By Mehr Tarar
The loud beat of the dhol welcomed guests to the occasion to mark 30 years of a movement that was ground breaking as well as a trendsetter, highlighting achievements of women in a patriarchal, rigidly narrow-minded society. As the guests moved to the canopied rooftop, torr trorr kay bandhanon ko deko benhai aati hain playing in the background was a tribute to not just the group of remarkable women present, but also countless others who had contributed to the cause of taking forward the narrative of women’s literary, intellectual, social and professional dynamism. From February 10-12, the conference on the women’s movement convened by ASR Resource Centre, and the Institute of Women’s Studies (IWSL), held at the ASR/IWSL premises in Lahore, held panel talks and open discussions covering a myriad of subjects, highlighting the feminist movement in Pakistan and its role in mainstream society. As the executive director of the ASR, Ms Nighat Said Khan, said in her introduction to the agenda of the conference, it was to provide a forum to “…a wide range of feminists each of whom brings a dimension that makes for an integrated and holistic women’s movement in which development is an unfolding of women’s energies and creativities.” Albeit, there is a visible presence of women in almost all public and social sectors, but the process is not without its multi-layered complications, making every step much more arduous for females compared to their male counterparts. The space has to be created for a female-oriented narrative and that is on which the struggle is centred. Women are not just ‘second class’ citizens in a ‘religion’-driven, male-dominated society, but there is also the extra push that is required at every step to propagate the female discourse. This conference, as all ASR/IWSL endeavours in the past, was to bring to the fore the role of women who contributed to “the Women’s Movement in Pakistan: Connectivity and Disjuncture of ‘Voices from Below’ and ‘Voices from Above’; and ‘Women and the Movement for Peace: Towards a People’s Plan of Action on Women and Peace’.” It is to the great credit of this collective force composed of women activists belonging to various artistic (poetry, dance, writing, art) and professional (lawyers, academics, media practitioners, journalists) fields that a distinct voice has found its place in national as well as on an international level on various fora including the United Nations. Albeit the feminist movement has been successful in making its mark, even for the process of peace in Pakistan, the South Asia and internationally, the stature of the woman in general remains an area of great concern, keeping in view the “…extremisms, militancy, violence, conflict, and contestations between interest groups, community identities, religious affiliation and traditions, customs and norms that challenge the status and safety of women.”
The different panels spread over three days brought into focus many women-oriented as well as regional and national subjects. It was to enunciate a narrative that was not just in sync with the multi-tiered efforts of the feminist movement for the former but also a “…People’s plan of action on women and peace and women’s role in peace making, rehabilitation, reconstruction and social transformation based on the principles of women’s inclusion in decision making.”
The conference opened with a presentation by Ms Khan about the background and overview of the women’s movement within and outside Pakistan. The discussion on the study on the Pakistan Women’s Movement had some very interesting points raised by the very smart women on the panel, hosted by Rubina Siagol: Shahnaz Wazir Ali, Anis Harun, Maria Rashid, Arfana Mallah and Gulnar Tabassum. Since the audience was also all-female too, an air of camaraderie permeated between women from different backgrounds, professions and regions from all over Pakistan. There were also guests from India and the shared bonhomie spoke louder than all the restrictions the governments of the two countries impose on the interaction between the two peoples.
Another discussion focused on the ‘Women making peace’; the panel consisted of Mossarat Qadeem, Humaira Sheikh, Maryam Bibi and Huma Fauladi, and was mediated by Saba Gul Khattak. The views presented reiterated the immense contribution of women in all spheres of national discourses, even those dealing with the conflict-riddled areas of Pakistan. The day ended with a fun evening, complete with food, music and dancing.
The next day’s talk tagged with the intriguing byline ‘I am what I do’ brought into focus the creative achievements of women. The women from the world of creativity were Madeeha Gohar (Theatre); Sheema Kirmani (Dance); Meenu Gaur (Film); Samina Ahmad (Television);. This panel was anchored by the very versatile and talented Saleema Hashmi.
The ‘In Her Own Write’ was another inspirational discussion on how women writers and poets made their own mark in the male-controlled arena of prose and verse in Pakistan and elsewhere where the patriarchal narratives reign supreme. How the taboos were fought and how the feminists made their own distinct mark, tilting stereotypes and rocking clichéd literary dynamics. The panel was made up of some remarkable women, each iconic in her sphere: Zahida Hina, Fatima Hassan (Literature/Fiction); Kishwar Naheed (Poetry); Neelam Hussain (In translation and Feminist Publishing); and Sheen Farrukh (media). Samina Rahman was the anchor of the panel.
The fundamentalism manifesting in all its indecorous forms in recent times, limiting opposing narratives, bringing to the fore the still dominant patriarchal overtones of mainstream society was the subject for another discussion. How to defeat or come to terms with or open negotiations with militant ‘religious’ bodies like the Taliban et al, ‘jihad and its various manifestations affecting women were also the issues discussed by the panel comprising of , , Kawish Mehbub, Shabnam Qadeer, Nighat Chaudary and Khadija Nadeem, mediated by Naheed Aziz.
A panel consisting of Amar Sindhu, Aqsa Khan, Maria Rasheed , and , and anchored by Uzma Noorani tackled the tricky subject of ‘feminism and socialism: one without the other’. Some other relevant to the feminist movement topics were also discussed, without which the very edifice of the women-oriented movement would seem to be losing its raison d’ ètre. The discussion ranged from ‘Feminist Studies: the Dialectic between Action and Theory; The Material Base of Patriarchy’ to ‘Feminism to Gender: Has Gender Endangered Women? Feminism as Project; Activism as Action Plans’. The ‘Rising Conservatisms and the Conservatisms within’ brought into focus how the feminism movement collided with the lines demarking the world into ‘male, and very limited space for ‘female’. ‘Sexuality and Loss of Agency; Women, Love and Desire; Marginalised Sexualities’ showed how the word ‘sex remain a ‘male’ domain and how women are moulded to behave within certain parameters set, yes, by males. How the ‘Mad woman in the attic’ is expected to remain ‘within the norm’ and how the natural urges and tendencies are marked ‘loose’, ‘immoral’ and ‘deviant’.
Dr Uma Chakrovary and Dr Navsharan Singh, the guests from India, were on the panel of the the ‘Indian women’s movement; connecting across divides’. It highlighted how the feminist movement crossed barriers to amalgamate its voice with those of the other movements, blurring lines of gender to highlight the plight of women in particular and all persecuted populations in general, threading together all voices that are working for humanity within and across borders.
The mushaira ‘In her own voice’ was not merely a presentation of works of some wonderful feminist poets, it was also a collective voice to say out loud…look how lucid we are no matter how hard you tried to strangle our sounds. Conducted by the veteran poet, Kishwar Naheed, the poetry of Attiya Dawood, Azra Abbas, Sarvat Mohiuddin, Nasreen Anjum Bhatti, Sughra Sadaf, Gulnar Tabassum, Amar Sindhu, Fatima Hassan, Anis Haroon enchanted the audience. The pathos, the strength, the trials, the tribulations…all that the verses contained spoke volumes about how the inner worlds of these brave and artistic women remain/remained in a conflict the real world marked by discrimination, persecution, humiliation, abuse and violence.
‘And still, like dust i’ll rise’, and indeed it did and it will rise as Pakistan need institutes like ASR/IWSL. Albeit it is unfortunate that to insufficient funding, an institute like ASR may have to be closed down. Without any permanent source of generating funds, the Institute survives on the private endowments of some private patrons.
The ASR/ISWL in collaboration with the WAF concluded the three-day conference with a rally on the Mall Road to commemorate the one held 30 years ago. The feminist movement of Pakistan under different forums stood firm against all forms of discrimination and made its mark in a man’s world. February 12, 1983, during the draconian rule of General Ziaul Haq, women in Lahore held a rally, to which the governmental response echoing its ‘fundamentalist’ agenda was not kind. The stance was firm and the determination unshaken several despite arrests en route to the High Court. Women of Lahore arrived at the august building symbolising justice, and they spoke to be heard. The women movement had made its presence noticed, and history marked it. To date, February 12 is considered the Pakistani Women’s Day in tribute to the Women of Lahore. Those 250 women opened a new door for hundreds of thousands of women who know that despite the pressure to act otherwise, each woman is an individual who stands tall and proud without the prop of any male relationship to ‘complete her existence. She is the woman of 2013.