75 Years of Pakistan’s Women’s Movements Via Lahore
Afiya S Zia recalls the achievements and challenges via Lahore - the city that encapsulates the feminine pantheism and feminist activism that have inspired pluralism and progress, but which are subject to alarming political reversals, if not already poised for near-defeat.
Dedicated to Lahore’s most courageous women – Asma Jahangir and Rubina Saigol.
Despite the reference to the ‘long Partition,’ the idea of Pakistan has a hurried history: the word originated in the 1930s, the Lahore Resolution of 1940 pledged to realize the Two-Nation Theory and shortly after, in 1947, Pakistan was created. Seventy-five years on, unresolved questions of national identities and the ‘woman question’ lurk large. Excerpts from an essay on the achievements and challenges of women’s movement are reproduced below.
A precolonial gated and walled city, Lahore boasts of Islamic forts, mosques, royal gardens, mausoleums and saintly shrines – an architectural landscape that residents try to remain faithful to by building homes of red bricks forged by bonded and child labour in the polluting kilns of outer Lahore. It has been home to erudite art, Urdu literature and Sufi devotional poetry and offered consumptive pleasures of epicurean cuisine, forbidden romance and sinful tawaifs (courtesans) who have supervised men’s sexual awakenings. Postcolonial Lahore remains the site of governmental intrigues that brokered and broke Empires of the past. Here, marriages have been sacrificed for political expediency and sexual liaisons rewarded by electoral mobility. The historic practice of settling personal scores for political effect continues to be remitted by memoirs and confessionary revelations by wives and mistresses of lords and leaders. Rarely, are they successful in upsetting the patriarchal political order but sometimes, they interrupt the sub-ethnic hierarchies that make up Punjab’s hegemonic masculinity.
Lahore is a city of juxtapositional aesthetics and paradoxical identity politics. It was the city of the founding philosopher of Pakistan, Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938), who proposed the Two Nation Theory and is also where the rebel journalist and story writer, Sadat Hasan Munto (1912-1955), documented the violent conclusion of that theory, resulting in mass displacement, divisions, and deaths of millions on both sides of the 1947 border. Iqbal lived near Lakshmi chowk (intersection) while Munto resided in Lakshmi mansion.
The demolition of the goddess Lakshmi from buildings named for her blessing signaled Pakistan’s early attempts at Islamic purification. But spatial memories compel the good Muslims of Lahore to continue to refer to the sites as “Lakshmi chowk” and “Lakshmi mansion”, even after the intersection has been rechristened the Maulana Zafar Ali Khan chowk and the mansion stands as a cavernous void. Both literateurs are buried in Lahore; the grave of the Laureate Iqbal nests presciently between a mosque and a fort, while chronicler of the underclasses, Munto, is buried in Miani Sahebi’s graveyard–a site which has the privilege of legal protection by a 1962 Martial Law Ordinance. But even military governmentality has not deterred the subsequent predatory capitalism that haunts the cemetery; Lahore’s pious elite and middle-class proprietors regularly try to poach its land for familial tombs, or for shops to peddle goods that feed the city’s collective false consciousness.
Lahore remained the hub of human rights activists because of the dynamic Asma Jahangir and wise and prescient, I.A. Rehman who drew activists from across the country to work under the umbrella of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan…They devoted their lives to these causes and more, and some of their comrades paid with their own lives quite literally.
Lahore is the city where brave women dissidents of the non-funded, secular lobby and pressure group, the Women’s Action Forum (WAF), took to the Mall Road in 1983 to protest against the theocratic rule of General President Zia ul Haq (1977-1988). His military despotism and Islamization campaign instituted gender apartheid by enforcing the policy of chadar aur chardiwari (domestication) for women. The rebellious ‘gunaygaar aurtein’ were beaten by the police but were supported by Lahore’s dissenting artists and poets.
Lahore remained the hub of human rights activists because of the dynamic Asma Jahangir and wise and prescient, I.A. Rehman who drew activists from across the country to work under the umbrella of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. They conducted fact-finding missions on the disappeared dissidents of Balochistan; carried out raids to free bonded labour from cages in Sindh; extinguished flames of religious fanaticism in the streets of Rabwa; opposed and lobbied against the death penalty; negotiated blasphemy and death-row cases; litigated for women’s right to marry, divorce, and receive maintenance from Lahore’s courts and; wiped off the blood of alleged blasphemers and dishonorable women from the walls of their offices. They devoted their lives to these causes and more, and some of their comrades paid with their own lives quite literally…..
Castigated by the Military and Mullahs
Lahore has been the centre of several conceptual and ideological debates within the women’s movements. The 1990s were dominated by disputations over the strategic value of pursuing women’s rights through progressive interpretations of Islam, against the argument that a secular resistance was imperative against the rising orthodoxy of the state. Both sides agreed that Islamic laws as they existed, had to be repealed to guarantee equal status and rights for women and minorities but they differed on methodologies and tactics.
In the democratic interregnum of 1988-1999, Lahore NGOs were the leaders of both; engagements with Islam as a source of empowerment, as well as a governance feminism that flirted and hitched fortunes sometimes with the state, other times with neoliberal donor agencies, or liberal dictatorial regimes. At the peak of the War on Terror, one premier women’s foundation even effectively became a proxy of USAID. At the same time, these NGOs also politicized an entire generation of middle-class women activists and politicians and spearheaded some of the most successful feminist campaigns.
In Lahore, social and political conservativism dominates all ideologies – Islamic, Sufi, and even the fledgling liberal-left intelligentsia. It is where the modern women’s movement has surged its most radical confrontation against the state but also been ‘conveniently subservient’ to military and religious politics. Today, women’s movements lean poised towards the accommodation of a female piety that has advanced its most effective, counter-feminist riposte to progressive politics….
Sex and Subversion
While Manto’s prose was an ode to the underclasses and prostitutes, feminist Urdu novelist Ismat Chughtai too, explored the theme of women’s sexualities. Her short-story Lihaaf (1942), which appeared in a Lahore-based literary journal, Adab-i-Latif, was said to have been inspired by the rumoured same-sex affair of a sexually discontent Aligarh begum and her masseuse. On the eve of Partition, in 1945, both writers faced the consequences of puritanical anxiety–a combination of Victorian judicial attitudes and modernist Islamic respectability (ikhlaqiaat)–when the Lahore High Court summoned them on charges for obscenity.
Three quarters of a century later, this legacy continues as the LHC hears cases filed against the ‘offensive’ protests of women who demand bodily autonomy under the slogan of ‘Mera Jisam Meri Marzi’ (My Body, My Choice) and Lahore continues to host defiant women like Saima Sarwar and Qandeel Baloch who represent how assertive Pakistani women pay the price for autonomy with their lives….
In Lahore, social and political conservativism dominates all ideologies – Islamic, Sufi, and even the fledgling liberal-left intelligentsia. It is where the modern women’s movement has surged its most radical confrontation against the state but also been ‘conveniently subservient’ to military and religious politics.
Landscapes of Minorities
Over the years, the minorities of Pakistan – religious, ethnic, sexual, secular and liberal – have been successively erased from national relevance or muted. In 2014, a survey8 found that only 20 Hindu temples out of 428 across the country were operational, with the remaining leased for commercial and residential purposes by the Evacuee Trust Property Board (ETPB). Some of these temples have been Islamized into madrassas, others secularized into schools and many capitalized for profit. The Kali Bari Hindu Temple for example, has been rented out to Muslim proprietors in Dera Ismail Khan and converted – without seeming irony – into the Taj Mahal Hotel.
Over the years, the script of mono-culturalism has plunged the nation towards a series of tragic inter-faith ends via twisted plots. In 2014, not far from Lahore, in the town of Kot Radha Kishan, in the Islamic Republic, a Christian couple Shama and Shazad, were tortured for alleged blasphemy by a mob that scorched their working-class bodies in the brick kiln where they were employed. This macabre theme of pyromania extends in more farcical and perverse ways. According to the Hindu temple survey, officers of the colonial-era Frontier Constabulary with the assistance of the Evacuation Board, also occupied the Shamshan Ghaat (crematory) in Madina Colony of Dera Ismail Khan. This means that Hindus are unable to cremate their dead and instead, are compelled to bury them in graveyards in a gesture of forced multi-faith final resting. The perverse logic seems to be to burn minorities alive, while denying them the right to burn their dead. The Weberian capitalist principle compensates pious Muslims for posthumous pollutant proximity to a non-Muslim in the graveyard – an offense which otherwise motivates regular exhumations of Hindu corpses and desecration of Ahmedi graves…
Lahore’s sacred geographies are also gendered. The city has been host to the shrine of Piro– the 19th century woman Sufi poet and sexual defiant saint affiliated with the spiritual figure of Gulab Das–in Kasur district of Lahore. In keeping with the philosophy of status-humility, Piro claims the identity of a Sura Vesva (lower caste) and courtesan/prostitute (Vesva). After Partition, Piro’s tomb went into disrepair as the sexual saint was doubly devalued–due to her Hindu affiliation in Pakistan’s Punjab and caste irrelevance in Indian Punjab. The ruined shrine has recently disappeared from its site altogether, signifying the muting of defiant sexual women.
Piety politics is the ‘B’ team of religious orthodoxy and women’s pietist agency has been successfully and completely co-opted by the state, shattering the myth that some liberal-secular denomination and intelligentsia prevail, as falsely projected by postsecular scholars. The window of inclusivity has practically shuttered across all institutions and classes, yet many insist that it is external factors, modern anxieties, and some imagined undefined secularism that forecloses freedoms and justice in the Islamic Republic.
Performative piety can serve as an effective decoy against material-based responsibilities. Repentance can turn the lapsed subject into a virtuous one; it wins votes and has a market share, but the piety industry is not a gender-equal playing field. Many argue that Imran Khan promoted General Zia ul Haq’s attempts to Saudi Arabize Pakistan except that, after 75 years, it is not the theocratic state but societal piety that is the driver towards this goal, and Lahore and greater Punjab is the stage across which such sacred games are being played out most convincingly.
The city has been host to the shrine of Piro– the 19th century woman Sufi poet and sexual defiant saint affiliated with the spiritual figure of Gulab Das–in Kasur district of Lahore… The ruined shrine has recently disappeared from its site altogether, signifying the muting of defiant sexual women.
Authoritarian and military regimes have always motivated Pakistan’s feminists to ramp up their resistance. In light of the reneging of civil, political, and pluralistic rights that have been outlined above, the secular Women’s Action Forum has recently called an urgent meeting of all its chapters across the country to be convened in Lahore in late 2022. Whether the contradictions of sexual and pietist politics are candidly acknowledged and robustly debated at this meeting, and strategic methods of resistance for feminist ends can be devised for the current peak religio-conservative climate, remains to be seen.