More often than not, social change is the result of organized movements that manage to attract mass appeal to a cause. While there is general agreement around the world that centuries of oppression, sidelining, deliberate exclusion, overt and systemic violence, and an array of injustices against women must transform into more equal, inclusive, and just public and private spheres, the ways of pursuing this end goal vary widely.
Pakistan is not isolated from the bigger, worldwide cause of women’s rights.
But what appears to be a movement for women’s rights in Pakistan is more subject to controversy than meaningful change.
This reality, which has prevailed for over five years now and is becoming louder each year as International Women’s Day approaches, prompts the urgent question: Is there an indigenous feminist movement in Pakistan?
Movements: The Women of Pakistan
Though indigeneity is paradoxically a buzzword in post-colonial states, dissecting the current wave of a seeming feminist movement in the country can help peel some layers of the controversy that surrounds it. It started off in 2018 in three major cities in Pakistan, and despite being modest in numbers, the street demonstrations coupled with pre- and post-echoes in the digital space caused some unsettling ripples. Not before did the country see young women dancing, singing, and sloganeering the way they did on March 8 of that year. But contrary to what some might have anticipated, the loud cries didn’t fade away afterward, and Aurat March or Aurat Azadi March became a regular annual occurrence.
It is natural to expect any organized movement to be premature in its early years, but the very origin of the Aurat March in and from Lahore, Islamabad, and Karachi makes clear that the spearheads of the movement are no other than urban, working women. And though this is not something unique to Pakistan; other countries in South Asia also saw urban, middle- or upper-class women leading such similar causes, it raises a question on who is being represented and if (over) 48% of the country’s female population feels seen and heard through this movement. Five years on, the yearly processions are also held in other cities in addition to the three urban centres, but they still do not qualify as a mass movement in the making.
Pakistan remains a society with strong conservative underpinnings. The reason why so many women are averse to the Aurat March can be conveniently grounded in this fact. But is Aurat March the only face of a women’s movement in the country?
A closer examination reveals parallel, expansive, and well-organized women’s collectives, but with very different values.
For example, Al-Huda remains a ‘street and corner’ movement that builds on values promoting religious education and the learning of women and girls. This is also a facet of empowering women, but in an entirely different manner. In contrast to Aurat March, society’s receptivity to Al-Huda or anything similar to it is magnanimous, whereas the latter is perceived as an intrusion and disruption.
The Footprints of Change
The digital footprint of Aurat March city chapters has not declined per se, but an inability to penetrate or at least mobilise at the grass-roots level appears to be a major drawback to the momentum with which a could-be feminist movement in Pakistan surfaced. 153 out of 156 and 145 out of 146 have a gender gap, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Reports of 2021 and 2022. Pakistan can benefit from an organised struggle to mainstream women and uplift them in social, economic, political, and cultural hierarchies. But the country has seen a history of pocketed, scattered, left-driven women’s movements and the current wave seems not very different.
The earliest women’s welfare organization, the All Pakistan Women Association (APWA), was mainly a collective of elite women in politics to generously give away to rehabilitate women who were homeless after the partition. The enactment of family laws in 1962 is also largely credited to the activism and campaigning of these women and their successors. It now operates as a regular NGO.
Another prominent collective was the Women’s Action Forum (WAF), which was more action-oriented and meant to protest and bring down the set of laws that were seemingly discriminatory towards women. These were the infamous 1980s, which history recalls as the Zia era, and the legislation was the Hudood Ordinance. WAF has long proclaimed itself a feminist organisation and remains the force behind the current wave. However, it has intertwined itself unbreakably with the socialist left, and the wave whose face is Aurat March is heavily under the shadow of elite bearers of socialist values.
This union, by far, remains the prime reason behind the perception that a legitimate women’s rights movement has not been allowed to nurture and has been hijacked already. A woman sitting on the floor of a mud-house veranda in a faraway village in Punjab, slicing vegetables for the evening meal, on seeing modern, urban women chanting Azadi on the TV screen while holding placards she cannot read, will probably perceive what she sees as too bold and too prohibited a thing to do. This gap makes the ongoing wave of feminist activism very exclusive to urban, middle-class women.
Unwillingness to reach far and become far-inclusive will ultimately steal a long life from this not-so-native feminist movement in Pakistan.
Of Paradoxes and Awakenings
Indigeneity is contested in the global south. Trying to break free from colonial influences can easily make post-colonial people oblivious to the swift sweeping in of new masters called “donors” and “development programmes.” Gender equality and women’s rights in the less-privileged world are very susceptible to such interventions. Pakistan is no exception, and for surface-level movements not drawing mass appeal, subtle interventions may further empower the already empowered at the cost of meaningful change.
The sociology of the current wave tells us that the drivers behind this activism are left-leaning privileged women of the middle and upper classes. This is what betrays the trust of women, who are increasingly on the receiving end. When slogans are erected on socialist values and the flag bearers are seen benefiting directly from the blessings of the capitalist system, a paradox is generated. This paradox lies at the core of stripping away any traces of indigeneity from a seeming feminist movement in Pakistan.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of the South Asia Times.