History of Feminist Movements in Pakistan

The history of Feminist Movements in Pakistan is not new. It dates back to the inception of Pakistan. Feminists are those who dare to break the conspiracy of silence about oppression, and 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.”

Feminist Movements in Pakistan

Keeping this in view, one might argue that feminism in Pakistan is a complete myth. Ever since its independence, Pakistan has 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 internalize 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.

Broadly speaking, there are two dominant threads of feminist discourse in Pakistan: a modem, Islamic feminism, and 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 extension of basic human rights, regardless of any religious connotations.

Once again, these women are labeled as protagonists of western culture by those who misconstrue Islamic teachings to suit feed their own, chauvinistic principles.

Unfortunately, what most people fail to realize is that feminism in Pakistan 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 eyewitnesses for their claim to be accepted.

He banned women from taking part and from being spectators of sports and promoted purdah. He suspended all fundamental rights guaranteed in the Constitution that had been adopted in 1973, including the right to be free of discrimination on the basis of sex.

He also proposed laws regarding Qisas and Diyat, Islamic penal laws governing retribution (qisas) and compensation (diyat) in crimes involving bodily injury.

When the victim was a woman, the amount of diyat was halved. 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 the 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 urged 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 the Burqa mandatory, and honor 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, the Protection of Women Act, the Status of Women Bill, and sundry regulations condemning honor 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 the more democratic scope and resonates with the pluralistic feminist movement worldwide, as opposed to being restricted to just Pakistan and Islam.

Pakistan needs 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 flavors, have to be content with voicing their opinions through non-governmental organizations 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’s 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.

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 of its time and a commendable effort on Rangeela’s part.

Many of us think that feminism and the movement are recent phenomena in Pakistan, naturally, so most of our media outlets still demonize this movement as not just against our religion but influenced by foreign and specifically Zionist policy.

This is sadly a very far cry from the truth but then anything in Pakistan which does not suit the popular and corrupt mindset has usually been deemed an agenda of some foreign white hall of power that forever hangs over us in our imaginations.

This new modern liberating mindset as it is painted has been around ever since the days of Fatima Jinnah who was one of the prime examples of a feminist and a person who fought for women’s rights throughout her life.

Rana Liaquat Ali khan who founded the “United front for women’s rights” was another pioneer in activism in those days.

In fact, the early days of feminism in Pakistan were met with great success as women not only achieved the right to vote but made it part of the constitution to have representation reserved for them in the Parliament from 1956 to 1973.

Bhutto era opened up all government services to women including the district management group and the foreign service (in the civil service), which had been denied to them earlier. About 10 percent of the seats in the National Assembly and 5 percent in the provincial assemblies were reserved for women in this era.

The 73 constitutions which are often and rabidly quoted by all and all in our land specifically state that “there shall be no discrimination on the basis of sex alone.” The Constitution additionally affords the protection of marriage, family, the mother, and the child as well as ensuring the “full participation of women in all spheres of national life”.

So, now when you are preparing for your CSS Examination, you must read this History of Feminist Movements in Pakistan. This is really a hot topic in CSS Gender Studies subject.

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