As part of Why Are We Still Here?, a series of 12 blogs written by women around the world to mark International Women’s Day, Zubeida Mustafa reflects on the need for two strands of women to unite in Pakistan’s women’s rights movement.
I became a feminist when I was five. My brother who is a year younger than me had snatched my favourite doll. I tried to retrieve it but failed. The drama ended when the doll lay mauled up as I sobbed uncontrollably at the destruction of my precious possession. When the tears had dried I learned that more than physical strength you need wits and courage to get what you think is yours.
As I grew up and writing became my passion – first as a researcher and then a journalist – and I saw the oppression of women in my society at close quarters. More than wits, they lacked awareness about their rights and the confidence to defy conservative traditions enforced by a patriarchal society. Education had empowered me. But an overwhelming majority of our women are not educated.
When a military dictator, Ziaul Haq, seized power in 1977 he did us a great favour. That was the view of the principal of a girls’ college and she was right. Zia ushered in the dark ages for the women of Pakistan. So bleak was the era for us that we had to react. That is how some brave women got together and formed the Women’s Action Forum (WAF). I played the messenger’s role ensuring that their voice was heard far and wide through the media.
From lamentation, women had moved on to action. WAF focused on advocacy as it concentrated on consciousness-raising and lobbying for women’s rights, which are human rights. It succeeded beyond expectations and everyone, especially in the corridors of power, was talking about and embracing the women’s agenda.
It was, however, mystifying that all the new pro-women laws, commissions and seminars did not change anything on the ground for the ‘common women’ who constitute 60% of the female population. Women from the privileged classes got a lot of what they were demanding – albeit not just for the asking.
That is saddening. The advocacy goes on but only a few of the doubly oppressed women – burdened with poverty and lack of enlightened education – are lucky to receive any relief at all. Why? Ours is a stratified society. The underprivileged can be facilitated by those who are empowered socially, intellectually, politically and economically. That means that those who advocate their case before the power wielders should also connect with the under-privileged to make them self-reliant.
There are those, like my friend Perween Rahman, who worked to show the poor – both men and women — the way to empower themselves. She was shot dead two years ago when she started treading on the toes of vested interests. She had no time for advocacy. We would often talk about this dilemma. We felt that those lobbying the powers-that-be should also connect with the workers on the ground. The first get strength from their connections with the top. The other from their links with the masses. This bond was never created. That is the problem with societies that are class-based. The fault line runs through them.
Perween pointed out this basic flaw in our approach. She is no more with us but I continue to use my pen to shed light on the concerns of the oppressed. My hope is that my voice will be heard and someday the two strands of women will join to become a powerful force.
Zubeida Mustafa is a Pakistani journalist and author who writes about the empowerment of women. She worked as an Assistant Editor at Dawn, Pakistan’s most widely circulated English language newspaper, from 1975-2009. In 2012 Zubeida won the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Washington-based International Women’s Media Foundation.