago and the men in Lahore but also celebrate the continuing struggle.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 12th, 2013.

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Reader Comments (6)

  • Peak(Indian)
    Feb 12, 2013 - 11:55AM

    General Zia’s rule was Sharia law implemented on Pakistan people. Zia’s rule was Taliban’s rule.


  • Kyani
    Feb 12, 2013 - 2:23PM

    I think all the women were muslims who protested against this bill, As the bill says evidendence of two women should be equal that of one man, this was not General Zia’s own decision but was based on Islamic jurisprudence, Now their protest was not against any government bill but against Islamic rulings and what kind of a muslim can turn against Islamic rulings, it makes me rethink and ponder ?
    If these women were not intentionally protesting against Islamic rulings but against its usage in Pakistan law then I think they were trying to portray Islam just a set beliefs but not a code of life and also that it does not provide base for Political and Judicial sytems.
    Everybody has a right to protest for their rights but one must not protest against accepted beliefs and laws of the society that has been tested, accepted and proofed successful so many times because it is just going to result in anarchy.


  • Kiran
    Feb 12, 2013 - 5:28PM

    Quote: “against accepted beliefs and laws of the society that has been tested, accepted and proofed successful so many times because it is just going to result in anarchy.”

    How has the law of Evidence been successful so far?


  • yasin
    Feb 12, 2013 - 7:28PM

    No muslim can imagine to protest against tenants of islam. But zia’s shairat laws were based on total hypocracy. He imposed zakat on bank accounts. During this forced imposition of zakat, it was deducted even on the salaries and loans of the government employees credited in the accounts just one day ahead of the date of this forced deduction. Thanks to the decision ofthe SC, which partially got rid the people from this forced tax. All this, zia was doing in the name of shariat and islam just to please his comrades and supporters of PNA who started movement against Bhutto in the name of election rigging but did not mince a few days to join hands with the dictator who swore in Khana Qaba to hold election within 90 days but never fulfulled the promise. The nation still recall his refrendum in which he asked the nation a very treacheruous question whether they want islamic law in the country and if so, they should vote for him and it is also history, that this nation which comprised of 95% muslims gave him a matching reply of his hypocracy by not visitng the polling stations on the dooms day.Today’s talbanization, religious extremisim and intolerence are the gifts of zia’s dubious islamization. All those men and women, political workers and journalists who protested against zia’s rule of hypocracy deserve appreciations.


  • F.H
    Feb 12, 2013 - 9:21PM

    “There are two powers in the world; one is the sword and the other is the pen. There is a great competition and rivalry between the two. There is a third power stronger than both, that of the women.”
    Muhammad Ali Jinnah


  • Amun
    Feb 14, 2013 - 4:37AM

    before you talk about “accepted beliefs and laws of the society that has been tested, accepted and proofed successful so many times”..
    Please read

    But I am guessing that certain people will miss the point..


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