By Sehrish Ali / Maha Mussadaq
ISLAMABAD: Few know that February 12 – officially declared National Women’s Day in Pakistan – commemorates a march by women three decades ago, which marked the “beginning of democracy”.
Exactly 30 years ago, a group of women suffered the brunt of police action for defying Section 144 (which bans public assembly) to protest against the proposed Evidence Bill during former ruler Gen Ziaul Haq’s regime.
The protesting women had planned to march to the Lahore High Court to submit a petition against the bill, which reduced the legal status of women by proposing that the evidence of two women should equal that of one man.
This protest was additionally significant as being the first one in the history of Pakistan in which the police used tear gas and batons on women. They injured many in the process and arrested nearly 50. Pictures of the courageous women being baton-charged by the police resulted in a national outcry for women’s rights.
“Thirty years have flown by and we feel as if it was just yesterday,” said Madeeha Gauhar, head of the Ajoka Theatre, who was among those at the forefront of the march.
“As the first ever public protest against marital law, there was silence everywhere. We were lathi-charged, held up and arrested, but for us it was a start to democracy in the country.” Gauhar, who was part of the Women’s Action Forum, now feels that the movement for women’s rights has drastically changed. “At that time there was a definite goal… legislation was anti-women and anti-minorities. But I feel now that the focus is no longer there, other issues dominate the national discourse.”
“Pakistan’s civil society needs to realise there can be no democracy when there are laws and Constitution based on religion. It’s not about women’s rights now, it’s about human rights,” she adds.
With the march etched in the minds of those who participated, the Women’s Action Forum members believe that the 12th of February is simply a reminder to continue the struggle.
“For three decades, we have been demanding 33% seats for women in the legislatures, but we have not yet achieved this,” stated Tahira Abdullah, a human rights activist and member of the Human Rights Commission. “So our struggle continues. Similarly, while there has been some legislation, violence against women continues to this day.”
According to the Aurat Foundation, a total of 7,516 cases of violence against women were reported from all over Pakistan in 2012. “Although the Women Protection Bill has been passed, that is not what we were asking for,” said Nageen Hayat Nomad, a founding member of the Women’s Action Forum (Rawalpindi /Islamabad chapter). “We have been demanding equality and we are still talking about it.”
“How many times are we going to protest when the state should be able to protect its citizens,” she added. Perhaps the best way to celebrate National Women’s Day is not only to remember the march led by those women three decades ago and the men in Lahore but also celebrate the continuing struggle.