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Advocate, lobbyist, feminist or what?  As memory serves

Advocate, lobbyist, feminist or what? As memory serves

By: Shagufta Alizai

When I shifted to Islamabad with my husband and two boys in the winter of 1979, I never did fathom, that my time, my house and my life in general would be overtaken by what became ‘the women’s movement’ catalysed by those of who founded the Women’s Action Forum.

Back in Karachi in 1981 on a visit from Islamabad, I recall attending as member, a Shirkat Gah (SG) meeting where I received full briefing on what WAF stood for and why the ideals had to be advocated (thus entered the word advocate in my daily dose of women’s rights). How it was important to find like-minded women and start a WAF Chapter (WAF was not a book so why a chapter, but then you don’t question hard core feminist jargon) in Islamabad.

I remember thinking that Shirkat Gah had been overtaken by WAF as had all its members, but then I was no exception. Armed with information, I returned to Islamabad, full of eagerness to find like-minded women, whoever and wherever they were. As luck or WAF would have it, Nigar Ahmed (Aurat Foundation was her creation but not until 7 years later) had organised a meeting to discuss the by-now famous Fehmida and Allabuksh stoning case. The meeting took place at her house in sector F-6, where government officers resided (her husband was a serving officer in the then newly set up Women’s Division), and was attended by a dynamic group of women.

After a hearty and heated discussion on women’s rights and issues, I remember popping the question “Well, are we or are we not forming WAF Islamabad?” Heads nodded followed by an announcement of volunteering for work. Hands went up and five of us Nigar Ahmed, Sarwar Jamil, Jane Hussain, Shahnaz Ahmed and I became the default committee that announced the formation of WAF Islamabad Chapter.

And then life changed as we hand-wrote press releases, went to the F-6 Super Market to have Urdu translations done (the job of finding blue stencil sheets inevitably became a task) and distributed lithographed copies, organized meetings at our homes or at the Iqbal hall in G-7. WAF membership grew and we were joined by Shahnaz Hameed, Nagin Hayat, Farzana Bari, Asma Soofi and Tahira Abdullah (she never let us forget her favourite Punjabi saying which translated is ‘whosoever speaks opens the door. This was applied to all who made some suggestion and who invariably found themselves having to implement their own bright and not-so-bright ideas.

In those days every one attended WAF organized seminars, awareness sessions and meetings – the Begums, the feminists, donor agency representatives, bureaucrats, MNAs, elite and not so elite women. Begum Atiya Inayatullah, Begum Zari Sarfaraz and Begum Abida Hussain came to some WAF organized functions and meetings as did Ms. Gulzar Bano, a Civil Servant and the first Federal Secretary of the Women’s Division. Even Nasim Zehra attended till the time she left for Tufts University to pursue higher studies. On shifting to Islamabad, late Shehla Zia lent full support as did Naheed Aziz and Samina Rauf. Accusations were hurled at Islamabad WAF for being the voice of foreign powers and their anti-Islam agenda only because Jane Hussain and later Karen Pasha, the two ‘gories’ (foreigners) married to Pakistani men were WAF committee members.

Still in its initial days, WAF Islamabad faced criticism from its own kind – Shirin Mazari (SM) promptly disowned us as we did not propound the right WAF splinter group views. At the time WAF Lahore had split into two groups and SM preferred the views of a particular group. Other critics pointed to our so called lack of understanding of feminist ideology. Despite being a ‘Waffer’ (that’s what we called ourselves) some shied away from the word ‘feminism’ or any other ism. Not even Nighat Saeed Khan’s famed Faisalabad and Murree workshops on feminist theories helped and neither did Kamla Bhasin’s brand of feminist songs. Who needed to be a feminist? After all we were busy and content in advocating, lobbying and fighting for our rights- activism had yet to appear in our lexicon.

Those were the days as we planned one session after another in the basement hall of the Islamabad hotel, inviting luminaries like Advocate Khalid Ishaque to share views with co panellists Asma Jehangir and Hina Jillani wax eloquently on the Law of Evidence and the Hudood Ordinance.

The morning of one such meeting, turned out to be not quite so encouraging for Nagin Hayat and me. As organizers, we were recipients of a telephone call each – the caller stated that if we did not stop ‘Waffing’ (read organizing WAF activities), our children would be kidnapped from school. Both of us missed heartbeats as we frantically called and spoke to each other and shared the similar sounding threat. However, having made sure that the kids were safe, and using all political and other connections including asking Poonam (daughter of a well respected politico) and her friend Farhat to ring up all the bigwigs and tell them of the threat to our lives, we reached the hotel venue and made sure that the meeting went without a hitch. Of course, the plainclothes brigade was there watching, listening and noting all the time.

Those were the days, and my friends and I thought they’d never end but they did for some of us at least, as at a WAF National convention, Islamabad Chapter was singled out as too conservative and reliant on Islam-based responses. Was that good or bad we asked, and being secular or having a secular approach was suggested. Did WAF outgrow us or did we outgrow WAF? – we could never really tell. However, we ‘Waffers’ remained friends despite our Islamic, secular and diverse views.

WAF Islamabad being in proximity to ‘the corridors of power’ put all its energies into creating awareness amongst Parliamentarians /law-makers and lobbying with the opposition. We tried to impress late Apa Nisar Fatima and Begum Qamar un Nisa Qamar with our Khalid Ishaque-learnt points on the Hudood Ordinance, but found ourselves short on argument each time. We did not possess sufficient knowledge of the Message and of the Book, we were told – a view we did not agree with.

The misguided – as we were considered – continued to lobby, advocate and create awareness on women being human beings with rights, but whose rights were we standing up for became the most frequently asked question and criticism. On a plane ride back to Karachi, I remember a family connection come up to me to chat about the last meeting in which we had raised awareness on violence against women and how women should not tolerate being beaten by husbands. It was quite obvious that she was peeved as she reproachfully framed her sentence. “It’s all very well for you Waffers to suggest this, but what about following up and helping out women who resist beatings and end up leaving husband’s homes with nowhere to go?” To my surprised “What happened?” response she shared the information that she had to open up her home and take care of four or five not so educated community women who happened to be at the meeting and who decided to leave their husbands after what they heard. How much of what she said really took place, I had no way of finding out but her ‘follow up’ remark remained and irked my women’s rights approach for a long time.

Long after I had left Islamabad and returned to Karachi, the conversation in the plane kept reminding me of the need to do more. Sharing this piece with the like-minded, I was rightly told that WAF was merely a platform for advocating and lobbying for women’s rights, not a shelter home. Our job was to raise awareness and no more.

Oft have I wondered, did we just advocate, lobby become feminists or what? And importantly did we do it with measure of success!

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