By: Zamurrad Awan
Although Pakistan has a considerably long history of political mobilisation, sit-ins and mass movements, historically they were monopolised by the male section of society. Few women took part in such activities and even then, elderly female members of political parties took part in political deliberations as silent spectators, where they ventured to be part of the audience, devoid of motivation, quietly taking notes or exchanging conversation. A new trend was witnessed during the judicial movement in 2007 where women lawyers in black coats came out in large numbers with enthusiasm and vigour. These sloganeering lawyers demonstrated that women have the potential to become equal partners in Pakistan’s political landscape.
The real change, however, came during the political events of August 2014 that were organised by Imran Khan of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) and Tahirul Qadri of the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT), namely their so-called Independence March and Revolution March respectively. Their dharnas (sit-ins) in Islamabad and subsequently well attended public meetings in various cities of the country introduced a new style of mobilisation through raising slogans of ‘change’. The consequent female involvement in these political events can be seen as a healthy sign, since women constitute half of the country’s population. Historically, female political participation in Pakistan was restricted to casting votes during elections. By contrast, the recent involvement of women in politics was multifarious, ranging from expressing opinions to registering active protests and demanding better governance.
The increased female mobilisation during recent political events signifies their growing awareness about political affairs, freedom of expression and their motivation to participate. These factors enable them to feel like stakeholders. Apart from awareness among the female population, increased mobilisation equally determines changed attitudes in the male population, who are encouraging their female family members to participate in protests, which was previously a far fetched thought. Change was not restricted to participation but also incorporates the enthusiasm and spirit of the crowd, including women, as mentioned above.
It is a new phenomenon that girls of all ages, especially from the lower and middle income social classes, are participating with enthusiasm, displaying political slogans and allegiances in the form of caps and flags quite openly. They appear spirited, motivated and politically sensitised. Young women who support the PTI, mostly from the upper and middle class, by dancing to national songs are registering their protest. Similarly the female supporters of the PAT raised their demands through slogans. Contrary to past political gatherings, both parties arranged for music consisting of political and national songs to create extra enthusiasm. At the PTI sit-ins, the youthful participants, including boys and girls, hopped and swayed to the beat of specially sung motivational songs by famous singers like Abrarul Haq and Attaullah Khan Essakhailvi. At PAT gatherings, religious and folk songs motivated young participants, including women, which gave this sit-in a more spiritual touch.
The commonality between the women supporters of both parties is their clarity in objectives which they expressed by being vocal during their interviews, thus becoming the centre of attention for print, electronic and social media. Irrespective of whether these political marches attain their agendas, the fact remains that particularly in an environment where women face various kinds of abuses and discrimination (not only in the domestic but also in the public sphere), this kind of mobilisation, irrespective of political affiliation, is in itself a great achievement and to the benefit of the social and political health of the nation. The involvement of females in political events has also changed the dynamics of politics in the country. Most political parties have always focused on males as their supporters and party workers, but now realise that no political movement can be successful unless it is also supported by women. Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri, on a number of occasions credited the active participation of women. Khan called the women participants “tigresses” while Qadri endorsed their contribution by calling them “braver than the male participants”.
On the other hand, the increased female mobilisation in political protests is being condemned by the forces of orthodoxy and the status quo, who say female participation is a means to spread ‘vulgarity’.
These opponents are those who believe that a woman’s work is to facilitate the requirements of her male family members within the four walls of the home. On October 23, the head of the JUI-F, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, during his address to the people of Quetta criticised women participants at the PTI gathering in Islamabad by calling the event a mujra (dance party), which was strongly refuted by the leaders of the parties at the sit-ins. The PTI’s Central Information Secretary, Dr Shireen Mazari, condemned the remarks in a press release in which she stated: “The PTI, especially its women, will not tolerate such abuse and he [Maulana Fazlur Rahman] should be ashamed of the filthy language he is using against those women of Pakistan who are part of the PTI. As a woman I find his language unacceptable and reflective of a tainted mindset.”
Whatever the forces of orthodoxy think about this kind of female participation, we cannot neglect the fact that these political events are an important agent of change and have reshaped the traditional political role of women, beginning with their active mobilisation. This kind of female participation could be considered the first step towards their political empowerment, enhancing their capability to grasp knowledge and enabling them to register their protest in a more effective and vocal way.
The writer is a lecturer at the department of political science FC College University, Lahore