As Pakistan’s main left-wing political party, the Awami Workers’ Party (AWP) shoulders a unique responsibility. Its leaders seek to uphold the core values of a socialist political movement and authenticate the party’s credentials as a genuine transformative force in a country whose parliament is littered with conservative leaders of all hues and shades. While the AWP is still in its infancy, its leaders are aware that the task of building a party – and by extension a movement – cannot be done without the organized, vibrant participation of women.
Last year, the AWP held its first women’s convention a few weeks before International Women’s Day. The communiqué issued at the end of the convention carried 11 points that were to serve as the guiding principles of the party’s position on the question of gender. This year, the AWP asked all its chapters to organize Women’s Day events in their areas, under the theme “Aurat Jagi” (“Woman Awakens”).
On 8 March, several hundred people – including women carpenters from Gilgit-Baltistan, home-based workers, activists from the National Students Federation (NSF), and residents of Islamabad’s kachhi abadis – gathered at the Aabpara Community Centre to take part in speeches and performances. In Peshawar, the party organized a conference, followed by a rally, at the Peshawar Press Club. Carrying red flags, the crowd joined party leaders in their walk after they had spoken out on the need for action against the injustices that women in Pakistan continue to face.
In Lahore, their comrades took cover as the Women’s Day event in Model Town was disrupted by rain. The theater performance arranged for the event turned into an impromptu musical evening as party workers huddled together for tea and warmth. In Hyderabad, a few hundred people took part in the Nariwad rally where party leaders spoke on why Women’s Day was so important.
These events may be “small” compared to the mega-shows put on by mainstream political parties, but they highlight the diversity of the AWP’s women’s cadre, who believe they have found the right platform from which to resist a diverse set of challenges. Take Taj Meena, the party’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa women’s wing secretary. She says she reaches out to women around her based on a simple yet inconceivable idea: “I say to them, ‘get out of your homes. How long will you be dormant?’” she explains.
“[People] will be quick to say you are a great politician, but you have failed as a woman”
Pursuing emancipatory politics is, for Meena, “the most empowering and yet scary feeling.” “I’m not just an activist, you see,” she says wryly, “I am a mother, a sister, a daughter, a wife. Getting out of the house was easy for me: my husband encouraged me to come to protests with him. When I became serious about it, many people asked me if I was out of my mind. [They will] be quick to say you are a great politician, but you have failed as a woman.”
There is Amna Mawaz, secretary of the Rawalpindi-Islamabad youth wing, who performed a composition by Indu Mitha set to Kishwar Naheed’s poem Hum gunahgar auratein (We sinful women) at the party’s Women’s Day event in Islamabad. She says she has been familiar with activism since she was seven years old. Subsequently, during the 2007 lawyers’ movement, she was introduced to a group of activists who went on to form the AWP. Dance is her chosen medium of expression: she feels she is more comfortable performing than pursuing aggressive activism.
Tooba Syed’s first interaction with the AWP was three years ago at a protest organized in solidarity with the Baloch missing persons. She says she had not been politically active till then, but wanted to protest against the issue and discovered one was taking place. Tooba joined the party two years ago and now holds study circles at Quaid-e-Azam University with her comrades. She has also organized an anti-eviction movement in Islamabad’s kachhi abadis in the wake of the Capital Development Authority’s decision to demolish 12 such settlements in and around Islamabad.
Importantly, the party’s women’s wing has chosen not only to take up the feminist cause, but also to connect it with the greater struggle against class-based oppression. Alia Amirali, who was active with the NSF before joining the AWP, explains, “We cannot just say, ‘look at the injustice being done to you, the woman.’ We have to point out all the injustices around us.”
Like Syed, Amirali is a prominent figure in the kachhi abadi resistance movement. She believes it is too soon to assess the party’s progress in the last year since it came forward with its agenda for women. It has, however, “opened up space,” she says. “The AWP attracted many women activists when it was formed three years ago, but even in the last year, the women’s wing seems to have established a presence within the party, where you can see a wide variety of women engaging with their male comrades on positions the party must take. This women’s wing does not pay lip service to a supreme leader. It has a voice and it is creating its own dynamic.”
The AWP women’s wing has its own voice and creates its own dynamic
The AWP Sindh Women’s Secretary, Alya Bakshal, among other things, emphasizes the problematic role played by some NGOs. According to her, they tend to de-politicize people by framing issues in an apolitical way while simultaneously making these people dependent on hand-outs rather than confident in their own ability to organize for social change.
This emphasis on the political roots of economic and social deprivation permeates all the public positions of the AWP. Its stance on women’s issues is, of course, also informed by this attitude, i.e., that the backward conditions women face are a direct result of the barriers that prevent them from effectively mobilizing as a political force: a mass women’s movement with a clearly defined agenda.