The International Women’s Day, March 8, was celebrated by activists and advocates of women’s gender parity with men in Pakistan with their own special panache. To their misogynistic critics and male chauvinists, this was more spin than panache.Women’s rights activists had, weeks in advance, given this year’s Women’s Day their own epithet. They called it Aurat (Woman) March. Which was okay to all and sundry. But what became the bone of contention between advocates of women’s rights demanding equality with men and their detractors was the slogan coined to drive home the message: Mera jism, meri marzi (My body, my will).
Vocal critics of the slogan—of whom there’s nary a dearth in Pakistan’s tradition-bound and stridently patriarchal social milieu—took exception to the thrust of the slogan. To them, it was, first and foremost, a Western import and, secondly, obscene and un-Islamic.
To the extent of the Women’s March slogan being a Western import, the critique had a ring of authenticity. It was a rehash of the pro-choice advocates’ battle cry in the US where it’s still at the epicentre of their long confrontation with conservatives and ultra-rightists, to whom women’s demand for their right to abortion is anathema. Why should women’s rights standard-bearers make a provocative Western slogan—which has remained controversial even there—their shibboleth in a conservative and highly religious society like Pakistan, wonder even some of those sympathetic to the women’s cause.
To those opposed to women’s rights—the obscurantist religious brigade of bigoted mullahs and their purblind followers—it was like a red rag to an enraged bull. They pounced on it, decrying activist women as agents of anti-Islam and anti-Pakistan forces and calling upon the government to ban the March 8 ‘Aurat March’. Some zealots sued the Islamabad High Court to give an injunction against the march.
Frustrated in their nefarious plans to stop the march, the mullah brigade decided to beat the rights-demanding women at their own game. The capital city Islamabad became a veritable battleground on March 8. To sabotage the ‘Aurat March’, the mullahs brought out three different processions of anti-rights obscurantists, actively assisted and abetted by thousands of women of their ilk and ideological leanings.
In the inevitable confrontation between the rights activists and their voluble, rowdy detractors, Islamabad’s main thoroughfares presented an ugly scene, with mullahs and their vengeful comrades—both men and women—physically attacking the activists and tearing down their banners and placards.
Pundits are blaming the Imran government for not doing enough to check garrulous religious brigades in their tracks. Confrontation could have been avoided had the authorities shown some backbone and kept the mullahs away from the path of the activists. Instead, the Islamabad administration did the exact opposite by letting the naysayers use the same route earlier granted to the rights activists. This was green light to the troublemakers and was akin to patronising their nefarious plans.
Imran Khan—whose erstwhile caricature of ‘Taliban Khan’ still hounds him—is being faulted for failing to keep the bigoted mullahs on a leash and not coming out upfront on behalf of the rights-demanding women. He is said to be too much under the influence of his current (third) wife. She’s an occultist, doesn’t accompany her husband to any public event and her devotion to the shrines of saints is legendary. His detractors blame him for not taking any policy initiative, or making any political move, without his occult-believing better-half’s implicit blessings.
It’s not the first time in Pakistan that the initiative of women to demand rightful equality with men is being checkmated in the name of religion, though Pakistan’s Islam-based Constitution grants equal status to them vis-a-vis men.But there’s also a history of Pakistani women not shying away—notwithstanding suffocating limitations of an archaic feudal social milieu arrayed against them—from raising their voices with unflinching determination and grit to demand parity against all odds.
It was the wife of Pakistan’s first PM, Liaqat Ali Khan, who pioneered the women’s rights movement by launching the All Pakistan Women’s Association, better known by its acronym, APWA. Interestingly, she, Rana Liaqat, was a cousin of Pandit Govind Ballabh Pant, the first chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. She had converted to become a Muslim to marry Liaqat. A remarkably astute lady—who later also served, after the assassination of her husband, as ambassador to Netherlands —she’s still regarded as the ‘mother’ of the women’s rights movement in Pakistan.
But the mullahs opposed her and ridiculed APWA as a ‘non-Islamic’ contraption of Westernised women. They even opposed M A Jinnah’s sister, Fatima Jinnah—who had been christened as ‘Mother of Pakistan’—when she ran in the 1964 presidential election against military dictator Ayub Khan. They argued that it was un-Islamic for a woman to lead a Muslim country, but reluctantly accepted Benazir Bhutto as Pakistan’s leader a quarter century later, because Pakistan was in ferment after General Zia’s nightmare rule.With a daunting history like that, and with bigoted mullahs still on the rampage, the Pakistani women have mountains to climb before seeing their cherished dawn of equality with men.
Karamatullah K Ghori
Former Pakistani diplomat