I remember – Nighat Said Khan

The Friday Times

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ASR Executive Director Nighat Said Khan remembers a bygone liberal Pakistan and an energetic women’s rights movement

I remember that as a girl, we hardly ever had access to a car, but at the same time, I felt freer because I was mobile. I don’t think I was ever stopped from riding my bicycle to wherever I wanted to. Before the car, the distance between the younger generations and the people was much less. There was a certain moral fibre that people would share across class. I can recall a gentler atmosphere vis-a-vis women. There was much more of us playing in the streets.

I remember the Gymkhana dances. I started going when I was 14. There were drinks for adults, but I don’t remember too much drunkenness. I don’t remember growing up with some sort of horror of alcohol, or even some excitement about it.

I remember that in my house we continued to celebrate holi and diwali because it was done pre-Partition. We didn’t really understand that India was a different country because my grandmother would come and go from Delhi, another city, like Karachi. It struck me in 1965 when there was a war.

I was at Columbia amid the civil rights, anti-war and sexual politics movements. Although my family settled in the US, I decided that I was going to work for and live in Pakistan, of course expecting the revolution to be around the corner. I remember my enormous disappointment when I came back to Lahore.

I remember how traumatised I was by the Maoists’ study circle on Tuesday evenings at Ijaz ul Hassan’s house. For one, I found it shocking that the Maoists were supporting Yahya Khan on Bangladesh, or if not supporting, they were utterly confused. Secondly, I found all the other women like extensions of the tea tray while the men sat and talked.

I remember Bhutto’s time as liberal for women. He also gave the people the nerve to talk back. There was a certain giddy optimism in Pakistan. I remember it in the ’50s; we were going to construct this new country. I remember it in the ’60s despite Ayub Khan. It dipped, but then it returned with Bhutto and then after, it was if the door had been slammed shut.

I remember many of us women teaching at the Punjab and Quaid-e-Azam universities wore jeans and t-shirts to work and I was sharing a house with two male colleagues while in Islamabad. When I was charge-sheeted by the universities, it was for political reasons; nobody raised the question about my morality. The atmosphere was more, “Where are you politically?” and if you were too left and raised questions about the university, you were a problem, but lifestyle didn’t come into it.

When Zia took over, it was the first time I heard of chadr and char diwari. Although we saw burqas now and then, this was an entirely new concept in Pakistan.

I again went to study abroad and returned just as the first Women’s Action Forum meeting had ended. This was something one had been waiting for. I remember the next meeting. The fact that even 20 of us had the same thoughts and feelings gave us a high and the feeling that Islamisation and the military could be challenged. We were the first in the opposition to break the silence and soon we had taken on a leadership position within the Left. It was different for men because Islamisation didn’t have an immediate impact on their lives. Those were to be the women’s movement’s innovative and creative years.

I remember when The Law of Evidence was being passed. Hina Jilani came to a WAF meeting and announced there would be a demonstration on 12th February. I recall that Farida Shahid, Samina Rehman and myself went to villages and small towns, sending telegrams to Kamir Ifsahani of the shura (hand-picked parliament) saying that “We don’t want the Law of Evidence.” The following day, she stood in front of the shura, clutching the telegrams saying, “Women from all over Pakistan are against this Law of Evidence!”
A year later we wanted to observe the anniversary of the first beating up of women on 12th February, 1983 in Lahore and I remember we decided to plaster the city with posters at 3am.

I remember we couldn’t have demonstrations, so we would organise melas with plays and songs at the YMCA that would carry our message against the Law of Evidence. We took inspiration from the MRD’s activism in the ’80s. They had feigned a bharat procession, another time they had feigned women buying jewellery in Anarkali. When they got the call, the started demonstrating. When the police came, they put back on their wedding suits or went back to buying bangles. I think we’ve forgotten how to laugh. I’ve forgotten.
I remember those years of very intense and close friendships in the women’s movement before we all settled into our careers. I remember the earnest political and personal discussions and the openness to explore and grapple at something. I remember there was a sadness when this started going away. Now we think we’ve arrived. It’s about who has the best anecdote or who wins an argument.
I think the biggest problem has been with the Left. There is an enormous contradiction between our politics and lifestyles. There are still men in the Left whose wives I’ve never met. There is a nagging disappointment with myself. I don’t think we had to make as many personal compromises to a comfortable materialist lifestyle as we have.

As told to Imaduddin Ahmed

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