A new book of essays edited by parliamentarian Sherry Rehman offers insight into the past, present and future of the country’s women’s rights movement
Womansplaining: Navigating Activism, Politics and Modernity in Pakistan, as edited by Sherry Rehman and published by the Jinnah Institute, has put Pakistan’s deep-seated misogyny on record.
This remarkable collection of essays was put together by one of Pakistan’s most distinguished and talented women, who is a fourth-term parliamentarian, diplomat, and civil-society activist, having served as the Leader of opposition in the Senate; Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United States and federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting. She is currently the Parliamentary Leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party in the Senate, as well as the architect of several of Pakistan’s rights laws, and has received Pakistan’s highest civil award, the Nishan-e-Imtiaz.
Asma Jahangir and other leaders of women
It is worth repeating Rehman’s list of people who influenced her life: “One who shaped my life was Asma Jahangir. She was both a human rights guide and friend through many trials. We came together when she was busy fighting many fires, when I was a young journalist, and later at the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, after which we collaborated in many ventures inspiring and challenging many women. The indefatigable Shehla Zia, without whose selfless legislative drafting and activist embrace many of my earlier bills would be incomplete, and Anis Haroon, who built collaborative forums at Aurat Foundation, deserve much of my gratitude.
“Among the many who left lasting legacies, Zubeida Habib Rahimtoola, Nigar Ahmed, Najma Sadeque, Tahira Mazhar Ali, Fehmida Riaz and especially Sabeen Mahmud, all helped shape many minds and activisms, including my own. Justice (retd.) Majida Razvi, who served as the first woman judge of a High Court (Sindh) in Pakistan, and whose quiet valor as the Chair of the National Commission on the Status of Women in actually pushing hard to reform the Hudood Ordinances was exemplary, has always been a steadfast ally any hour of the day.
“Others, who continue to make their mark as diehard fighters for women’s rights but could not be included, such as Nasreen Azhar, Rubina Saigol, Tahira Abdullah, Kishwar Naheed, Mukhtar Mai, Farzana Bari, Nighat Saeed Khan, Zubeida Mustafa, Amar Sindhu, Arfana Mallah, Uzma Noorani, Tasneem Ahmar, Sheema Kermani and Beena Sarwar, have formed the bedrock of the vibrant and resilient women’s movement. Without the efforts of these women, and many more unsung women across the country, Pakistani women would not be where they are today.”
“Womansplaining is not a term many will take to,” notes Rehman. “That’s alright. Unlike the term mansplaining coined by Rebecca Solnit to describe how men often tend to explain things to women, in ways that are condescending and overconfident, ‘womansplaining’ is not a signifier of either. It is a term that I appropriate for finding a voice. Amplifying it and using it to level up priorities, tell stories, build bridges, fight misogyny, take down patriarchy, etc.”
In 2018, Pakistan ranked sixth on the list of the most dangerous countries for women. More recently, several events have exposed the dirty underbelly of crimes against women in the most egregious way all over South Asia, with an obvious rise in reported rape cases in 2020. Many women in Pakistan have experienced some form of physical, emotional or psychological abuse from an intimate partner. A high-profile rape of a woman traveling from Lahore to Gujranwala—in front of her young children—led to a high-voltage public campaign on social and mainstream media to find and punish the perpetrators. Despite public commitments to change from all the mainstream political parties, a delay in police response and the subsequent reaction of Lahore Capital City Police Officer Umar Sheikh indulging in victim-blaming is a perfect indicator of the state’s real posture.
This book brings together essays from 22 Pakistani women. Setting the tone, with her frontline role in starting up Shirkat Gah, Farida Shaheed draws on her life-long experience of activism to reflect on the women’s rights movement as it stands today. She teases out strands of Women’s Action Forum movement of the 1980s to the post-democracy era, telescoping a brief history, mile-stoning events and factors that contributed to the shift, while also appreciating the newer forms of feminist activism and its focus on the personal as well as small-scale interventions. In doing so she clearly positions the early women’s movement in Pakistan as reactive, state-focused and adversarial.
Aurat March and male reaction
Rehman highlights the Aurat March, an annual demonstration organized in various cities of Pakistan including Lahore, Hyderabad, Sukkur, Karachi, Islamabad and Peshawar, to observe International Women’s Day. The first Aurat March was held on March 8, 2018 in Karachi. In 2019, it was organized in Lahore and Karachi by a women’s collective called Hum Auratein (We the Women), and in other parts of the country, including Islamabad, Hyderabad, Sukkur, Quetta, Mardan, and Faisalabad, by Women Democratic Front (WDF), Women Action Forum (WAF), and others. The book has Rimmel Mohydin (a former member of Newsweek Pakistan’s staff) describing how Aurat March was sought to undermine by some men:
“Like everyone else who followed the march on the internet, I saw the trickle of trolls turn into a tsunami. Some dangerous men decided to use their megaphones to slut-shame the organizers, participants and supporters. Parliamentarian Aamir Liaquat Hussain took it upon himself to champion the cause of men. First, he beseeched the prime minister to set aside the business of governing the country to investigate the demonstration as a work of foreign agents, because only women in the West wanted equality. Then he used photographs of Imaan Hazir, a young lawyer and activist, and made a video to spread falsehoods about her because she poked fun at his fragile masculinity on Twitter. Liaquat has successfully incited murder in the past. It would be foolish to not be terrified of his clout.
“Orya Maqbool Jan, a journalist, shook his fists on TV, defending the inalienable men’s right to harass women with unsolicited dick pics. In the past, Maqbool Jan has demanded that Pakistan resume public executions and advocated the lynching of the wronged Aasia Bibi. No one is taking away the column inches he has in a newspaper. No one is taking him off the airwaves. In an attempt to be glib, I tweeted questioning why he felt so wronged by a placard that said ‘Dick pics apne pass rakho’. I got calls from well-wishers telling me to be careful. I bet no one ever tells him that.
“The asymmetry becomes all the more pronounced because the space that women’s activists are losing is being handed over to the likes of Aamir Liaquat Hussain and Orya Maqbool Jan. They have wasted no time in using their pulpits to further the interests of male populism. Their influence can be quantified. Not long after they had drowned the Aurat March in a sea of misogyny (and worse), news emerged that someone had taken the March organizers to court.”
Religion as patriarchal politics
An especially noteworthy in the book is “Contesting the Class Question: Moving beyond Piety and Patriarchy” by Afiya Shehrbano Zia. She is a professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and brings 20 years of experience to research, teaching and activism. She has taught at the University of Toronto, Canada and Habib University in Pakistan and has authored three books—the most recent one being Faith and Feminism in Pakistan; Religious Agency or Secular Autonomy? Zia has conducted over two dozen research studies for development agencies, drafted policies and prepared gender analyses for the Government of Pakistan on women’s shelters, post-conflict services, electoral participation of women, special education and the merger of former FATA. She is an active member of the Women’s Action Forum, serves on the board of the Trust for Democratic Education and Accountability, and is an advisory member of the Center for Secular Space, U.K.
She writes: “Unless the question of class and structural issues to do with the political economy are addressed head on, and religiosity clearly confronted as the vanguard of patriarchal politics, there is every danger that the women’s movement in Pakistan may become limited to a form of resistance with symbolic or performative relevance only, rather than taking the lead in transformative structural change. Without opportunity to make class the base on which the feminist movement pivots, its politics will be lost in the virtual noise of social media. Serious work has to be conducted on the political economy, gender and class resistance. The inability to do so could mean the potential loss of a new feminism that furthers the achievements of an earlier generation.
“The strategic approach of feminists of the Women’s Action Forum during the 1990s was to frame their activism in secular terms and to speak for a pluralistic Pakistan. Some rights activists were convinced that reinterpretive efforts to sieve patriarchy out from a male-defined Islam could empower women but in effect such a process succeeded only in fueling the rise of pietist women’s movements in the form of Al Huda and Jamia Hafsa. During the war on terror the rise of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other militant groups saw a systematic drive to remove any signs of womanhood from the public sphere, including prohibitions on education. Conservative anti-women legislation and policies were promoted in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa under the rule of mainstream Islamists and women’s pietist messages were spread through mosques and the media, resulting in a reversal of progress for women.
“The backlash to the Aurat March was severe and included women from Islamist organizations who vehemently protested the marchers’ demands for sexual autonomy. This hostility presents a serious challenge to the young organizers and supporters of the March. Under the false objections of impropriety, the far more serious hostility to the Aurat March was because it placed sex and sexual rights on the public agenda. To secure these rights will involve uncomfortable confrontations over male sexual and class privilege across institutions; and the demands for sexual equality will require strategies that will fall outside the framework of Islamic rights. Pietist and Islamist women are not likely to be allies in this without a strategic agreement and without challenging the legal reasoning of Islamic laws and ethos?”
Women in parliament
Rehman puts it another way when discussing women’s participation in politics in her purple-patch essay “The Parliament Percentage: Token or Substance”: “The final point I make is that in the journey of women’s rights in Pakistan, whether in parliament or in the streets, milestones are vulnerable to reversal, with hard-won political gains forever under threat of review by coalitions citing versions of religion, culture or tradition. When not mounted in the name of the above, opposition to change comes simply from deep-seated patriarchal norms that cut across class and social pyramids. The path to resisting this kind of entrenched, reinforced gender inequality and discrimination has ways been long and circuitous.
“In spite of the years spent trying to move the rock up every morning, a woman’s search for moving the needle in politics often feels like a Sisyphean quest, where the rock rolls back down almost every night. Many women face that rock every morning with their daily dose of tea and misogyny but their resilience, if rewarded, is experienced most often in small increments of change. The passing of the years has brought some progress, but it has also reversed gains in a decade that seems to be clamoring for change through politics of a dangerous new ultra-nationalism. In this often fact-free, less tolerant world, universalism is not a color that is accommodated in arguments for incremental reform, let alone structural and systemic change.
“Politics in Pakistan remains a tradecraft where women’s rights are traded for bargains on seemingly unrelated concessions, and often necessitate the creation of an illusory win for the other side. Saving face for the men rooted in patriarchal privilege is not just a daily staple of diplomacy, but also in negotiations on women’s power in many pivotal discussions.
Looking to the future, Rehman adds: “The way forward is a minefield, littered with hidden dangers and the imminent threat of sudden reversals, but the one force multiplier that can bring larger majorities to the table to work collectively for social and political change is the strengthening of linkages between younger feminists, older activist leaders and parliamentarians, to re-bond as allies in reform. Although this trend is slowly changing, the contemporary recoil from mainstream politics will not help millennial feminists as they navigate a slew of new challenges.”
Facing the jaundiced judges
Sara Malkani in “From the Core of the Paradox: Reimagining the Courts as Gendered Spaces”, explains how for Pakistani women, access to justice is a difficult path with many obstacles. In this highly patriarchal society, women are prevented from going to the courts to seek justice. Even when they are able to go to court to demand enforcement of their rights, they are confronted with a broken system. Their ability to use the courts to access justice is essentially constrained by the fundamental weakness of the institution itself. Nonetheless, women in Pakistan cannot afford to give up on the judiciary. Courts offer the hope of remedying the widespread discrimination and violence that women face, and the promise of protection from oppression by the family, the community and state actors. There is much more work to be done to improve the judicial ‘Stem and this must be a priority for the women’s movement in the years ahead.”
Sarah Belal in “Caught in the Crosshairs: The Criminal Justice System” notes: “Pakistan’s criminal justice system needs to recognize that women convicted and sentenced to death for killing close family members who perpetrated gender-based violence against them deserve to have their sentences commuted. These women’s experiences of trauma and violence need to be taken into account at the time of conviction and sentencing. The government also needs to comply with its commitments under international treaties and conventions to which it is a signatory. For example, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that the “sentence of death shall not be imposed for crimes committed by persons below 18 years of age and shall not be carried out on pregnant women. One Kanizan Bibi, however, was sentenced to death despite reportedly being a juvenile at the time of the alleged offense.”
As Rehman notes, the term ‘womansplaining’ might attract its share of detractors, but that is exactly why the essays here are so pertinent. The time has come for the men of Pakistan to set aside their egos and listen to the women who know best the measures required to ensure their rights.