Holding up half the sky
“Women hold up half the sky” was how Mao Zedong famously described the critical importance of equal rights and equal participation of women in national life. Pakistan’s founder, Quaid-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah was even more emphatic about women’s roles when he said “No nation can rise to the height of glory unless women are side by side with men.”
In Pakistan, women’s struggle to claim half the sky has been long and arduous – one that has seen both gains and setbacks. But it has never dampened the hopes of women to seek equal rights and opportunities that the Constitution of Pakistan solemnly promises them – but which in practice remain elusive. Sherry Rahman’s ‘Womansplaining’ reflects these hopes and aspirations in a volume of essays by a distinguished group of contributors. They include activists and pioneers of the women’s movement and female professionals from different backgrounds, who have played a key role in making women’s voices heard in diverse spheres of life.
Rahman, who has edited this anthology, is herself a woman of many parts – politician, minister, former journalist and editor, diplomat, Think Tank founder, and activist. Her own professional journey has also sought to amplify women’s voices and earned her respect for it. Her book is appropriately dedicated to the memory of the late Benazir Bhutto, who broke many glass ceilings to become the first woman to be elected Prime Minister of a Muslim country.
The book is a serious contribution to women’s studies. It brings impressive scholarship to an important subject. It provides a history of the movement as well as its contemporary, post-millennial expression, and its changing norm-challenging and path breaking nature. It delves into the many areas that affect and are affected by women. Rahman wants the volume to stimulate thought, analysis and action on the challenges and hurdles women face in Pakistan as well as on future strategies. The key question the book raises is of whether there is a coherent and sustainable women’s movement in the country. In her introduction Rahman writes that “older organizations such as WAF (Women’s Action Forum) and Sindhiani Tehreek have joined hands with more recent feminist collectives such as the Women Democratic Forum to connect with a surge of grassroots organizations,” urban and rural. But she says ” a broad rights-seeking movement with nodal connections is yet to cohere.”
The lessons from the women’s movement are an important guide for the next generation of feminists to realize the vision of the country’s founding father-- a country where women are equal partners in the enterprise of Pakistan.
Khawar Mumtaz is among the most well-known and respected pioneers and chroniclers of the genesis and early years of the women’s movement. She went on to become the chairperson of the National Commission on the Status of Women, making sterling contributions in that post. In her essay on the ‘Anatomy of Resistance” she recounts the emergence of the movement in the 1980’s during General Zia ul Haq’s military dictatorship, when women confronted his regime’s assault on women’s rights and the “spiralling misogyny unleashed under the pretext” of Islamization. That gave birth to WAF with branches quickly springing up in several cities. “Led by WAF, the women’s movement mounted the most vociferous opposition to Islamization until Zia’s death in 1988.”
Mumtaz sees WAF’s achievement as placing women’s rights on the national agenda on an enduring basis. Political parties embraced this and even right-wing parties began to include it in their platforms. Its other achievement included the roll back of several discriminatory proposals that curbed women’s rights. She describes the emergence of the new activism as being more society-focused rather than state-focused and finding vocal expression in the annual ‘Aurat March.’ Farida Shaheed in her essay rightly argues that change is essential for the movement’s continuity. The focus of younger feminists on “society-oriented activism complements the state-focused and policy-oriented struggle of older activists.”
The chapter ‘Politics of activism’ by Ayesha Khan recalls the role of the early activists in the 1950’s whose contributions included the Muslim Family Laws Ordinances, the country’s first family planning program and affirmative actions, such as reserved seats for women in legislative assemblies. In an insightful discussion of the situation today she points to the complex and difficult environment in which new generation feminists are pursuing the goal of women’s rights and freedoms. She argues that “Not only has religion now become central to all discourse about women, but gradually all moderate or progressive religious discourse has been sidelined.” At the same time activists still struggle to protect the Muslim Family Laws Ordinances and other freedoms from being eroded in the name of ‘national ideology.’ She highlights the varying strategies and of older feminists and the new wave of activists and the disputes between them, but says both have much to learn from the other. Khan strikes an optimistic note about the future based on the two coming together and exchanging views in 2019 in Lahore. “Through this dialogue a new sense of history based on an understanding of women’s struggles over the last 40 years will lend a new gravity to the struggle of the younger generation,” she concludes.
There are many take aways from a pathbreaking book rich in analysis and introspection. All its contributors bring their own experience and stories to a lively discussion of the women’s movement. The lessons from the movement are an important guide for the next generation of feminists to enable them to press even more vigorously to realize the vision of the country’s founding father-- a country where women are equal partners in the enterprise of Pakistan.
- Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, UK & UN. Twitter @LodhiMaleeha