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‘Women’s rights movement is a political struggle’

Peerzada Salman

KARACHI, March 1: The women’s rights movement in Pakistan is basically a political struggle, said renowned social activist Anis Haroon while delivering the 13th annual Hamza Wahid lecture organised by the Irtiqa Institute of Social Sciences at the PMA House on Friday evening. Ms Haroon recalled the days when she was in college in Hyderabad in the 1960s and a students’ movement in Karachi was in full swing. A dozen of students were exiled from the city that prompted her and a friend to galvanize 1,000 students in their institution to speak up against the brutal treatment meted out to those who were part of the students’ movement. She said afterwards she joined the University of Karachi, where she was able to interact with and learn from the likes of Fatahyab Khan, Mairaj Mohammad Khan and Hamza Wahid, and became part of the struggle against the dictatorship of Gen Ayub Khan.

Ms Haroon said when the Pakistan People’s Party was formed the Left decided to join the party. In the 1970s they decided to make a women’s wing (as per the cultural trend in society) and she became its general secretary. When the events of 1971 unfolded, differences with Z.A. Bhutto were developed and she and her colleagues told him that they would not support any military action in East Pakistan. The late prime minister did not like it and they parted their ways. But when Mr Bhutto was hanged they again took to the streets against military dictatorship. “Ours was a political struggle,” she commented.

Ms Haroon said Gen Ziaul Haq had put a ban on political parties and kept a check on the media. The only party that sided with him was the Jamaat-i-Islami. The dictator with his allies made laws like Hudood and the Qisas-o-Diyat laws that basically affected women and minorities. At the time a case shook the country in which a girl Fahmida Allah Bux married a boy she loved. The Shariat Court punished her husband with 100 lashes. This stirred conscientious people into action and to resist such things the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) was formed. The forum demanded that the 1973 Constitution be reinstated and only a civilian government should be allowed to make laws. The forum was a non-hierarchal organisation,
was not aligned with any political party, wished to keep its struggle political and wanted a secular government in the country, she told the audience.

Ms Haroon said in 1983, 200 women took to the streets in Lahore against the Qanoon-i-Shahadat. It terrified the authorities and they treated the protesters badly. Poet Habib Jalib, who was with the women, received injuries on his head. This encouraged others who wanted to raise their voice against Gen Zia that they could also join in the struggle. Prior to that women’s struggle was associated with social issues alone but now it had turned into a radical women’s movement. However, it had to be acknowledged that the movement had an urban base, which was why later on movements such as Sindhiani Tehrik were made part of it.

Ms Haroon said apart from all of that women realised the importance of peace and in 1988 invited some Indian women to Pakistan so that talks about peace could be held. By the time the Movement for Restoration of Democracy gained momentum, women’s struggle had already assumed radical proportions. She said when Gen Musharraf said that he would allow 33 per cent women’s participation in decision-making bodies he only confined it to local bodies and in parliament reduced it to 17 per cent. In the current civilian government tenure (which is going to complete its term for the first time in the country’s history) five laws were passed with the help of women members of the assembly, opposed only by the Jamiat-i-Ulema Islam. The performance of 20 per cent women was better than 80 per cent men in the assembly. She strictly opposed political parties’ intention of talking with the Taliban who had killed 45,000 people and blown up 400 schools.

Media person Ghazi Salahuddin, who presided over the event, said at a time when there was gloom all around, to know about the resilient women’s struggle provided us with a ray of hope. He urged the need for a renewed discourse so that society could be put on the path of enlightenment.

Earlier, Mairaj Mohammad Khan shed light on Hamza Wahid and her achievements. He said the late Ms Wahid had a multifaceted personality. She was an honest person and did not hesitate to speak her mind. She was also cognizant of the importance of human relationships. He claimed that she was a Marxist at heart, though she had never expressed that thought.
Had she been alive today, she would have urged everybody to step out of their houses and remonstrate against issues like targeted killings, inflation and sectarianism, he added.

Dr Jaffer Ahmed gave a brief introduction of the lecture series. Iqbal Alvi conducted the event.