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Women’s Empowerment

Historicising the women's rights movement

Women’s Empowerment

Recently, I saw an image of a brave woman confronting the armed TLP and TLYR protesters in Lahore, I suppose, to allow her car to pass through their blockade. The photo is important — as it ensued a discussion on the place of women in a revolution.

The question of women’s empowerment in Muslim India and in Muslim Pakistan is significant but it has not received much attention. Even within the indigenous women’s empowerment movements, the question remains unaddressed.

Here I’m reminded of my previous column on feminism tiltled Re-imagining Muslim women that appeared in this magazine in July this year. While evaluating the social structures prevalent in Muslim North India, I had asked: Was the issue of women’s empowerment essentially a Western one, or did Muslim India also have its moments whereby women asserted for equal rights vis a vis men?

When assessing the issue of women’s empowerment in these postmodern, postcolonial times, it is also important to historicise how the role of women was re-assessed during the era of reform in India (mid-19th to early-20th century) against the backdrop of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and his contemporaries’ bid to make new social adjustments in British colonial dispensation. Political decline led to social decline. The family as a primary social unit in Muslim India was reconfigured during this period. Deputy Nazir Ahmed, Ashraf Ali Thanawi and even Abul Kalam Azad had a few prescriptions to offer, mostly lamenting the declining scale of morality among women. Taubatul Nasuh, Mira’atul Aroos (Urdu novels by Deputy Nazir Ahmed), Baheshti Zewar (by Ashraf Ali Thanawi) and Mussalman Aurat (by Abul Kalam Azad) represented a trend that was considerably popular among the Muslim middle-class.

Indeed, Maulana Altaf Hussain Hali’s famous call for “aye maao behno betiyo duniya ki zeenat tum say hai/ mulkon ki basti ho tumhi qaumon ki izzat tum say hai” placed the responsibility to keep the social unit of family intact on women. This reformist thought imagined that women’s empowerment lay in their education, but education could not replace or supplant the integrity and primacy of the woman’s place within the chaadar and chardeewari.

It is important to note that for many within the Muslim society, woman’s strict conformity to purdah and to an always subservient position to her father, brother, husband, son, and other male members of the society was indeed a guarantee of her empowerment and security.

Around the same time, the colonial state was beginning to question the Hindu practice of sati, a practice of female subjugation. Gayatri Spivak has discussed this absolute cruelty in detail in her paper, titled Can the Subaltern Speak? It is also important to note that for the segments of Indian Hindu society, that defended the cruel burning of a widow on the funeral pyre of her husband, the act of sati was empowering for women.

Such contradictory conceptions of empowerment permeate social structures in the subcontinent to date, and it becomes important to review and revise them in order to understand the complexities of the problem.

In Pakistan, the struggle for women’s empowerment is often traced back to the era of the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) and its resistance to anti-women and anti-minorities legislation introduced during the Ziaul Haq regime. Luminaries such as Asma Jahangir and Nigar Ahmed became national icons. (I will strongly recommend Afiya S. Zia’s Faith and Feminism in Pakistan to students of social sciences to gain intellectual clarity on the subject of women’s empowerment and the role of WAF in Pakistan.)

But, really, the history of women’s empowerment movement must be traced back to the era of Ayub Khan, when Fatima Jinnah bravely contested the presidential election against the powerful military ruler. Though she lost under dubious circumstances, she single-handedly became the symbol for resistance against military dictatorship.

Similarly, Benazir Bhutto became a symbol of resistance in the days of Zia. She was a liberated, empowered woman who combined her eastern heritage with her western training, and represented millions of women and men. Nobody since has represented such hope.

So, for those who consider women non-political creatures and Pakistan a traditionally patriarchal society where women are always suppressed, I remind them of these two dynamic leaders.

Anthropologist Saba Mahmood contended in the case of Egypt that western feminism’s assumptions of Muslim women being not liberated is a false consciousness. She argued that Islamic cultures, and I would say all non-western cultures, have their own indigenous models of female empowerment and liberty. Unfortunately, we tend to analyse our local situations through the ahistorical and myopic Western lens. Like Saba Mahmood, I would posit that indigenous women’s empowerment movements should be judged on their own socio-political, economic, and cultural paradigms, and not on Western standards.

This is of paramount importance because it would offer a restitutive effect, and help us realise that options for empowerment are available to our women. This hope is necessary to avoid the kind of myopia that has been enforced on us.

The writer is Professor of History at GCU, Lahore

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The author is a historian and teacher based in Lahore.

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