With International Women's Day approaching, I was asked to write a
short piece for Dawn's Karachi Notebook today (March 3, 2008).
Copying the piece below, including the two paragraphs they chopped,
about the participation of Pakistani women in the struggle for
democratic politics and the patterns that emerge in such struggles
when women are involved.
Published version at: http://www.dawn.com/2008/03/03/fea.htm#1
Dawn March 3, 2008
Karachi Notebook: A time to remember
Here comes that day again, the one dedicated to women all over the
world, March 8, International Women's Day. In Pakistan, we observe
our own unofficial Women's Day every February 12 since the watershed
rally in 1983 organised by the Punjab Women Lawyers Association in
Lahore. Sadly, the symbolism of this demonstration is still relevant:
it was a protest against Gen. Ziaul Haq's law of evidence that
reduced the testimony of women in court to half that of men; like
many other laws the general imposed, it remains in our statute books.
A heavy police posse outnumbered the demonstrators as they began
moving from Regal Chowk to the Lahore High Court to present a
petition. The courageous people's poet Habib Jalib was among the few
men participating in the demonstration who also got tear-gassed and
lathi-charged. The image of Jalib fending off a baton wielded by a
zealous tulla is frozen in a news photograph, as are images of
policemen gleefully thrashing women demonstrators. Many women were
arrested and hauled off to the thana, defiantly shouting slogans
against the military regime. Two decades later, such scenes are still
all too familiar, captured now by television cameras as well as still
Every year, women's day brings a reminder of the women's movement's
integral involvement in the struggle for democratic politics in
Pakistan. If not for the impending elections, February 12 may well
have been dedicated in many seminars and demonstrations to Benazir
Bhutto. Her assassination snatched away from us a woman who
epitomized this struggle, balancing an intensely political life with
being a dedicated mother. International Women's Day this year will
also be overshadowed by March 9, the anniversary of the fateful day
in 2007 when a `military president' suspended the country's chief
justice. The Chief Justice refused to be suspended, and the rest as
they say, is history.
The participation of Pakistani women in the struggle for democratic
politics is marked by patterns similar to those that emerge in other
such struggles by women elsewhere. To generalize, these patterns
include the tendency of women activists to avoid seeking, taking up
or demanding leadership positions; following a cooperative rather
than hierarchal structure without formal positions; and
These patterns are visible in the ongoing `civil society' (for want
of a better term) struggle for the restoration of an independent
judiciary in Pakistan, in which women are prominent players, often
the main event organizers.
At rallies taken out in Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi, women also
bore the brunt of the police action. They surrounded male colleagues
to prevent police from beating or dragging them away. "Arrest us all,
or no one at all," they demanded. Sometimes it worked, sometimes not.
At times the police, particularly in Islamabad, showed no compunction
in brutalizing women ignoring the legal requirement that only
policewomen may lay hands on or arrest females. In many cases, male
police specifically targeted and manhandled women.
On occasion the police ensured that policewomen were on the scene
to `do the needful', like at the journalists' rally at Karachi Press
Club on November 21 when over a hundred journalists, including women,
courted arrest and were carted off to various police stations.
Sometimes, they forgot, like the time they arrested participants of
the candlelight vigil outside Justice Rana Bhagwandas' residence on
January 13. The first information reports charging the protestors
with Sections 147 and 148 of the Pakistan Penal Code -- rioting and
rioting with a deadly weapon (candles?) -- were ready even before the
eight arrested activists arrived at the police station. In the
absence of women police, the male police refused to arrest the women
demonstrators who tried to prevent them from hauling away the men.
As the nation awaits the installation of a democratic dispensation,
one wonders if any of the patterns that typify women's organizations
low key, consultative, non-hierarchal will be among its features.
-- Beena Sarwar