Feminism in Pakistan

Through out the history of our world women have been both neglected, suppressed and trodden down upon in an effort to systematically reduce them to a level lower then men for objectification as well as exploitation.  However women’s groups and movements have fought against this oppression and for the equality of women to grant them suffrage, free will, a respectable place in society as well as a chance to make something out of themselves. This is the ethos of feminism and  the feminist movement which has its roots in the 18th century in France. Finland was the first country to grant women “suffrage” or the right to vote in 1906, pleasantly enough our country who’s guiding and founding father the Qaid was anopen minded man adopted suffrage for Pakistani women as early as 1947, the year of our creation. However women were still not allowed to vote in the national elections till 1956 and since then have been struggling to increase their presence in the corridors of power.

Many of us think that feminism and the movement are a recent phenomena in Pakistan, naturally so as 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 is usually deemed an agenda of some foreign white hall of power which 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 Liaqut 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 the 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. After this came Bhutto era and this really 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 constitution which is often and rabidly quoted by all and ball in our land specifically states 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 “full participation of  women in all spheres of national life”

Then came the void of Zia’s brutal regime and the discriminatory laws introduced in the shape of the “Hudood Ordinance” and the Qanun-e-Shahadat Order (Law of Evidence Order). 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.

Basically we started off well and then just when things were looking up for our women folk one man introduced oppression into our very legal framework. The prime example of this is a sub division of the hudood ordinance or the law for Zina bil jabar meaning Rape. In this law If the woman who accuses a man of zina-bil-jabr (rape) cannot  prove to the judicial system that she was raped, she faces adultery  charges.  In order for a rapist to receive “hadd,” the maximum punishment  provided for under the Quran, either the rapist must  confess to the rape, or four pious adult Muslim men must witness the  “act of penetration” itself and testify against the rapist.

Today we remember a Mukhtar Mai and her courage to stand up for her rights but the most vicious incident in Pakistan’s history to me was born, when In1983, an orphaned, thirteen-year old girl Jehan Mina was allegedly  raped by her uncle and his sons, and became pregnant. She was unable to  provide enough evidence that she was raped. She was charged with adultery  and the court considered her pregnancy  as the proof of adultery. She was awarded the Tazir  punishment of one hundred lashes  and three years of rigorous imprisonment.

After zia’s regime had come to an unceremonious halt, the successive governments of Benazir Bhutto brought about many reforms for women in Pakistan and this period can be best described as a virtual bonanza for feminists in our land, as not only were women’s educational centres opened in five different universities but  the First women’s  bank was established  and we Pakistan acceded to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of  Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) on February 29, 1996. Our leader was for the first time in our history a woman and she paved the way for many of her sisters to become major players in politics as well as stakeholders in the halls of power.

The whole point of the history lesson though is that we as a nation were capable of change, reform and positive developments even after serious oppression in the Zia years rather than the bickering and the personal politics witnessed today in women’s action groups and movements. So where did the Pakistani feminist go awry? How were the ideals formed early on led astray and why is the feminist movement scorned today by equal numbers of the masses and elitists here.  I am not referring to the age old cries of foreign funded globe trotting hussies we hear from the pious ones but what of the intelligentsia that has always been supportive and valuable to the feminist movement?

To understand this we must first realize the difficulty of the task  these organizations have undertaken. In a land where religion deems a women’s testimony as half of a man, in which  martial rape is a daily and accepted occurrence. In which the submissiveness of the female is a behaviour programmed from birth and throughout upbringing, and where the legal system as well as the policing authorities would rather drag an Asma Jehangir through the streets then the feudal with private jails for their slaves from their mansions,  these individuals are fighting for women’s rights.

Yet when some of the same note worthy individuals reduce themselves to man bashing at social events. When the objective is only to meet and insult the male majority, when awards nights are held in lofty surroundings and prizes handed out to social glitterati alongside women who have devoted their entire lives and had trail blazing careers as well as contributed to change the whole thing starts to smell does it not?

Is it a fact lost on us that every organization needs some support and not people shying away from them due to the exclusionary nature of their practices? Granted we have a  Ruth Pfau a Begum Sughra Kazmi, a Nasreen Jalil and a Tahira Abdullah right now but who is going to take up the mantle for the future??  When the women of today prefer to say they are feminists but not fem – nazis what is going to be the future of women’s rights in Pakistan?  I thought this was troubling me but when I took input from a few women around me, who I might add are all working for their own livelihoods they were equally puzzled with where the feminist movement in Pakistan stands today and what are its goals. In fact one of them went as far as  saying and I quote
“These women of the year awards et al are reserved for the elite rather than delving deeper and honouring women who’re doing worthwhile things in a lower socio-economic strata”

Case in point a ceremony held to honour women recently at the Mohatta palace in Karachi completely failing to mention “Naseem Hameed” a woman athlete from the Pakistan army who just won gold in the SAF games. Shouldn’t women like Naseem be upheld as heroes for the upcoming generation of women in Pakistan? Maybe it is the generation F syndrome at work these days, maybe the women of Pakistan today feel complacent with their places in society or maybe those in the uber strata do, but there is still dire need for action, women still routinely qualify for jobs to be turned away as companies feel they cannot cut it in our work environment.

Let me quote a personal example. As a father of a doting 6 year old daughter I feel it is necessary that she be exposed to feminism so that she can grow up to consider herself equal. So that she can say ” I can do everything” rather than “this is what girls can do” but I do not think the events held by feminists in my city are conducive towards this goal because if I do not want my daughter to hear that women are weak, I also do not want her to hear that all men are exploitative beasts which should be kept either in a leash or at bay, get the picture?

What would impress me to take part would be transparency in feminist organizations, a flexibility to include rather than exclude the male members of our society and the ability to speak up for the common women of Pakistan, wake me up when that happens will ya?

Published in “The Friday Times”on 23.7/2010

  1. Thank you for using the picture I tweeted :p but more importantly, thank you for being such a refreshing change in the world of Feminism in Pakistan as we know it. Please keep writing and please keep writing! I am so moved by the example you give of your daughter….hits right home.

  2. Islam started the feminist movement when in an era where women were granted no rights at all, Islam gave them the right

    -to inherit
    -to demand whatever they wanted in a Nikah contract
    -to ask their husband for a divorce and if he does not provide one to take the case to a judge,
    -to keep their own name post-marriage
    -to keep possessions in their own name, and still have a right to ask their husbands for upkeep
    -to not be inherited by the sons of their husbands as part of his property

    The list goes on……



  3. In addendum to my above comment, let me clarify that unlike modern feminism that demands “equality” for women, Islam provides “equity”. Each gender has their rights over the other.

  4. As a gung-ho feminist – I agree with you (but only partially). There is a degree of exclusivity to the local feminist movement but there are a few reasons for this:
    1) In our society the rich ‘save’ the poor – that is our dynaamic
    2) Feminists are shapeless kaftan wearing banshees who suck the men of blood (and shapeless kaftans are exensive)
    1) Saving is going on – So what if they pat themselves on the back for it?
    2) Who cares what they wear or how they treat their boyfriends? Womens rights groups are doing some damn good work ( many of them at least )
    3) Feminism by definition is about women – but men can and have fought for womens rights too. To say “Please include us” doesn’t make sense. Many male lawyers are known for fighting for womens rights. Many female students will tell you that a male teacher inspired or mentored them. Male bosses may help female employees. The movement is not in the streets it is in our homes in our workplaces and in our schools. If you are indeed a feminist, and I have no doubt that you are, nothing and no one can stop you from acting like one.

  5. Im currently writing a 10,000 paper on rape in the UK and I came across a few cases in Pakistan.After reading the ordeals that the women have been through and still have not been given any justice. This is disappointing and awful in hearing that a country that is ment to follow Sharia law is unable to give women (mainly women from poor families) any justice. Even though I myself am not from Pakistan, my parents originate from there and hearing such news makes me want to help.
    Feminism is a subject I have studied over the years and from my knowledge it is safe for me to say that Pakistan is run on a patriarchal soceity. Women are dominated by men, in some cases maybe yes ok they will be dominated by men, but a woman has almost the same rights of fighting for justice.
    Even though I am living in the UK, I would be grateful if someone could tell me how I could get in touch with a feminist campaigner.


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