OPINION: Whither feminism?

KARACHI, Pakistan (Dawn/ANN) - Not much has changed on the ground.

Is feminism changing in Pakistan? That is the question that should be asked by those who are interested in women’s issues. That is the question that I pondered over at the Women’s Peace Table I attended recently in Karachi. 

Organised by Tehrik-e-Niswan (TN) and a few other civil society groups, this gathering was the third in the series that was launched in 2015 on the call of the Peace Women Across the Globe. The idea is to encourage women to be involved in the peace process in regions in the grip of conflict.

For Sheema Kermani, the founder of TN, this was an opportunity to further the women’s cause. As it is, Sheema has struggled bravely since 1979 to create awareness on women’s rights through the medium of song and dance.

Many others have also worked to help women free themselves from male oppression in Pakistan. But Sheema’s approach has been effective at the grass roots for two reasons. First, she has reached out to women who most need to be conscientised. Second, the medium she chose was popular and comprehensible to all whether or not they were educated. Sheema wisely widened the scope of the women’s peace table (as is generally perceived in the framework of UN Resolution 1325) in Pakistan. It goes beyond the narrow parameters of war and peace in the traditional sense of international relations. 

If women are included in equal numbers in peace negotiations, the outcome of many such dialogues would be different. But it needs to be recognised that gender-related violence and oppression, the subjugation of women and denying them social justice also trigger conflict. It robs the socio-political environment of stability, and a big section of the population is left discontented. This state of affairs is not conducive to peace, so there is a need to realise the significance of increasing women’s participation in all public activities which have a bearing on their rights. 

Therefore the agendas of the two sessions of the peace table included issues such as missing persons, minorities, health, education, violence, political parties, elections, sexual harassment and peace itself. 

It is now clear that awareness has been enhanced. The government and all public functionaries speak of women’s rights and swear by them to establish their credentials as champions of the cause of women. No party fails to list its plans for women’s empowerment in its manifesto. By and large, the powers that be include women — even though it might be a token number — in various committees and bodies that are set up. A measure of the success of the women’s movement in Pakistan is the public recognition of the power of women. 

But that is not enough. Not much has changed on the ground. In some ways, the situation has worsened. While a small section of women have managed to improve their lot — thanks to a good education and the opening up of new opportunities for them — the underprivileged of society have sunk deeper into the morass of oppression and violence. With the awareness that has been created, this inability of women generally to gain their rights has resulted in frustration, anger and a sense of failed expectations. 

This was evident in abundance in the young activists from all over the country who participated in the peace table. The abduction and conversion of young Hindu girls in Sindh and the forced disappearance of a female journalist, Zeenat Shahzadi, who was investigating the case of an Indian visitor in Pakistan, created a lot of furore. Obviously, impatience is growing and it is becoming difficult to restrain those who feel very strongly about the wrongs that are being inflicted on women. 

A via media has to be found. The problem is the growing polarisation in society that has led to this cleavage where radical women are confronting women who are known to be liberal in their views. This is happening against the backdrop of a confrontation between the extremists — that include women as well — and secular-liberal women.

It is time for the radicals and liberals to have a dialogue to understand what is going wrong. However, one must emphasise that women in politics, many of whom are established feminists, are expected to work harder for the implementation of the women-friendly laws that they got adopted. I do not hear much about the women’s caucus that was so active once upon a time. 

As for activists like Sheema, please continue to educate our women about their rights, if you do not want to lose the silent majority to the extremists. Laida, a teacher in a school in Neelum Colony in Karachi, texted me this message the next morning: “Thank you for taking me to the peace table. I learnt a lot. It was an informative programme.”

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