Movements arise and play out at particular historical junctures defined by the volition of activists, the resources the activists command, and the actions they take, as well as the specific configurations of power they confront, especially the nature and attitude of the state. (1) This determines the issues that are taken up, what aims are set, and which strategies are deployed. In the last 50 years the circumstances catalyzing women's activism in Pakistan have oscillated, sometimes wildly. This paper traces the dynamics and implications of change from the perspective of a women's collective: Shirkat Gah-Women's Resource Centre. Shirkat Gah was established in 1975 and has an umbilical and symbiotic link with the broader women's movement in Pakistan. (2)
The United Nations' International Year of the Woman in 1975 was a time of optimism in Pakistan. The government embraced the theme: the First Lady led Pakistan's delegation to the first UN World Conference on Women, in Mexico; at home, the government articulated a Declaration of Women's Rights and established a commission on women tasked with formulating recommendations; and unparalleled, high-profile women-focused events were held in major cities. A handful of young women fresh out of universities came together and gatecrashed events, sometimes appropriating the invitations of older generations to do so. Discovering that entry does not translate into an agenda-setting role, they soon established their own organization: Shirkat Gah. (3) Pakistan's first feminist collective operated like many others at the time: it eschewed hierarchy; made decisions by consensus; convened meetings after work; undertook consciousness-raising projects in members' free time; and mobilized resources as needed. These new feminists were criticized by women in leftist groups for diverting attention from the "real" class struggle. In 1981, with just nine members, the Collective catalyzed the most celebrated era of the women's movement in Pakistan, in which, ironically, many former critics from the left became key players.
For two decades the Collective remained a small, open group: new women would join, while others, with the exception of the two founders, would leave. Initially, progress seemed a matter of time, and the pace of work was fairly relaxed. Activities encompassed endeavors for which terms were coined only later, such as evidence-based advocacy and action-research, even an unsuccessful attempt to get companies to engage in social corporate social responsibility. (i,ii) The activities that catalyzed the women's movement were simple: collecting, collating, and sharing information about women. In part this entailed maintaining a newspaper clippings file. (iii) In September 1981, a member brought in a small news item she had found tucked away on an inside page of a newspaper, reporting that a woman and man had been sentenced respectively to 100 lashes and death by stoning under the soon to be infamous zina section of the Hudood Ordinances. (iv) The zina laws made all intercourse outside marriage a crime against the state, confused rape and abduction with zina, allowed anyone to register a complaint, and overturned the principle of innocence, filling jails with women accused by vengeful ex-husbands, frustrated parents, and random strangers. Promulgated in February 1979 by the military regime that took power in September 1977, the laws had gone effectively unnoticed by a nation riveted by the ongoing trial of the ousted Prime Minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was hanged in April 1979.
Determined to prevent these barbaric sentences from being carried out, the Collective was acutely conscious of its small size and limited reach. Had this been the age of social media, they may have launched a gender-neutral hashtag campaign, but mobilization then required individual interactions between activists and the public. It was the diametrically different reactions of women and men contacted by the group to the severity of the punishment that inspired the formation of the Khawateen-Mahaz-Amal, better known by its English name, Women's Action Forum or WAF. Men's responses to the sentences were either dismissive or defeatist. Women were not only agitated by the sentences, but angered by concurrent moves to rescind women's rights and the unprecedented harassment of women in public spaces, including even of economically secure women who had previously considered themselves shielded by class and social status.
The movement emerged during Pakistan's worst period of martial law (1977-88). With the military "arrogat[ing] to itself the task of Islamizing the country's institutions in their entirety," political parties and student unions were banned, trade unions brutally suppressed, and fundamental rights suspended. (4) Meanwhile, public hangings and floggings transported the nation into a medieval nightmare. Women and religious minorities were particularly vulnerable, but the state acted to silence anyone who dared to oppose the regime or deviate from its narrative. The attack on women was two-fold. First, written and unwritten directives marginalized women by imposing "Islamic" dress codes for a widening circle of women; barring female athletes from competitions; stopping women in the foreign ministry from serving abroad; imposing a moratorium on recruiting and promoting women in banks; launching an "anti-obscenity" campaign that sought to eliminate women's images in advertisements and print media; and introducing a proposal to seriously curtail women's political participation. (5) Second, the state attempted to reduce the legal status of women and non-Muslims to half that of Muslim men, including a proposed law codifying this half-human status. (v)
The agenda of the women's movement in the 1980s responded to the dizzying pace of the state's initiatives against women. Mounting the most vociferous opposition to supposed Islamization, women's activism was state-focused, reactive, and adversarial. (6) Defining itself as a lobby-cum-pressure group, WAF was created as a platform for individual women and women's organizations. It adopted a minimal agenda for maximum buy-in and allowed people to associate and disassociate on specific issues and campaigns. Chapters rapidly opened in several cities. (7) Numerous women's organizations were involved, but WAF, as the inter-connective entity providing strategic support, became the movement's face. WAF's ability to play this role was facilitated by its policy of not accepting any funding other than personal donations and its commitment to a collective leadership system that refused to acknowledge individual leaders, especially in the press. As Shirkat Gah members immersed themselves in WAF, the Collective became inactive.
Print media was a major ally, greatly magnifying activists' reach by giving them more coverage than they may have had, had politics not been banned; (vi) in contrast, at the time broadcast media was a state monopoly. Activist-journalists boosted coverage, but the pivotal factor was the defiance of women's street protests, despite martial law and prohibitions against public assembly. WAF shot into fame after the 12 February 1983 demonstration on the main thoroughfare of Lahore, when it protested the proposal for a new law that diminished the value of women (and non-Muslims) as witnesses in court. (vii) Publicists would have found it difficult to plan a better outcome. The authorities responded to this first street demonstration with all the leeway granted under martial law. The result was dramatic photographs of policemen beating up women and demonstrators in billowing clouds of teargas plastered across the front pages of prominent newspapers. The now iconic pictures made a mockery of the meta-narrative of an Islamic state that protected women. Henceforth, authorities exercised restraint in dealing with activists demanding women's rights, but they had no compunctions about using force against women in pro-democracy actions.
Disrupting public spaces was crucial as street activists never numbered more than a few hundred; still, for many sympathizers the risks were too high. (8) Lahore WAF, most prone to public demonstrations, had this down to a fine art, having calculated that 84 women holding outstretched arms would suffice to block the main city artery. (9) Until 1986, energies were consumed in holding the line against a relentless barrage of proposals to further restrict rights and combatting the horrendous outcomes of the zina laws. Women's unrelenting and vociferous opposition obliged the regime to significantly alter legal...