A Brief History Of The Women’s Movement In Pakistan

By: Sherry Rahman

Since 2015, far more women than ever before self-identify as feminists and Pakistan has an articulate third generation of feminists. Some millennial activists have joined WAF but, although a new WAF (Woen Action Forum) chapter opened in Hyderabad in 2008 — quickly becoming the most active — and a WAF chapter has recently been launched in Quetta as well, these are led by women from the ‘in-between generation’ and WAF no longer provides the cohesive identity of a national movement as it once did. Feeling marginalised in existing structures dominated by older women, young feminists have formed their own groups, often as collectives, including Girls at Dhabas, the Feminist Collective, Feminist Fridays, the Women’s Collective and the Women’s Democratic Front — some affiliated with left groups. The volition, modalities and priorities of young feminists differ significantly. The concepts and praxis of activism are dissimilar. Older feminists, including many from the ‘in-between generation’, tend to conceive of activism in classical political terms and therefore focus collective action on state laws and policies, leaving the reshaping of the daily praxis of gender relations to personal initiatives. In contrast, while some young feminists have engaged in important legislative processes, the majority concentrate on bringing about societal changes with a focus on personal lives. Modalities differ. Aiming to change the contours and gender dynamics of the immediate communities they inhabit, younger feminists engage in the politics of presence, occupying physical and online spaces to do so. Today, social media, rather than mainstream news media, is the primary location of discursive battles in which younger women are more prominent. Young feminists enjoin a more forceful expressive dimension of the movement through social media initiatives and novel approaches, such as stand-up comedy, an engagement that provides a crucial counterpoint to the aggressively waged discursive battle of far better resourced religious right forces. In the 1980s, activists did deploy humour, but fell short of fully developing an expressive dimension of the movement. Finally, today’s feminists prioritise sexuality, an issue that older activists always acknowledged but failed to address publicly. The different priorities of the new generation are attributable, at least in part, to changed circumstances. The catalyst for activists of the 1980s movement, a state bent upon overturning women’s rights, is absent. Instead, the new generation confronts policing and harassment by social actors on a daily basis. The immediacy of these encounters and the ensuing frustrations make such issues seem more relevant than distant laws, propelling a greater interest in reshaping gender dynamics and power relations in everyday practices than in struggling to ensure rights by engaging with the state. The failure of decades of activism to significantly change the daily reality of misogyny is likely to have prompted a loss of confidence in the state’s ability to achieve the desired change, deepening the reluctance to engage with the state in terms of challenging laws and policies or proposing new ones.

Without dispelling this mistrust and building bridges, activists will find it difficult to create the interconnected support system and coalescing force that lends activism a more definite movement identity, such as WAF provided earlier. One advantage of society-focused activism is that it lends itself more easily to spontaneous actions of individuals or small groups of women — the dispersed feminism Basu refers to. In comparison, far greater organisational management is required to deploy and sustain concerted collective action typical of movements, especially those aiming to influence state policies. Over time, this management tends to become centralised and thus more hierarchical. It also often requires greater resources to maintain. Engaging in society-oriented activism may be better placed to avoid binding structures and the need to secure finances. But transcending the confines of small actions entails its own dynamics and challenges, as evident when young feminists brought their politics, including of sexuality, on to the streets and into public view in 2018 and 2019. On March 8, 2018, young feminists in Karachi organised the first Aurat March (Women’s March) under a new banner, Hum Aurtein (We Women). They were assisted by some older feminists. Thousands participated from all generations and classes, along with trans and rainbow activists. A smaller march was held in Lahore as well. Unlike earlier demonstrations organised to protest against or demand something specific, Aurat March was an occasion for everyone to express themselves. The homemade placards were more imaginative and humorous than those seen at previous movement events. One stating ‘Heat your own food’ should have been unobjectionable but provoked a social media backlash. The success of the Karachi march fired people’s imaginations and rallies multiplied the following year. In several major cities across the country, the 2019 Aurat March attracted thousands of people. In more remote areas such as Bannu, women held smaller rallies. A handful of placards (‘Warm your own bed’, ‘Keep dick pics to yourself’, an image of a woman sitting with her legs apart, stating ‘Now I am seated appropriately’) unleashed a furious misogynist reaction, including condemnation by lawmakers, family backlash and at least one attempt to file a police case against the organisers in Lahore. These reactions conveniently ignored all the other posters demanding better working conditions, stronger laws, rights for workers and rural women and addressing many other ‘serious’ issues. They also ignored the presence of veiled women, including a burqa-clad woman whose placard read ‘My dress, my decision’. Surprisingly, while many older activists were delighted that these crucial issues had finally been catapulted into the public arena, some felt the posters were inappropriate and risked alienating women. Forgetting the crucial role that notions of respectability play in maintaining patriarchy, these activists contributed, perhaps inadvertently, to the politics of respectability. Other internal critics, who felt the posters detracted attention from the issues of rural and grassroots women, overlooked the fact that grassroots women themselves did not object. A positive and encouraging development is that a number of women legislators joined the Aurat March and reactions were not unidirectional: politicians, journalists and people on social media extended support as well.


It is unclear whether this new activism will take the shape of an organised social movement or remain a period of more dispersed feminism. Generational differences among gender-equality activists are not unique to Pakistan. Across the globe, younger women are prioritising the politics of sexuality and, in Latin America for example, thousands of large rallies have been organised by women disenchanted with institutional activism, both with respect to more formal women’s organisations and direct engagement with the state.

Change is essential for movement continuity. The focus on sexuality of Pakistan’s younger generation fills an important gap in earlier activism, and their society-oriented activism complements the state-focused and policy-oriented struggle of older activists. However, state laws, policies and narratives always impact women’s lives in multifarious ways, and past experience makes it abundantly clear that the state can never be ignored. The experience of the 2019 Aurat March may propel younger feminists to greater engagement with the state. If not, this will leave a significant vacuum in the movement. Keeping an eye on the state is all the more important as Pakistan pursues “the art of making dictatorship look like democracy” (Tom Hussain, 2018). New strategies are needed in the face of new challenges; the steady erosion of space for civil society, debate and dissent; increasing surveillance of CSOs and interference from intelligence agencies; and the use of terrorism threats to clamp down on human rights groups in Pakistan, as in other countries. While women’s organisations that remain true to the ideals of feminism and linked to the movement can advance the movement by engaging with state institutions and providing institutional support, this may become increasingly difficult. Less formalised structures to achieve societal change may offer important advantages — one reason WAF never registered was to avoid such controls. Internally, activists must overcome generational mistrust and bridge the approaches of differently located activists. Older activists believe that younger women tend to ignore the broader political dynamics, are less interested in structural change than in changing personal lives, and more interested in engaging with international movements than in building a national movement. The online activism of younger feminists is seen to exclude grassroots women, their actions are viewed as highly individualistic and some of their concerns are considered to be elitist.

Younger feminists believe that older activists operate in exclusionary hierarchies of power, have a know-it-all attitude that devalues younger women’s experience and perspective, and are resistant to listening to and learning from others. Without dispelling this mistrust and building bridges, activists will find it difficult to create the interconnected support system and coalescing force that lends activism a more definite movement identity, such as WAF provided earlier. An important show of solidarity and strength, until very recently, the Aurat March was only an annual event and it is unclear whether Hum Aurtein is designed to operate as a movement in the future. Without interconnectedness and identity, the different strands of activism and organisational bases risk remaining disparate initiatives, leaving Pakistani women’s rights activism in the ‘feminism’ state described by Basu, rather than as a recognisable movement. Most recently, in September 2020, the immediate country-wide response to the gang-rape of a woman on the Lahore-Islamabad motorway, coupled with the outrageous misogynist statement of the Lahore Chief of Police (CCPO Umar Sheikh) on the incident, indicates that the women’s movement is very much alive — and also has numerous male supporters. Several demonstrations were co-organised by Aurat March, WAF and numerous other organisations. With Aurat March stepping out of its role of being a once-a-year rallying point, it could become the leading face of the movement with others, including WAF, supporting it. This would certainly help to develop a more cohesive women’s and gender-equality movement.


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