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Breaking the class ceiling

The next few years of activism are likely to be marked by women’s empowerment that searches for rights beyond livelihood and basic needs, and revolves around sexual agency

Breaking the class ceiling

In her essay, ‘The Convenience of Subservience: Women and the State of Pakistan, from Women, Islam and the State, Ayesha Jalal (1991) offered one of the earliest critiques of women’s rights movements in Pakistan. She claimed that “submission can be socially rewarding…for women from the middle and upper strata in rural and urban areas,” and that these women have “chosen the path of least resistance” because they are “not quite the hapless and unsuspecting victims of ‘Islamic’ chauvinism which certain secular critics and especially ‘the feminists’ among them would like to believe” (78).

With reference to political activist groups, such as Women’s Action Forum, Jalal argued that the “class origins of those who have formed the vanguard of the ‘feminist’ movement have been the decisive factor in the articulation of women’s issues at the level of the state” (79).

The case of Qandeel Baloch, transgender identities, and the speaking out of victims of sexual harassment marks a new turn in the direction of women’s rights.

There are three intrinsic flaws in Jalal’s critique and one prescient observation. Her first misdiagnosis unfolded soon after her essay. The sheer escalation and expansion of feminist thinking and women’s rights activism over the past two and a half decades have cut across classes and generations, and are rooted in the movements of the 1980s and 1990s.

Just a handful of spontaneous examples include: the Women Councilors’ Network, the Okara Peasant Women’s movement in Punjab, the public tea-stall occupying, Dhaba Girls in Karachi, the literary women’s circle, Khanabadosh in Hyderabad, the ‘We The Humans’ women’s group in Quetta, and the Taqrha Qabaili Khwenday (Tribal Sisterhood Organisation) in Fata.

Middle class women, including the late Qandeel Baloch claim their ‘modern feminist’ allegiance with little academic anxiety. Many of these initiatives are inevitably linked in variable ways to the founding members, or activist seeds sown by the Women’s Action Forum.

Since 2000, large numbers of women activists from middle and lower-middle classes have joined or even founded various non governmental organisations (NGOs) and successfully assisted in drafting and lobbying for a series of legislation and policies for women’s rights. These non-elite women have also formed independent linkages with state officials and they can mobilise or void FIRs with one phone call.

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The class origin of these women is no impediment to the influence they wield which includes getting state shelters opened in the middle of the night and directly and routinely saving lives across provinces, little-known cities and random rural towns. The most limited analysis of recent times has been that liberal ideals are limited to the upper classes and that their influence is rampant across Pakistan’s institutions. Only the truly disconnected and who have never worked in or with these institutions can claim such drivel.

Secondly, Jalal’s claim that upper and middle class women activists and public officials are not targets of Islamic bigotry has sadly been belied with a series of murderous attacks on women in public office and human rights activists — Benazir Bhutto, Zille Huma, Zahra Shahid, Parveen Rahman, Farida Afridi, Shamshad Begum and Sabeen Mahmud, are just a few such victims.

Third, Jalal underestimates the successes of women’s rights because her perspective is far more focused on the propriety of the women’s movement rather than on the relevance, results and impact of the rights campaigns. Jalal neglects to analyse how non-elite women have strategically instrumentalised these rights. Also, hers is an almost exclusively, Punjab-centric perspective.

But Jalal’s observation on the compromised relations between progressive women’s rights groups, Islamic politics, and military rule has been most prescient. Many prominent women’s rights activists did indeed work with the military regimes of Ayub Khan, then Ziaul Haq’s Women’s Division and then, transitioned into heading and steering gender policy under civilian democratic governments that followed.

Similarly, ‘Musharraf’s women’ have glided seamlessly into civilian ‘gender governance’ under current governments. Undeniable progress for women’s rights may be credited to these activist women but they also legitimised military regimes. Post-Musharraf, these (opportunist?) rights activists either deliberately discredit his rule for these achievements, or claim amnesia and pretend that they were not associated, even though, many participated in legislative processes or benefited personally and professionally from “social accommodations…with…existing structures of authority” (Jalal).

So yes, several of these Elders of the women’s movement today do hold governmental positions but retain their foothold in non-governmental women’s rights activism, too. Despite this history of living dangerously close to the conflict of interest zone, interestingly, there have been few examples of glaring contradictions.

Women’s rights activists in their relationship with the state have exhibited an uncanny instinct for extracting rights from the state and yet, dodged any incriminating action or policy position that would clearly indict them as complicit with authoritarianism.

The post-Musharraf years have seen a competitive race across provinces to pass women’s rights legislation and claim the badge as ‘pro-women’ governments. Under its newly amended laws and gender action policies, the Pakistan state has distanced itself from its earlier indifference or collusion in patriarchal practices justified as tradition, religion or custom. But, gender governance also yields unexpected and new freedoms.

The past few years have witnessed a direct challenge to the heteronormative discourses on sexuality and gender. The case of Qandeel Baloch, transgender identities, and the speaking out of victims of sexual harassment marks a new turn in the direction of women’s rights as sexual rights.

Historically, women’s rights have been defined almost exclusively in relation to the state, religion and governance. The ‘class ceiling’ of the women’s movement has been broken and sexual agency rather than piety of the Pakistani Muslim woman is looking for recognition and expression. Subservience is neither convenient nor the preferred strategy of these gendered activist-subjects.

No entity seems prepared for this turn. The next few years of activism are likely to be marked by women’s empowerment that searches for rights beyond livelihood and basic needs, and revolves around sexual agency. This expression clearly threatens heteronormativity and the Islamic gendered order. The state is unsure of how to respond to this but so is society, the donor/development community, and even many members of women’s groups who are uncomfortable with and unprepared for such biopolitics.

Afiya Shehrbano Zia

aafiya sheharbano
The writer is the author of 'Faith and Feminism in Pakistan; Religious Agency or Secular Autonomy.

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