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Rethinking protest politics

WAF Hyderabad is inducting women workers and activists onto its forum to fuse the ideological politics with the energy and skills of the millennial activists towards a stronger overarching women’s protest movement

Rethinking protest politics

Protest used to be simpler in the 1980s and 1990s. The practice of taking to the streets to promote causes, demand justice and reclaim public spaces was an expression of the people’s dissent against the state. Positions were sharp, slogans and groups were ideological and strategies were pre-planned. The measurement of success depended on how many activists would end up in jail rather than the size of the protest or how many pictures get posted on Facebook.

In the new millennium, the state remains the target of protest but it has steadily outsourced so much of its oppressive powers that it no longer seems to have a core. These colluders of/by the state are themselves further so fragmented, that it has become challenging for protesters to even find the head or tail of this Hydra.

Today, the source of oppression may be a state-sponsored religious outfit, a Jirga headed by a member of parliament, an intelligence agency, a toxic waste spilling industry founded by a capitalist-minister, a sexist member of the Council of Islamic Ideology or, a hyper-nationalist, bigoted, embedded TV anchor. In knee-jerk and perplexing fashion though, protesters from the left to right spectrum still seem to end up at the usual venue of local press clubs.

This is because once upon a time, the media used to be an ideological player. But we forget that now the media is completely market-driven, politically homogenous and a social consumer product. Most of today’s media heads believe that the dumbing down of ideas and opinions into digestible sound-bites is a virtue. Moreover, the fourth estate or pillar that used to serve as a means of amplifying issues and dissent has crumbled into little pebbles in the interactive media age. This has encouraged a new generation of self-defined citizen journalists and venting protesters whose careers are born, bred and blogged in a virtual medium — cyberspace.

This shift has affected the identities of political collectives in Pakistan. We seem to have made a transition — from collectivist politics of ‘the people’ to a more contained, ‘civil society’ to an undefined and individualistic, blogosphere — and we have done so without questioning its effects. One clear impact of the discontents that have come with this shift can be seen in the way it has affected the main debates and issues regarding women’s movements around the world but in Pakistan, too.

At a time when Women’s Action Forum Pakistan was running out of energy and members earlier in this decade, a new chapter was founded in Hyderabad under the activist-scholars and poet-writers, Amar Sindhu and Arfana Mallah. WAF’s policy has been to focus on its collectivism rather than male-defined hierarchal politics or ego-tripping leadership issues and so, it remains a fluid, office-less forum with no chosen leader.

Hyderabad WAF has managed to mobilise women and men across many cities in Sindh to join one of its secular causes of protesting and assisting in cases of violence against women particularly, in its expression through honor-based crimes. The political methodology and message of their campaign and approach to cases is class-based and feminist. Social media is not a substitute but simply one small cog in their activist efforts.

In this regard, last week, WAF Hyderabad held a rally to highlight the cause of victims of Karo-Kari and other forms of violence. Many political parties’ representatives (with a bias of left and nationalist ones) participated, as well as members of the Karachi chapter of WAF.

One of the advantages of these rallies is that these are opportunities not just for solidarity and cross-exchange of ideas and strategies and sharing the burden of cases and costs but also, for reflection. WAF Hyderabad shared some of its new strategies for its campaign.

Here are some from which we may learn. The preparations included actual sewing of the banners and flags by supporters in the build up of campaign momentum. The activists mobilised people in communities and neighbourhoods by driving on a rented van and broadcasting their planned rally, rather than relying on invitation letters or social media only.

This methodology of inclusiveness and involvement is crucial in protest politics rather than the new age protests of ‘walking for a cause’ and taking lots of selfies. There were almost an equal amount of men to women in the preparations and actual rally. These young men were not voyeurs but actively organising the male contingency that followed behind the women participants of the rally as it led through the city of Hyderabad. Women led the march and called the slogans and these were all in Sindhi. None of the male political leaders played anything but a supportive role in carrying the banners in the march.

The protest march was not a token 20-minute stroll — it was a two-hour and fifteen minute trek through the city. Each representative spoke for an equal amount of exactly 2 minutes when the rally congregated at the Press Club. The women were young and old, mixed in terms of class background and there were no victims presented as tokens.

In critical retrospect, despite the vibrancy and diversity of the well-organised event and its heavily political symbolism, the target of our protest remains undefined. Our urban jungles today prioritise commuter convenience rather than expression of rights. This means, police and administrative permissions marginalise rallies down to orderly conduct rather than spontaneous public protest.

After the massacre of the APS schoolchildren in Peshawar by the Taliban, instead of the press club, WAF Karachi held protests outside the offices of those religious parties that did not clearly condemn the Taliban. WAF called on them to clarify their support or severance from the militants’ jihadism. This evoked a far more direct engagement and was effective in getting a response — even if it was the usual false accusation that WAF was an American-sponsored imperialist feminist organisation misleading the women of Pakistan and that it should be ignored. But the protest aimed to pressurise and confront one source that feeds the conflict narrative.

The other lesson is that the creeping distance between theory and activism has grown wide. A rally is different from a protest, sure. But, it was an opportunity to link the message that all forms of violence against women have a foundational connection. The state is a main protagonist and accountable and the legal system is answerable and responsible in these cases, certainly. But given that there has been so much academic interest and findings by (repeat and replicated) donor-led research studies on the subject, there could have been more substance to educate participants.

Understanding the political economy of honour crimes, its links with property and ownership, marriage and community ties may help us target our activism beyond legislative reform. Creative ways to break the codes of honour or get communities to redefine these, need to be formulated urgently instead of waiting for justice from the state. The Punjab CM may visit victims too late but Sindh’s is under no pressure to do even that.

Interesting international debates have taken place on crimes of violence that continue to hold victims responsible for their own brutalisation. Some women’s movements have responded by subverting this shaming and blaming of women for their wardrobe or behaviour, by displaying their sexuality more overtly and rejecting modest dressing (SlutWalk movements). Others have criticised this as the ‘pornification of protest’ or, the overuse of spectacle instead of focusing on the substance and political message.

Sadly, rather than engaging with these kind of gaps, examples and opportunities to radicalise our efforts, feminist protest politics in Pakistan is still only being criticised for the tired, jaded and nearly always, misplaced accusations of it being Westoxified and imperialist or bourgeois. Unfortunately, the source of criticism is no longer just the Islamists but often found through social media-based observations and in long-distance “analysis”.

Meanwhile, WAF Hyderabad is inducting women workers and activists onto its forum and WAF Karachi is collaborating with young media activists as part of its revitalisation. The idea is to fuse the ideological politics that define WAF’s foundational activism with the energy and skills of the millennial activists towards a stronger overarching women’s protest movement. The alternative is the risk that activism will simply be reduced to being judged by appearance, defined by ‘likes’ and emoticons and eventually, falling into some virtual ideological abyss.

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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