Long day’s journey

Imaduddin Ahmed and Ume-Laila Azhar | The Friday Times

The Women’s Action Forum celebrates its silver jubilee; it started in a blaze, but where has it gone?

In September 1981, women came together in Karachi in an emergency meeting to oppose the adverse effects on women of martial law and Gen Zia ul-Haq’s Islamisation campaign. They launched what was to become the opposition movement to Zia ul-Haq and brought renewed energ to the national women’s movement in Pakistan, initiated by Begum Rana Liaquat Ali Khan in 1949 with the creation of the All Pakistan Women’s Association (APWA). In 1981, they founded the Women’s Action Forum (WAF).

WAF grew steadily in its first two years, opening branches in Lahore and Islamabad. However, WAF’s rise to national and international prominence did not come until February 12, 1983 when the Pakistan Women Lawyers Association organised a march on the Lahore High Court, in which many WAF members participated to protest Zia’s Law of Evidence. The march was the first public demonstration by any group against a martial law. Police broke up the demonstration using tear gas and batons, injuring some women and arresting nearly 50 others. Pictures of the courageous women being lathi-charged by the police were plastered in cities in which WAF had set base. WAF, along with women’s rights issues, were catapulted onto the national scene.

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Jugnu Mohsin takes on a police woman, 12 February, 1983

WAF staged public protests and campaigns against the Hudood Ordinances, the Law of Evidence (which was watered down to be virtually ineffective), the Qisas and Diyat laws (temporarily shelved as a result), the Ansari Commission’s report, and the proposed 9th Constitutional Amendment. The Amendment, which was defeated in part because of effective opposition by women, would have placed the hard-won Muslim Family Laws Ordinance of 1961 under the jurisdiction of the Federal Shariat Court.

WAF also lobbied for reserved quotas for women in the civil service as well as in elected government bodies. These were recently granted by the Musharraf administration.

However, in challenging Zia’s policies, WAF found itself challenging ‘Islam’ and denounced as ‘un-Islamic,’ although nearly all of its members were Muslim. WAF’s quandary went to the heart of the relationship between religion and women’s rights in Pakistani politics: it raised the question of what it means to be ‘Islamic’ and whether, in an Islamic country, women’s rights should be founded on the basis of Islamic or secular reasoning.

Some members promoted an understanding of Islam that supports and protects equality for women, and believed that this approach would be more persuasive to the majority of Pakistan’s women. Other WAF members vehemently opposed this approach, saying that it would subject to religious interpretation rights that are already established as universal and fundamental, and that the approach should not be modified to accord with local cultural circumstances. WAF’s stance is secular.

On 5 November, 2006 WAF celebrated its 25 years of struggle by recalling its struggles and achievements.

Over 500 women attended the celebration, hosted at Lahore’s National College of Arts. 200 were upper middle class WAF members, mostly from Lahore, some from Karachi, Islamabad and Faisalabad. The other 300 were workers, recruited from the working women’s organisation, women recruited by women local councillors and students recruited from local colleges and schools. Men were not admitted until 2pm because of space limitations – NCA’s hall was packed to capacity – and also to ensure female participants felt comfortable dancing.

Sara Zaman sung a powerful rendition of Habib Jalib’s poem – the poem Habib Jalib recited on February 12, 1983 before he was beaten by police and women protesters broke the police cordon. A pithy satirical performance in Urdu put on by Salima Hashmi and Samina Ahmed had the audience in fits of laughter. Their play, Tarmeem (amendment), criticised amendments in democratic laws that violated women’s rights.

In its resolution WAF demanded repeal of the Hudood, qisas and diyat, evidence and blasphemy laws. It called for reforms in inheritance, property and adoption laws, voiced its opposition to Bretton Woods organisations, the privatisation of the First Women’s Bank, the use of force in Bajaur, Waziristan and Balochistan, the War on Terror and nuclear arms and called for the future of Kashmir to be decided by Kashmiris.

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WAF and allies protest the Afghanistan invasion, Rawalpindi, 6 November, 2001

Tough talk

Imaduddin Ahmed interviews two Women’s Action Forum founders, Nighat Said Khan (Executive Director, ASR) and Khawar Mumtaz (Coordinator, Shirkat Gah)

How does WAF regard Islam?

NSK: WAF demands a secular state. Aurat Foundation and Shirkat Gah (women’s rights NGOs run by WAF members) will talk about misinterpretation of Islam when they discuss the Hudood Ordinances, but it is not WAF’s policy to cite Islam in its arguments for women’s rights.

KM: At a personal level, I feel Islam stands for dignity and women’s respect, but discussing rights of women in Islam should be left to Islamic scholars. In any case, hairsplitting takes you away from the issue of women’s rights. WAF doesn’t want to get engaged in a debate on Islam.

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Nighat Said Khan, 12 February, 1983

WAF is associated with ‘posh women’. What would you say to this?

NSK: WAF isn’t the women’s movement. WAF doesn’t have members from all classes. But it does articulate the concerns of women all over Pakistan. For example, peasant’s rights and women’s rights regarding land, domestic violence, rape cases victims ?they are all pushed for by WAF.

The women’s movement would include every woman who is fighting to be educated in her own village, any woman who wants to marry of her own free choice, any woman who wants health care and makes an effort for that or challenges patriarchy in any way.

The Islamic movement is also articulated by middle and upper middle class maulvis. And then their points of view are filtered through the maulvis at the village level. It’s not at the village level that people interpret the Quran. It takes huge scholarship for a sect to decide its direction.

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Khawar Mumtaz, second left, November 1984 

KM: Members of WAF and their organisations work for issues of women who have really been oppressed. Safia bibi, who was half-blind when she was raped, and Safaran bibi were not ‘posh women’.

If you take the issues of employment or women being violated within family laws, most of the cases that are publicly taken up are for the poor women.

It’s just so easy to label people and dismiss their work. Nigar Ahmad or Farida Shahid or myself, we could have sat at home and remained protected. We are raising the voice for women in Pakistan at large.

It’s been 27 years and we still have the Hudood Oridnance. How successful would you say WAF has been in its campaigns?

KM: We’ve achieved the sense that we can change things. Our energy spread across the country to the grassroots activists. But there is a long way to go and we have to challenge the dominant norms, policies and people.

Some of the issues that we reacted to in forming WAF – some of the discriminatory laws – are still there. The Law of Evidence got so watered down that it’s neither here nor there. We’ve succeeded in getting women a higher representation in the government. On the other hand, a lot of oppression is happening through other structures: the feudal structure, for example.

It is a matter of success that debate on the Hudood Ordinance has been reopened. There was a time when it was untouchable. Even the religious parties say there is a problem in the law itself, and that’s a big achievement.

What are daughters of WAF now doing?

NSK: The daughters of WAF are happily using the space their mothers have made and have all the advantages of that space, whether it’s education, dancing, the type of jobs they get. They’ve also benefited from the struggle that APWA started.

The mothers and fathers, because they’re feminists, support what their daughters do. So there’s a comfort level the younger generation have. They feel as if there’s nothing to fight for.

I’m sure if one of them wanted to run off with the driver or go into the mountains for a revolution or risk their lives for a political revolution, their parents would be horrified. But because those daughters aren’t doing anything radical, anything that’s creating new space, their parents don’t object and they have no need to rebel.

We’re not breaking ground.

Does new space need to be created?

NSK: Yes. There are whole issues which the women’s movement hasn’t yet addressed, like sexuality. When sexuality is discussed, it’s always rape. It’s not discussed as the daily occurrence that women are obliged to have sex with their husbands when they don’t want to; they have to lie it and take it.

Women’s desire is never articulated either. Women’s own sexual needs are shyed away from. We’ve covered ourselves in a way. Marginalised sexuality is hardly addressed.

KM: We may have made a dent in certain areas, but we haven’t removed all the oppression. We want more spaces for women in the political arena.

Can men be members?

NSK: No. Membership is open to Pakistani women or women in Pakistan.

Photo credit: Lala Rukh

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