By Rafia Zakaria
August 27, 2014
THE last time women were occupying public space in the country’s capital, it was the spring of 2007. Then, a conflict brewed between the country’s justice system and the country’s rulers. The then chief justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Chaudhry, had been fired by the then president, Pervez Musharraf.
The women, however, belonged to neither camp; they were the black-clad, stick-wielding women of Jamia Hafsa. In the days before, they had occupied a federally owned public library. When they did leave the premises, it was for the moral policing of their urban environs: holding hostage some Chinese women. We all know how that awful episode ended, with the Lal Masjid siege and a violent confrontation. The image of the women, none of them identifiable, all of them forbidding, remained etched in many minds.
It is perhaps the seven-year shadow of that ugly episode that makes the appearance of some different kind of occupying women in Islamabad a welcome scene. In the tumult of the marches that have claimed television screens and newspaper columns for the past two weeks, women of all ages and sorts have been a welcome constant. Unlike the women of Jamia Hafsa, who were notable in the uniformity of their attire and the narrowness of their ideology, the women at the two marches appear to represent a varied spectrum of views and beliefs.
There are the young women of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s ‘Azadi march’, swaying to patriotic songs and bracing against the unpredictable tempests blowing through Islamabad. Then there are the more sedate and resolute women of Allama Tahirul Qadri’s march, some with headscarves, others with Dupattas.
Women inhabiting public space are a victory for at least one half of Pakistan.
Regardless of the agenda of each — the actual possibilities of change, the likely damages to democracy, etc — witnessing women of all sorts inhabiting public space and existing and persisting in it for days is a victory for at least one half of Pakistan, regardless of its political leanings. It is a victory for women.
The reasons for this are clear and simple, and transcend the individual qualms and quibbles of this or that political or religious leader, the agendas of governments of the past, present and future. Recent years have been dismal ones for women in Pakistan’s public spaces.
A perusal of newspapers from just a few weeks past reveals various cruelties, from acid attacks in markets in Balochistan to bans on the public presence of women in many areas in the northwest. Those, of course, are the simple abridgements of personal movement, felt just as much by female students harassed at universities as by those unfortunate ladies sentenced to braving Pakistan’s public transport to navigate jobs and errands.
Added to them are the far more grotesque and caustic attacks on women’s personal freedoms; it must not be forgotten that just a few months ago, a woman was bludgeoned to death outside a courthouse for the crime of marrying a man of her own choice.
Stoning, acid attacks, harassment, then, are the colours in which the presence of women in Pakistan’s public sphere has been painted. As these constrictions, bit by bit and piece by piece, have descended on women, neither the present government nor the previous one seemed to have had much of a strategy to combat their cumulative curses. The rote-learned and parroted recipes of condemnations and commissions have been utilised again and yet again, applied to any and all cases — to women buried alive by family members, to women blown up when their university buses are bombed, to women forcibly married. The story of the Pakistani woman has been one long, uninterrupted saga of misery. No one in power has considered it worthy of anything more than the most perfunctory of attention; it is what is generally reserved for women.
All revolutions, promised or presumptuous, must be measured on the relative scales of incremental advances. In those measures, then, the appearance of women, many women, happy women, dancing women, and most of all, political women, represents the overturning of the precedent set by the black-clad, stick-wielding women of Jamia Hafsa seven years ago.
While many have legitimate and pertinent concerns regarding their ultimate actions, and while their absence in leadership positions in either party is cause for hesitation in anointing them champions of women, the condition of the country and the exclusion of women in the recent past makes their simple inclusion at least noteworthy.
Some applause is also owed based on the un-gendered bravado required to enter any public space in Pakistan. After all, men and women, tens of thousands of them, have been killed indiscriminately and in public spaces as Pakistan has fought its battle with terror.
In its very limited sense, then, the very appearance of women in a country that has in the past several years seemed unconnected to half its population and unconcerned with their marginalisation can be agreed upon as a good thing. But just as the exclusion of women has made the latter’s sudden appearance and inclusion a celebratory moment, the surfeit of promises and the superficiality of change must engender an equally healthy scepticism regarding the depth of this commitment.
In a country where meaning is contested, this small vision of an inclusive Pakistan can easily be erased if the commitment goes no deeper than opportunistic screen-time, never elevates itself to actual leadership, meaningful participation, and an ideological commitment to gender equality. Those details, like the promised new Pakistan, have so far remained elusive, buried in songs and chants and the hope so many of us are hungry for.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.