A generation of Pakistani women striving to affirm their rights in the public sphere can draw on a rich history to which education is central
Many of the conflicts and crises that today affect Pakistan seem to have the experience of women at their heart. The images of the punitive flogging of a young woman in the newly Talibanised region of Swat are but one especially vivid symbol of the degrading treatment that women can face. Yet such depictions can also mislead, in that the history of the lands that became Pakistan also contain many examples of women’s participation in civic and public life in search of their own and their country’s betterment.
This thread of active engagement, which has education as its leitmotif, contains many characters and stories that deserve to be remembered. It also offers a rich counter-narrative to depictions of women that emphasise their victimhood and forget their agency. If Pakistan is going to overcome the immense problems that now afflict it, the voices and stories of its women will be a precious resource.
A pioneering moment
The emancipation of women is often linked to the progress of a society transforming itself from a feudal society to a modern state. The traces of this pattern is visible across the 18th to the 20th centuries in the sub-continent. The Bramho Samaj under the leadership of Ram Mohan Roy (1774-1833) was one of the earliest organisations to speak out in favour of women’s rights, at a time when women were absent in public life. In response to the Bramho Samaj and Christian missionaries, women’s education expanded, albeit slowly.
Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-98) was at the forefront of advocating modern education for Muslim women, challenging the institutions of purdah and polygamy. Most Muslim women remained largely untouched by these campaigns; it was only in 1895 that one of the first Muslim girls’ schools was founded (by Amina Tyabji), followed in 1906 by a girls’ school at Aligarh (opened by Nawab Sultan Jahan, who as begum of Bhopal was one of the few female rulers of a princely state in India).
The Aligarh girls’ school was the wellspring of the All-India Muslim Ladies’ Conference, established in 1914. Its prominent sponsors included Sultan Jahan and Shaikh Abdullah and his wife. The conference failed to achieve recognition and folded in 1931; yet such organisations played a crucial role in forging the connection between ameliorative social reform, women’s education, and nationalist policies.
In the period of the Indian nationalist movement, women such as Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949) acquired an inspirational reputation as champions of the national cause.
When Mohammad Ali Jinnah (1876-1948) assumed the helm of the Muslim League he envisaged the participation of women as important in advancing the goals of the party; thus he sought to push the boundaries of women’s emancipation. Jinnah was studying in London when the suffragettes were demanding the right to vote and he was genuinely interested and supportive of women’s rights.
This was reflected in his speech at the Islamia College for Women on 25 March 1940, when he asserted: “I have always maintained that no nation can ever be worthy of its existence that cannot take its women along with the men. No struggle can ever succeed without women participating side by side with men. There are two powers in the world; one is the sword and the other is the pen. There is a great competition and rivalry between the two. There is a third power stronger than both, that of the women.”
Almost exactly four years later, at a meeting of the Muslim University Union in Aligarh on 10 March 1944, he went further: “We are victims of evil customs. It is a crime against humanity that our women are shut up within the four walls of the houses as prisoners. There is no sanction anywhere for the deplorable condition in which our women have to live.”
In part the latter declaration reflected a genuine desire by Jinnah to see women shed their veils and venture beyond the “four walls”; but he was also aware that realising the political ambitions of the Muslim League required mass participation (including by women). Muslim women until then had on the whole been in a condition of purdah which meant they were secluded from public life – yet here was a call for them to shed that and join the political struggle. At the forefront of this movement were elite women such as Jinnah’s sister, Fatima Jinnah (1893-1967); Shaista Ikramullah (1915-2000), who struggled for the opportunity to get an education and went on to do a PhD at the University of London; and Abida Sultan (1913-2002), who was an ardent supporter of the Muslim League and belonged to Bhopal’s royal family. These figures served as early role-models for other women to “come out”.
A generation’s dreams
In 2008, I was fortunate enough to meet one of the few women still alive and able to recount the fervent days of Muslim League’s demand for a separate state. Fatima Sughra as a 14-year-old in 1947 was inspired by the message of the Muslim League and she convinced her father that she wanted to be involved in the movement along with the other women. She recalled that at a huge gathering in Lahore, hundreds of women had gathered around the Punjab secretariat building:
“I along with my friends reached the assembly hall that day. I saw at that time a big crowd was shouting and chanting slogans: “Zindabad (long live) the Muslim League; Zindabad Quaid-i-Azam; ban kay rayga Pakistan (Pakistan will be created) …I think it was in February or March 1947…I remember the day I removed the Union Jack and replaced it with a Muslim League flag. Many Muslim women [who had never stepped out from their house before] came out from their houses and took over the streets of the city. This was all happening because the begums [the elite Muslim League Women leadership] went door-to-door and convinced the Muslim women to come out from their homes for the protests. I don’t know what sort of passion was inside me at time, I just jumped over the secretariat gate…”
Fatima Sughra was awarded a gold medal for her services to Pakistan, whose nationalist movement she has come to symbolise; the image of her hoisting the Muslim League flag are replayed every year during the independence-day celebrations. The inspiration is real: for after the creation of Pakistan, women did continue to extend the boundaries of their rights and were increasingly visible in public life.
Yet the dreams of this generation have hardly been fulfilled. In the post-1979 period especially – a watershed in the wider Islamic world as well as Pakistan – there was a dramatic change in attitudes towards women. Zia-ul-Haq (1924-88) had seized power through a military coup d’état in 1977 and pursued a policy of Islamisation that gathered pace throughout the 1980s. The impact of women was particularly felt around the hudood ordinances which made it very difficult to distinguish between adultery and rape, and impossible for women to prove rape. This process undermined the position of women and created a climate of intimidation; even under the governments headed by Benazir Bhutto the ordinances remained in place (they were repealed only in 2006).
An unfulfilled promise
More recently, the influence of Islamist parties has in Pakistan grown further. In 2006, women were targeted on account of their participation in mixed-sex marathons in Gujranwala and Lahore; and “honour killings” have become a regular occurrence. But the real question is about how women reconcile their position in contemporary Pakistan. Gulnar Tabassum, who works for Shirkat Gah (a private NGO based in Lahore) conveys a sense both of optimism and concern for the future. She describes with pride how, when Pervez Musharraf suspended the chief justice of the supreme court, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry in 2007, the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) was the first group to show solidarity with the incipient lawyers’ movement.
But Gulnar also reflects on the changes in women’s position in Pakistan which started during the Zia ul-Haq regime, and which have be to seen through the prism of wider political developments. She highlights too the significant changes in Punjabi society, historically a quite open and free rural society yet now exposed to extremist religious influences. Even in the more cosmopolitan urban areas, the same trend is apparent.
Gulnar Tabassum recalls an incident in Lahore’s chic middle-class shopping district Liberty Market, where an old man used a microphone vainly to harangue passing women to cover themselves. It is in fact more common nowadays to see women (even in the big cities) wearing a headscarf, yet the reasons for this vary and cannot be reduced to a straightforward act of faith; an expression of identity, a fashion statement, a reaction against the “western” ideal are some of the considerations that may underlie the choice.
When Fatima Sughra vaulted the secretariat building to hoist the flag of the Muslim League in 1947, she carved for herself a revered place in Pakistan’s history. The doors that were opened in that period for women to enter political and social life are now for many of their daughters and granddaughters being threatened with closure. If women are truly to move beyond the the confines of the “four walls” and make their contribution to the future of Pakistan, it is education – and the sense of belonging to and ownership of the country that it brings – that will enable them to do it