Activists hail passing of the historic bill stressing upon the need of efficient enforcement.─ AFP/File

The Women's Action Forum never claimed to represent all women in Pakistan: Ayesha Khan

Author Ayesha Khan speaks of the history of women's movements in Pakistan and where they're headed in the future
Updated Mar 13, 2019 12:51pm


Released late last year, author and academic Ayesha Khan's book The Women's Movement in Pakistan: Activism, Islam and Democracy was launched at major literature festivals that dominated Pakistan's literary scene this spring.

A history of the women's movement in Pakistan, Khan's work is based on documents from the Women's Action Forum archives, court judgments on relevant cases, along with interviews with activists, lawyers and judges and analysis of newspaper articles and magazines.

Conversations about the state of feminist movements in Pakistan will never be unnecessary, given that we recently ranked the second worst country in the world in terms of gender parity, but they feel especially relevant in the wake of Women's Day and the backlash to the Aurat Marches that were organised around the country.

In this candid interview the author sheds light on the role of the Women's Action Forum within the activist movements of 1980s, as well as its strengths and limitations. She also speaks of how feminist identity in South Asia predates connections with 'western feminism,' and about the efficacy of women's movements that operate within religious rather than secular ideologies.

Interviewer: One of the things I kept thinking about while reading the book is the link between statehood, orthodoxy and gender. Why do you think it’s important to explore this link and how institutionalised readings of gender have very real effects on the lives of cis and trans women in this country – as a scholar, why do you think this is an important area of research?

Ayesha: Well, it’s an important area of research because…first of all, we are not really clear about what orthodoxy really stands for. Because even what we think of as orthodoxy in Islam, for example, in our part of the world, the Deobandi tradition actually arose as a response to British colonial rule in India. So today the Deobandi parties tend to represent a kind of orthodoxy whereas we forget their own historical context. So what really is orthodox in Islam, in Pakistan, is, I think, not debated and discussed enough. That’s one thing.

And the second thing is that it’s this politicized version of Islam that is what the state has manipulated in order to justify non-democratic governance. And the reason why women have been at the forefront of speaking out against that is that they have been directly targeted by this state-led Islamisation at different points in history, because it didn’t just begin with Zia, it started before.

The cover of Ayesha Khan's book
The cover of Ayesha Khan's book

So I think that it is very important for us to understand the historical context of what we consider orthodoxy and what are the implications for the non-mainstream citizen. Because right now in our imagination, the mainstream citizen is the Sunni male Muslim. And everyone is else is sort of marginalised in this state of Islam. So that needs to be contested and debated if we’re going to move past it.

Images: Your book is a narrative of a women’s movement that was a response to this state-led Islamization, and your focus is on the Women’s Action Forum and their legal push-back in the 1980s, especially in response to the Hudood Penal Code. And one of the things that the book mentions is “for the first time protestors used a discourse of patriarchy and a feminist critique of the state”. Do you think that access to this discourse itself and the access to mobility that allows women to protest is enabled by class, which is why there has been critique directed towards WAF that is not representative?

Ayesha: Okay, so there are a couple of things in your question. The first is that where does the discourse of being anti-patriarchal and feminist come from – so I think I made some effort in my book to show that the kind of issues that have been raised by women in South Asia, especially Muslim women in South Asia, have pre-dated an encounter with the women’s movements in the West.

For example, the Muslim women’s mobilisations for female education led by the Begum of Bhopal or Ruqayya Sakhawat Hossain’s movement in Bengal at the turn of the century against purdah restrictions are very much home-grown. And Ruqayya Sakhawat, in particular, spoke out in her own way against patriarchy.

She didn’t use the word, but women are very aware of what patriarchy is if you just point it out – the term is just a flourish in a way. Because women understand how patriarchy works, and they understand how it mitigates against their interests, not all them, but most of them – and men also, understand the concept once it is explained.

"The mobilisation against forms of oppression that have happened through women’s efforts in Pakistan don’t have anything to do in particular with influence from Western feminists, so much as they had to with having had freedoms and liberties taken away from them," says Ayesha Khan

So the extent to which when women in WAF mobilized, initially in the beginning of the 1980s, they didn’t use the discourse of patriarchy and feminism, although there were some women who identified themselves as feminists and had been exposed to and read Western texts on feminism. But I think that the mobilization against forms of oppression that have happened through women’s efforts in Pakistan don’t have anything to do in particular with influence from Western feminists, as much as they had to do with having had freedoms and liberties taken away from them.

Some of them had to do with class, in the sense that many of the women who initially took to the streets in Zia’s era felt the contrast between the growing freedoms of the upper middle class that were experienced in Bhutto’s regime, and how women were being mobilized to enter public spaces more freely, they were opened into government service, they were mobilized to vote in unprecedented ways for the first elections of the PPP government. So women were reacting against the curtailments that Zia was putting in place, against their own personal freedoms, but also against freedoms that were impinging upon women who were not in a position to take on the military regime.

Because the women who were arrested under the zina laws, for example, were not upper class women. WAF women did get arrested, but they got arrested for protesting against the regime, or backing the MRD or for their political mobilization.

"I think that we vilify upper middle class women, and we romanticize the grass-roots, without fully understanding the connections between both," says Ayesha Khan

So I think it is not fully informed to say that WAF lacked a kind of contact with the so-called grass roots. I think that we vilify upper middle class women, and we romanticize the grass-roots, without fully understanding the connections between both. There’s no nebulous grass-roots out there that you can mobilize and that you should be a part of in order to be authentic – there will be women in different parts of Pakistan who mobilize for their own interests. WAF women mobilized for their own interests but they also mobilized for the broader interests of citizens including non-Muslim minorities as well as women from different walks of life who were directly impacted.

Images: In one of the papers you’ve published with the Collective for Social Sciences Research you’ve talked about the forms these grass-roots mobilization can take – for example, rights-based mobilization by peasant women, community health workers, transgender activism – what exactly were the connections they had with WAF? What kind of difficulties were faced?

Ayesha: Nida Kirmani and I were referring in that paper, published by the journal Feminist Dissent, to other gender justice movements in Pakistan, which are not necessarily led by the women’s movement. So for example, you have WAF, you also have NGOs that have done a lot of work on specific campaigns.

For example, Aurat Foundation led the campaign for women’s political participation. So it was conceived and led by WAF activists, but it was carried out through the Aurat Foundation. And the Aurat Foundation has grass-roots linkages all across Pakistan, which go down to the district level. And I feel like that it is kind of underplayed in the public imagination and the political critique about the extent of NGO contacts across Pakistan down to the community level. And I think that if we try to quantify that we will find that there’s a lot more support for the women’s rights agenda than it seems from the outside. That’s one thing.

Ayesha Khan at IBA for a guest lecture on Women’s Activism and New Directions in Pakistan -- Photo courtesy: IBA'S official website
Ayesha Khan at IBA for a guest lecture on Women’s Activism and New Directions in Pakistan -- Photo courtesy: IBA'S official website

The second thing is that there are other gender justice movements in Pakistan, like those that I have itemized: the Lady Health Worker movement, transgender activism, Okara women’s peasant rebellion, and also the Sindhiani Tehreek. The thing is that one of the failures that WAF has felt and discussed internally is that why it has not been able to build stronger linkages with these other spontaneous, emerging episodes of demands for gender justice. Part of the reason for that, I would argue, rather than just the class bias, which I think is excessively used as a critique of WAF because WAF has never claimed to represent all women in Pakistan, and it has never said that it was the spokes-group for all women in Pakistan.

WAF has internally felt that it would have been able to galvanize more grass-roots support to highlight some of the issues that it stands for if it could have built stronger linkages with other women’s mobilisations. But you have to understand that during the 1980s, for example, well into the 1990s, political activism as such was very suppressed in Pakistan. So the trade union movement was destroyed. Where there may have been more natural linkages, there were also fewer and fewer sites in society where people could mobilise.

"Activists or social justice movements will push for gains in those areas where they see room for maneuver. If you’re in an environment, for example, where grass-roots mobilisations is very very difficult as it is in our context in Pakistan, you will see more of a turn to the courts perhaps, or more of a turn to legislative and policy reform, where there might be some room for maneuver," says Ayesha Khan

Now that we have a slightly more functioning democracy, although it is very much contested whether we are a real democracy, you see that there are spontaneous emergences of demands for people’s rights, such as the PTM or say the Lady Health Workers mobilizations, but it’s very difficult to build linkages – some of them are contested, some of them are brutally repressed, and some of them have just taken a life of their own and didn’t really need any collaboration with groups like WAF in order to meet their goals, like the Lady Health Worker movement. So I think each potential collaboration needs to be analyzed separately.

There is one example that WAF holds up as an instance of cross-class solidarity that it managed to do successfully during the 1980s and early 90s, which was an alliance with Sindhiani Tehreek. But Sindhiani Tehreek has on its own I think gone through ups and downs in regards to its ability to mobilise in interior Sindh, and that really doesn’t have much to do with WAF, it has to do with the fact that Sindhiani was affiliated with a political party, and the waxing and waning of the strength of that political party has affected possibilities of moving forward with other groups.

So you need to look at each possible mobilization separately and that WAF was not and never claimed to be a spokesperson

Images: As you mentioned, the 1980s saw a lot of suppression that might have prevented cross-group solidarity from happening. I was wondering if during your research you found any sources that documented how the transgender and khawaja sara community was being affected by these laws during Zia’s time?

Ayesha Khan: To my knowledge, there wasn’t anything that was written about that, at least not in the documents that I looked at. It doesn’t mean that they weren’t impacted. That’s an area I don’t know much about, but WAF has subsequently, in certain areas, begun to extend more support to the transgender movement, but I think there is a bit of a generational difference. It has become something that has entered into WAF’s demands, and has come onto the radar later, I would say in the last ten years or so.

Images: You’ve mentioned the advances made on the legal front such as the restoration of reserved seats for women in the parliament, laws against sexual harassment, domestic violence and raising the legal age of marriage. But there also seems to be an inconsistency in legal advances and social norms by way of problems of implementation or an inadequate allocation of resources – based on your research, how do you think women’s activism in Pakistan can address this?

Ayesha Khan: I’ve done some more work after the work that I think has helped cast light on some of these questions – and what you see is that activists or social justice movements will push for gains in those areas where they see room for maneuver. If you’re in an environment, for example, where grass-roots mobilisations is very very difficult as it is in our context in Pakistan, you will see more of a turn to the courts perhaps, or more of a turn to legislative and policy reform, where there might be some room for maneuver.

Women are operating with a very thin wedge, and they are placing that wedge where they think they can make some gains in an increasingly restricted civil society, but with some openings for democratic governance. So it’s not even done as part of a prepared, coherent strategy, it’s just that naturally you go for where you think there’s some room to maneuver. And when it comes to legislative reform, we’ve had a situation where activists have prepared very well for what kind of laws they think are needed, such as for example raising the age of marriage, removing discriminatory laws, because it’s also been part of the broader UN Human Rights agenda.

"Women have felt that they will start with the laws, because we did notice that bad laws have a very transformative effect upon society, especially women. For example, with the zina laws, there came a sort of social transformation where people felt that they had license to call out women – there was a citizens’ moral policing that began under Zia that was licensed in a way by his laws," says Ayesha Khan

There is some sort of logic that we can pursue – we can also pursue a logic based on what kind of rights are already granted in our constitution. So I think that, combined with the fact that WAF originally mobilized against laws has helped to further the bias of the women’s movement maybe towards laws and policies, and legislative reform and things like that. That doesn’t mean though, that those are less important. Yes, of course, implementation is a big issue, but where do you start?

Without the laws you cannot worry about the implementation. I think women have felt that they will start with the laws, because we did notice that bad laws have a very transformative effect upon society, especially women. For example, with the zina laws, there came a sort of social transformation where people felt that they had license to call out women – there was a citizens’ moral policing that began under Zia that was licensed in a way by his laws. That is why activists also felt that it is very important to address the legislative climate.

Images: When we talk about having room to maneuver, it might also be useful to think about informal institutions or modes of being that cannot be addressed through legal reform, because just speaking about it or breaching the topic is so taboo – I’m thinking of the LGBT community and how one can address the inequalities that persist in that community through legal reform. What are your thoughts on that?

Ayesha Khan: You know, there are small, small wins. And what happens is that when you don’t address the legal persecution, then you’re not opening the door for bigger wins. So I think that it has been important, for example, that there is a possibility of declaring oneself as belonging to a third gender. Although that’s not sufficient, it’s at least a start, and legal recognition opens doors for a broader social acceptance.

But you’re right, it is very difficult to change broader social norms, not only with respect to sexuality or gender identity, but also with respect to gender roles. I think that this generation, which would be yours, is making more in-roads into that. Questioning that, looking at people’s personal lives, and the extent to which they are able to change norms in their personal lives, rather than only focus on public norms.

Images: This is something you also talk about in the last section of your book, that the younger generation of feminists, especially in urban centres of Pakistan, they focus more on personal acts of freedom, as opposed to political activism. One of your interviewees in the book mentions that sometimes it is hard to vernacularize the rights discourse – do you think that younger feminists, having the approach that they do, does it help to vernacularize this discourse? How fruitful do you think their approach is towards activism?

Ayesha Khan: There are two or three things. One is that their approach is influenced by global trends. So for example, you have a global trend towards the #MeToo movement. So the #MeToo movement is talking about certain types of sexual harassment but it is not addressing wider structural issues.

I think that similarly in the West, there is a lot of emphasis on gender identities, without, for example, bringing up patriarchy, or human rights in a way that was much more common in the 1990s. It was considered as very major achievements of not only the international women’s movement, but in Pakistan as well, to have women’s rights recognized as human rights, which happened in the 1993 UN Convention on Human Rights, Vienna.

The back of the book
The back of the book

So all of these were considered major achievements. While the issues that are being raised by younger feminists globally and within Pakistan are really, really important, it would help to buttress them and strengthen the arguments if we didn’t discard the rights framework, and we didn’t stop using the word patriarchy, and critiquing patriarchal dominance, because we need to address our personal lives, but we also need to address structural institutions of oppression.

Images: But one of the ways younger feminists frame their activism through is by using the phrase: the personal is the political.

Ayesha Khan: That’s actually the first generation of feminists who used this slogan – the personal is the political. So that was one of the mantras of the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s in the West. I would just be concerned if younger feminists don’t say that the personal is the political. I have not heard that much of a commentary on the link between the personal and the political. But if that’s the starting point, I think that would be very fruitful, because if you see things in their political context, it helps to give you clarity about the way forward.

Images: Speaking of the way forward, do you think there is a need to bridge the gap between the older generation of feminists and the younger generation of feminists in Pakistan? How can we re-create these networks of solidarity?

Ayesha Khan: I think there is a gap, and I think that there have been some misunderstandings, but we must keep talking. There is a certain vantage point that activists who have been doing this for the last 40 years in Pakistan have about the way in which issues are inter-connected.

And I think the younger generation has the strength of a kind of positionality about the way society has changed today and what are the issues that spark the passion of young men and women, in Pakistan today that need to be addressed. So I think both sets of feminists can have their own strengths, but we must keep talking, and we must not feel that communication has broken down at any point, even if it seems difficult.

Images: I’ve also observed how women in religious political parties also make a connection between statehood, gender and religion, but the premise of that connection is not secular. What do you make of women’s movements that do not share the premise of a secular approach?

Ayesha Khan: I think it’s not just either/or. If you’re talking about women who use an Islamic framework, there are many different kinds – for example, there are women who belong to religious political parties. I think their agendas are limited by the political ambitions of the party, and religious political parties in Pakistan have tried to cultivate their constituencies based on how they place the view of women and the place of non-Muslims in a so-called Pakistani Muslim state.

I think the room for maneuver and the room for dialogue with religious parties is more limited than there is with women who may not be part of political organizations, but are working on trying to understand their rights within the Islamic framework.

Some of them belong to Al-Huda, but some of them may belong to different groups, that don’t all have a uniform approach. So I think we need to divide up a little bit that world. And secondly, the democratic process is very important towards helping women work out where there is a common ground. For example, when the KP assembly tried to pass domestic violence legislation, it was not without the effort of women in religious parties: Jamaat-i-Islami and JUI. So women were trying very hard, because they understood the issue within the frameworks that their parties were allowing them to see if a common ground could be forged. In KP, as it turned out, there wasn’t.

But it doesn’t mean that it’s not possible, and I think once these conversations have to happen, when you’re talking across the table in an elected assembly, there will be room for building women’s solidarity across political parties that maybe hasn’t yet solidified, but it might become stronger in the years ahead.