How we got here

For women, survival and resistance are often inextricable

Feminist: A person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.

This is a definition taken from a Beyonce music video. It’s a definition Beyonce took from a TED talk by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This daisy-chain handing over of meaning feels poignant. Feminism is supposed to be Prometheus-like, it’s supposed to be about sharing light and warmth and knowledge. But for this knowledge to be shared, it must first be archived and preserved. Yet, feminist movements have been systematically excluded from Pakistani history and there is a marked lack of accessible archives which delineate the struggles of the women’s rights movement in Pakistan. To forget this history amounts to aligning ourselves with a patriarchal system constantly seeking to erase it; as post-colonial scholar Lisa Lowe frames it, forgetting is an act of political violence.

In 1948, thousands of women marched to the Assembly Chambers, in an attempt to attain economic rights. The protest was led by Jahanara Shahnawaz, a member of the assembly, and other female legislators and leaders. Due to the insistent pressure of the nascent Pakistani feminist movement, the Muslim Personal Law of Shariat came into effect, recognising women’s right to inherit property. As Dr Rubina Saigol points out, this victory was significant for only the propertied classes.

However, Dr Saigol goes on to recognise the monumental achievement inherent in this moment of resistance: “women took a stand against their male colleagues in the assembly for the first time.” The use of the term ‘took a stand’ appeals to me - it is a bodily rendering of struggle. Protest, in the form of marches and public gatherings, is an act that centralises the body. It is about moving and breathing and shouting loud in unison. In a society that tries to control, eliminate and possess the female body, women surviving in their bodies is extraordinary. Women using their bodies to resist is nothing short of miraculous. Of course, for women, survival and resistance are often inextricable.

In the 1970s, the feminist NGO Shirkat Gah was formed - it engaged in research and publication surrounding gender equality, set up women’s hostels and daycare centres, and advocated for the feminist re-envisioning of government policies. Members of Shirkat Gah were instrumental in founding the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) in 1981 - an example of feminist resistance echoing loudly into the future, of a fire that (once lit) illuminates the vast possibility of change. The WAF was initially a response to the Hudood Ordinances, implemented by the military dictator Zia ul Haq in 1979, which enshrined patriarchal violence and oppression in law. The Hudood Ordinances included harsh punishment for victims of rape who attempted to seek legal recourse. A 2003 report by the National Commission on Status of Women found that 80 percent of the women incarcerated under the adultery law had been jailed because “they had failed to prove rape charges and were consequently convicted of adultery.” In 1983, the WAF took to the streets to protest after Safia Bibi, a blind rape victim from the then North West Frontier Province, was found guilty of adultery. Safia Bibi was eventually represented by Hina Jillani and the late Asma Jahangir, lawyers who were both active members of the WAF, and the verdict was overruled.

The comments by CCPO Umar Shiekh on the widely reported Motorway Rape case, in which he blamed the victim for the route she chose, follows the flawed logic that informed the adultery section of the Hudood Ordinances. Patriarchy is not inventive - it constantly repeats itself. That is why it is important to create archives of feminist histories: part of resistance is remembrance. The action taken by previous feminist movements must be built upon, amended to address modern iterations of oppression (which are really only echos of past oppression). The history of the women’s movement must be considered critically, with a sharp eye out for the erasure of transgender and queer identities, instances of exclusion and moments of insularity. Identifying mistakes made by past generations of feminists is an act of love. Feminism is an act of love towards women, towards a past that tried its best to be enough, toward a future you cannot yet see.

Robert Lowell writes: “History has to live with what was here.” Tomorrow is dependent upon today, and today was made possible by yesterday. We know change can occur, because change has occurred. But how? And by whose effort? These are questions we must know the answers to. The need for a local, Pakistani archive amidst a flourishing global archive arises due to the cultural, religious and historical positioning specific to the country. There have been several attempts to chart a historiography of Pakistani feminism (Ayesha Khan, Rubina Saigol, Khawar Mumtaz). But it is important to popularise this history; expand the concept of archive beyond the realm of academic and feminist spaces; and translate it into accessible formats and mediums. Feminist history is history - it is not a niche, separate category.

The Aurat March is a vital and revolutionary event, in part due to its hyper visibility. Women on the streets, taking up space, holding up posters for all to see, resisting and surviving - how terrible it would be if this event in Pakistani history was blurred over, set aside as separate from the mainstream as a ‘woman’s issue.’ Women’s issues are historical issues; these are political issues; and there should be national archives that reflect that.

Zora Neale Hurston writes: “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” But in order to engage with the questions and answers that define our lives as women, it is imperative that we remain in constant communication with our history. The definition of feminism has been handed from generation to generation, over dining tables, in university classrooms, in the modern re-envisioning of resistance. Feminism is a verb - it is a state of perpetual movement. We must know where it has come from to understand where it will go.

The writer is a student at King’s College, London and winner of the 2020 edition of the Zeenat Haroon Rashid (ZHR) Writing Prize for Women

How we got here