Feminism in Pakistan: A brief history

Pakistani women have gone through great struggle to secure their basic rights

Mehreen Ovais September 23, 2014
Feminism in Pakistan: A brief history

Following the catastrophic attacks of 9/11, Islam was suddenly propelled to the centre stage in the world media. Journalists, politicians, religious scholars and civilians alike began to decode and debate Islamic concepts and practices, perhaps in an attempt to justify what had happened. This gave way to many misconceptions and stereotypes regarding the religion.

Out of the countless false notions that sprung up, the idea of the ‘victimised Muslim woman’ is the perhaps the most common. Terms like ‘veil’ and ‘burqa’ are now part of regular political jargon claiming that Muslim women are subjugated and victimised by these fundamentalist Islamic practices and should be rescued from their entrapment. To make matters worse, understanding and tolerance for feminism in Pakistan and other Muslim countries remains low, limited to a narrow continuum between eastern and western ideologies. Feminism is generally regarded as unnecessary; a construct of the West which deserves no importance in the Islamic structure.

In their acclaimed 2012 study entitled Position of Pakistani Women in the 21st Century, Dr Jaweria Shahid and Khalid Manzoor Butt define feminism as equality for women and freedom from gender discrimination in different aspects of life. “Feminists are those who dare to break the conspiracy of silence about oppression, unequal relationships between men and women and who want to change it,” they write. “All feminist pursuits are aimed at social movement acquiring rights for women from society.” Keeping this under consideration, one might argue that feminism in Pakistan is a complete myth. Ever since its independence, in Pakistan have been battling exploitative treatment at the hands of their male counterparts – the social, economic and political environment making it difficult for them to progress and fight for their rights. There has almost always been some backlash against women who wish to empower themselves be it by studying, working or even choosing a spouse for themselves. NGOs and other institutions that work to help oppressed women are accused of misleading and ‘brainwashing’ them. Most of these women internalise their suffering, either out of fear or a lack of resources to turn to and the relatively affluent, educated upper class simply turns a blind eye, hoping to maintain their status quo.

12th February, 1983 - Lahore, Pakistan

Women of the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) and Pakistan Women Lawyers’ Association (PWLA) beating baton-charged at a rally agaInst the law of evidence.

Broadly speaking, there are two dominant threads of feminist discourse in Pakistan: a modern, Islamic feminism and a secular feminism. Modern Islamic feminists such as Riffat Hassan, Amina Wadud and Asma Barlas seek to further women’s rights by redefining Islamic views and focusing on the female-centric laws Islam offers. This form of feminism appeals largely to the lower, middle and upper-middle strata of society which looks to religion for answers. Secular feminists like Shahnaz Rouse and Fouzia Saeed consider feminism as an extention of basic human rights, regardless of any religious connotations. Once again, these women are labelled as protagonists of western culture by those who misconstrue Islamic teachings to suit feed their own, chauvinistic principles.

Unfortunately, what most people fail to realise is that feminism in Paksitan is not entirely a novel concept, nor is it anti-Islamic. In fact, Islam was the first religion to formally grant women a status they had not enjoyed before and taught moral, spiritual and economic equality.  There are countless quotes from prominent Islamic scholars, ahadith and the Quran itself, promulgating women’s rights regarding different of life, including education, marriage and divorce. In politics, the undertones of feminist ideals have existed throughout, coming to the forefront only recently thanks to advancements in media and education. Fatima Jinnah, for instance, fearlessly led thousands of women to stand up for their well-being even before Pakistan was created. Soon after, Begum Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan founded the All Pakistan Women’s Association (APWA) in 1949, aiming to further the moral, social and economic standing of women across the country. Similarly, the Women’s Action Forum (WMA) was established in September 1981, lobbying and advocating on behalf of women without the resources to do it themselves.

However, the real wave of feminist struggle arose in 1980 as a reaction to General Zia-ul-Haq’s controversial implementation of the Hudood Ordinance which asked rape victims to present four eye-witnesses for their claim to be accepted. The WMA publically opposed the unjust rulings passed under the bill, raising awareness. The forum included women from all spheres who spoke against the government in the media, protested on the streets, conducted educational campaigns in schools and devised the famous ‘Men, money, mullahs and military’ slogan.

Unsurprisingly, feminism gained most traction during Benazir Bhutto’s two terms as Prime Minister (1988-1990 and 1993-1996), during which time NGOs and focus groups were given considerable power and urge the government to make amends. Unfortunately, the momentum decreased once Nawaz Sharif took office in 1997 and women found themselves losing ground to political conservatism and religious revivalism, as indicated by Afiya Sherbano in her study on the History of Pakistani Feminism (2009). In 1997, the Council of Islamic Ideology recommended making burqa mandatory and honour killings also rose to new highs. Some lost ground was reclaimed when General Pervez Musharraf rallied for women’s rights and encouraged their involvement in media, sports and other socio-political activities. The movement has continued to this day, albeit with lesser intensity than before. Together, the WMA has successfully enabled many women-friendly bills such as the Criminal Law Amendment Act (2004), the Anti-Sexual Harassment Bill, the Criminal Acid Act, Protection of Women Act, Status of Women Bill and sundry regulations condemning honour killings and other vices faced by women in Pakistani society.

In an article published in the New York Times, writer Bina Shah argues that, “A feminist movement can only succeed when it mirrors the makeup of the women and the society for whom it operates. ”Perhaps if more Pakistani women sought inspiration from these great achievements in feminist history, the position they held in society would be much higher and Pakistan would not be ranked amongst the worst countries for women to live in. A proponent of secular feminism, Bina argues that secular feminism is more democratic scope and resonates with the pluralistic feminist movement worldwide, as opposed to being restricted to just Pakistan and Islam.  “Pakistan needs a feminism that elegantly marries both strands of feminism, secular and Islamic,” she says. – “That is how Pakistan was formed- on both Islamic and secular principles.”

However, much like everything else, equal rights for women are impossible without stringent political support and when that is not met, feminists need to take matters into their own hands. “While the space for women in nationalist politics was always small, the space for feminist politics in Pakistan is almost non-existent,” explains writer Madihah Akhtar in her article on Feminists in Pakistan. “Feminists, of both the secular and Islamic flavours, have to be content with voicing their opinions through non-governmental organisations and in academia, both in Pakistan and abroad.”

Perhaps secular feminism is the answer to rectifying Pakistan’s image before the world. Women’s rights may be misunderstood, under-represented and disregarded in Pakistan but they are by no means absent. Our people need to be informed that feminism does not mean being anti-male or anti-Islamic. Those rallying for women rights need to be clearer and more united in their stand and find a workable balance between what is right and what we know. The message of feminism does not signify that women should in any way be superior, nor does it call for immoral and anti-religious practices. It simply strives to make the lives of women across the world a lot easier than they are used to.

Did You Know: One of the first Pakistani feminists was actually a man from Lollywood?

Comedian and director, Rangeela, was the first Pakistani to publically express his concerns regarding the treatment of women in Pakistan and support the liberation movement of the 1970s. He did so via a film called Aurat Raaj which he directed, produced and even acted in. Released in 1979, the film depicted the story of a housewife who stands up against her chauvinist husband and goes on to form a political party for women across the country, eventually becoming the national leader. Unfortunately, it didn’t fare well at the box office although it is still considered to have been well ahead its time and a commendable effort on Rangeela’s part.

Feminism defined by some successful Pakistani women

Humaima Malik (Actress):  “I believe in women empowerment and definitely see it as holding a really strong ground in Pakistan. There are so many women who know of their rights and most importantly their potential. Not ignoring the parts of Pakistan where mindsets are still a long way from being changed, it is lovely to see that today’s women are strong and vocal about their views, trying different professions and breaking the stereotypes. Away from the pressure of whatever ‘norms’ the society may say they should follow.” 

Vaneeza Ahmad Ali (Model & Entrepreneur): “The concept of feminism isn’t clear in Pakistan. It’s not about opening doors or hating men. Personally, I believe we are all equal but a very few people here agree with me. In our country, a MPA can stand up in the Parliament and say burying a woman alive is a part of our culture and get away with it. Individuals talks about feminism but there is nothing happening. We our deprived of our basic needs like electricity and unfortunately live in a man’s world, thus female rights is out of the question. There is not even a tremor for this cause.” 

Atiqa Odho (Actress & Entrepreneur): “As a woman, I don’t ask for equal rights from anyone. I believe in working hard and achieving my own goals. No one should get preferential treatment due to gender. Capability empowers people to succeed, not noise. Men are our equal partners and hence we must keep them involved in our success.”

Published in The Express Tribune, Ms T, September 21st, 2014.


vaqas | 9 years ago | Reply

@salman: Ppp is a socialist party. You lot seem to confuse liberalism with socialism which speaks volumes on our illiteracy about politics, and the failure of democracy in general. Please clarify, the right means the religious parties. The left means the socialist parties. Socialism is the opposite of religiosity in politics, originating from russia i believe, where socialism in simple terms puts the state and the welfare of the people at the fore, while leaving religion in the background. On the other hand liberalism is not a political leaning. It is much more encompassing. The jist of liberalism is that one should be open to all thoughts and have empathy/tolerance for everyone. The only thing not acceptable in liberalism is violence or physical abuse against any group for whatever cause. I hope it clarifies things for you lot. But if for some twisted reason your iq is too low for such a long reply, if you see red in a flag, think socialist.

ASMA SIDDIQI | 9 years ago | Reply

Mehreen Ovais claims that women's rights were advanced during Pervez Musharaff's rule. However, Musharaff had commented publicly that women who want to emigrate to Canada falsely claim that they have been raped. Mehreen has ignored this chauvinistic statement which had created an outrage among international activists. Perhaps she should study the basic principles of feminism, and scan the daily papers before writing on the topic.

In addition to Musharaff, Ovais presents Benazir Bhutto, and PPP supporter Fouzia Saeed, as the champions of women's rights. In spite of being a woman, Benazir did not address gender inequalities in Pakistan. She paid little in agricultural taxes to redistribute resources. Consequently, poor women could not access the basic necessities of life. During Benazir's tenure, public budgets were cut and defense expenditure remained high. This misallocation of resources negatively impacted ordinary women, as access to health and education is crucial for them. Moreover, Bhutto did not create public housing projects for women, or establish free of charge quality schools for them. Specifically, public health was allocated only 0.8 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), while 2.4 per cent of (GDP) was allocated to education during Bhutto's term. It follows that privileged women such as Benazir Bhutto and Fouzia Saeed cannot be assumed to fight for the rights of oppressed women, simply because they happen to be women. Their class interests certainly come first. --ASMA SIDDIQI

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