Women of Pakistan have come a long way. On the occasion of International Women’s Day, You! sheds light on the WAF of the eighties that may have been an incentive for hundreds if not thousands of women to move forward and claim their place in the Pakistani sun…
By Ghazala Rahman Rafiq
The News International, YOU Magazine, 4th March, 2014
Back in the late seventies and early eighties, a number of previously unrelated Pakistani women returned to Karachi from various universities in the west. They carried with them strange and radical ideas about women’s rights. For example, one of them created a group called ‘TUF’ or ‘The Union Feminist’.
For that time, in a Pakistan under Zia, it was a bold step that bordered on heroic even though it was a little obscure for most ‘local girls’ who attended those early meetings. ‘Feminism’ or ‘the women’s liberation movement’ was radical enough without needing fortification by Marx. Most of us had already understood that “the personal is political.”
There was no social media back then and ‘uppity’ women were often labelled derogatorily in what media was available. Mughrib zudda, kuttay balon waleen (western influenced, with shorn hair) was one epithet often hurled at them. And if these women did not have more in common with each other than that the general’s demeanour inspired revolt in them, equally, they did not show it. They had begun to dissolve their dissimilarities for the joint venture ahead.
Artist Nayyer Jamil’s home was where I met up with the launch of ‘Tehreek e Niswan’ which didn’t start out as a theatre/dance group. However, nothing in my background could relate this Persian sounding Urdu title to Kathie Sarachild ‘Consciousness-Raising: A Radical Weapon’ that had given rise to my feminist tooth.
Back then there was no facebook, no quick contact through cell phones, nor even land lines that worked regularly. Around that time I remember sitting on a fifties type of sofa chair in Aban Marker’s impeccable Parsee home (white half curtains fluttering in the background) with Fareeda Shaheed. Aban asked us, at the end of a too long discussion about names, concepts, and ideologies, why we should not call ourselves ‘The Women’s Action Group’. I said I liked ‘forum’ better.
The two of them went on for a bit about how they preferred ‘group’ over ‘forum’ and why etc. Aban brought out her tattered and bulky dictionary and we looked up ‘group’ and ‘forum’. Earlier that day I had been spooked yet again by an MP pointing his bayonet at me. Few women were seen driving on Karachi’s (blissfully peaceful) roads back then and we had all heard about General Zia’s plans to take away our license to drive.
To Aban and Fareeda, I remember saying, “If we call ourselves Women’s Action Group then our acronym will be WAG!” We laughed a lot and very easily in those days. Barely out of our twenties, we expressed our outrage gingerly. The daily erosion of our status as human beings, in our own country, under newly fangled, mangled, laws rankled every day.
By then I had also found another kindred spirit, Najma Sadeque, ‘a WAF original’ as she termed us 30 years later. Her own dyed-in-the-mulmul Bengali independence and ability to react intensely to any and all infringements upon our human rights remains a curiosity for me even today. With her I became involved in an almost daily drill of drafting legally correct press releases against the military government. Late at night, after long meetings with the newly formed first working committee of five women, Najma and I would drive to Chundrigar Road to deliver press releases to her contacts at All Pakistan Press, Pakistan Press International and of course, Reuters.
Nuzhat Amin was Najma’s neighbour. Remembering her refreshes my own memory of the best of the early WAF spirit. She understood sisterhood (opp.; hierarchy) and collaboration (opp.; competition) better than anyone. She could write clever press releases, hilarious and brilliant columns on Ziaisms, cook dinner for us; everything with lightning speed and a huge amount of charming silliness.
Maybe the real charm of those days was that we took our work seriously but not ourselves. At one of the large protest rallies we had organized at the Press Club, when no political parties dared to appear in public, there were certain Maulanas present. Najma Babar, one of WAF’s many journalist friends, cautioned me not to dance at this rally. It was difficult to resist since I had invited Jiji Zarina Baloch to sing a few revolutionary songs rife then and sprung newly out of the Sindhi uprising against Zia. A few of us stifled ourselves and did a restrained luddi. Later that night, Nuzhat made up for the reduced exuberance at the press club by doing a Spanish jig in stilettos on her own coffee table! Was it the food, the drink, or general (pun intended) bonhomie?
Not a slight problem we had in those days was the dearth of academic Urdu speakers amongst us. Almost all the founding mothers of WAF had been educated exclusively in English while their mother tongues were Gujrati, Bengali, Sindhi etc. In 1981 most of us were no more comfortable speaking politics in Urdu than Mr. Jinnah was in 1947. However, just as he managed to create Pakistan, using mostly the English language, we gave birth to WAF, without speaking a lot of Urdu. But it was early days yet.
One day, as we were planning a rally, we received a frantic call from Fareeda. She had by then become our man in Lahore and launched the Lahore chapter. Imagine our surprise when she informed us of two Lahori women who wanted to register WAF in Switzerland as something called ‘WAF National’. We didn’t know these women as they had not contacted us. Did we realize then that our brand of sisterhood was not for everyone?
Though it remained a loose, amorphous sisterhood, and not hierarchical, just as our charter told, and a true lobby cum pressure group for some time, further surprises awaited the ingenues among us when at our first national conference in Islamabad we met “the WAF delegation from Peshawar.” Two (almost elderly) women introduced each other as the president and vice president of this delegation. I for one was speechless. Was it too late to expound on the non-hierarchical part? What part of non-hierarchical did they not understand?
To be fair to the Frontier women, Humaira Rehman in Karachi had already begun to mention the necessity of a division of labour within WAF. She had implied that some of us should be the drones (and do newsletter labour etc.) and others do more important work like talk with bigwigs like Begum Rana Liaqat Ali Khan.
When the sisterhood bhav evaporated, and some of us stopped sharing national and international opportunities for WAF’s exposure with the entire group, it became an open venue for building careers within the newly emerging market of the ‘WEE’, the women’s emancipation economics. Perhaps the bhav of sisterhood departed because some saw WAF as a career or a stepping stone toward real careers and others didn’t.
And wasn’t there wringing of hands as we wondered who would come up with the 600 rupees for Mr. Aitzaz’s flight from Lahore so he could speak at a WAF rally? We were by now squarely part of and consciously aiding and abetting the MRD not the least by providing arenas for men stifled by Zia.
Around this time it dawned on us that we had to turn a bit more ‘awami’ if we wanted to gather storm power. We started to use more Urdu in public. Western paradigms had to change to eastern. At a WAF conference held at the Nasra School, Anis Haroon’s husband said to me, aap log meri wife ko bhi include karein. I took the proposal to the committee. Though we had already translated women’s action forum as Khawateen Mahaz Amal, Anis then rapidly tried to translate the rest of our ethos into political feminist Urdu.
At a meeting at Zohra (of the sixties ‘She’ magazine) Karim’s house, Zohra protested when someone said that we need to do everything in Urdu. Someone else said we do not want an elitist image. She retorted, “Elitists also have rights”.
We were elitist only in so far as the medium of communication of ideas between us was in English. But more than a few among us had no money, only our western education, whether we had acquired it at home or abroad. So WAF, in that moment in time, was probably conceived as a daughter of western constructions. The model and paradigm could be termed indigenous if the human rights charter (a copy of which I had brought home from Berkeley in 1979) that we based WAF’s charter on was also Pakistani. But it was not.
The mix of women was also a field full of varying educational levels and backgrounds. I remember one tense public meeting where we tried to raise our concern about a recent rape case in a Panjabi village. A Pakistani law student, home on holiday from London, wanted us to ‘table’ everything on the blackboard provided by the YWCA. A woman in a burka asked me, “khatoon konsee table ka zikr horaha hai?” I wondered how we were going to build our central committee that we wanted to create, beyond the WAF core. Still, we had great partners in Mariam Paleejo of Sindhiari Tehreek and Shahnaz Rahu, Fazil Rahu’s sister and so many others. Amazing memorable women like the great Anjuman e Jamhooriat Pasand Khawateen and the best and bravest: women from our fisheries who were true sisters in that oppressive era. This was still the early 1980s.
Asma Jahangir said (September 2013) on TV that women in Pakistan have made gains since the 80s. She forgot to mention the WAF of the eighties that may have been an incentive for hundreds if not thousands of women to move forward and claim their place in the Pakistani sun. Was it she or another activist who said that the Pakistani women’s movement had nothing to do with western mores of feminism? Borrowing from Gandhiji, I say to them, that would be a very good idea.