Type to search


Historicising Feminism In Pakistan – I

  • 166

    It is imperative to review feminism and feminist movements in Pakistan and the different stages they had to go through to take the form and shape that we see today.

    History of feminism or Women’s Movements in Pakistan is as old as the country itself and its footprints can be traced back to pre-partition education reforms and anti-colonialism-nationalist  movement. The baby steps that Muslim women took in the backdrop of religious and nationalist movements, which led to political awareness in Muslim women of India, had no rights based agenda.

    But political activism of women later translated into realisation of subjugation and oppression of three generations of Pakistani women to come. Saigol (2016) in her report for Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) has correctly evaluated,

    “The latter movements did not have feminist or women’s rights components, but the active participation of large numbers of women in religious or national causes, ultimately led to an awareness of women’s own subjugation and stirred the desire for personal and political emancipation”. (Saigol, 2016, p. 9)

    Feminism in Pakistan has evolved, transformed and took various forms in early years to mid-80s and 90s and until recent times. This review will critically analyse the challenges, achievements and gaps left by feminism in Pakistan since its inception. It will give an overview of reform based feminism in the early years of Pakistan, its departure to secularist street politics for women’s rights in the mid- 80s, from its focus on docile demands for family laws, divorce and property rights, polygamy, and basic rights to services.

    It will also detail out changes in the nature and content in the feminism in 1990s and post 9/11 in Pakistan and how secularist and pietist camps emerged and briefly touch upon global changes in feminist scholarship post War on Terror (WoT). Finally it will review the recent form of feminism happening in Pakistan, which has taken up bold and disruptive strategies to challenging patriarchal structures, raising the question of sexuality and doing body politics using slogan, “personal is political” in real sense for the first time in the history of feminism in the country.

    This part of the review will also assess contemporary feminism’s relevance and future in Pakistan. In addition to this, brief overview will be given about contemporary issues being taken up by feminism regionally and globally in the 21st century.

    3.2 Early Years of Pakistan: The 1st Generation of Feminism

     In 1940, Mr. Jinnah announced, “Women are supposed to create a sense of general political consciousness. They should stand shoulder to shoulder with men in practical politics. Their political activism for independence removed cultural, social and religious barriers of mobility for attending political processions and rallies”.  Gaining confidence from their experience of political participation, women started to engage with newly emerged state for their political and legal rights. With the abrupt demise of Quaid e Azam in 1948, women’s temporary political activism halted but few determined women like Fatima Jinnah, Begum Raana Liaquat Ali Khan, Begum Fida Hussain, Begum Shaista Ikram Ullah and Begum Jahan Ara Shahnawaz continued their efforts for political empowerment of Pakistani women. Mumtaz (2005) in her article observes, “It was possible, from the early years of the twentieth century, for women to demand the rights to education; to agitate for the right to inheritance and end to polygamy and to lobby for voting rights as the struggle for independence got momentum”.  The campaign for Pakistani autonomy gained pace in 1946-47, demanding a separate state for Muslims in the Indian subcontinent. The movement saw mass mobilization of Muslim women who had never stepped out of their homes. (Mummtaz, 2005). In the postcolonial state, the women mentioned above belonged to ruling elite who strived for inclusion of women in the political process but faced strong opposition from clergy.  Saigol in her report enunciated, “In the early period of Pakistan’s history, the struggle for women’s rights was piecemeal, gradual and evolutionary. Progressive legislation was often resisted by the clergy, which perceived the steps in the direction of women’s rights as western and antithetical to religion and culture. Nonetheless, women belonging to ruling families continued to struggle for inclusion in the political process and rights.”  (Saigol, 2016)


    Although the women’s struggle for equal political and legal rights was spearheaded by the women from ruling elite, it made little headway in demanding their equal rights through legislature. The early years of women’s movement remained devoid of body politics or politics of resistance; it was literally impossible for women to raise such questions with the advent of Brelvi and Deobandi Ulema as stakeholders in the state system. Ulema had clear vision of the new state where Muslims could live their lives according to majority religion without fear of persecution. The secular views of Quaid e Azam and Liaquat Ali Khan were discarded soon after their demise. Mulana Maududi, a stark opponent of Mohammad Ali Jinnah and separate state for Muslims migrated to Pakistan in 1947 and established his political party to push the agenda of political Islam, arguing that the state should be guardian of Islam and Pakistan must be ruled in the light of Quran and Sunnah. The Ulema held several conventions and passed several resolutions that Islamic Law should be incorporated into the constitution of Pakistan. Maududi advocated for barring women from holding any public office, proposed a separate assembly for women and reasoned that the voting rights should be granted to all Muslim adult males but not to all women. Instead only ‘educated’ women should be entitled to vote. However, the agenda of right wing political parties and Ulemas’ vision of Pakistan was never taken seriously by the government from the very beginning.  Mumtaz & Shaheed (1987) have articulated, “Jinnah’s vision of non-theocratic Pakistan, and Liaquat’s aspiration for building a liberal, democratic political system, were not viewed by political elite as being antagonistic or contrary to Islam….. it is true that in the early years of Pakistan’s life, the orthodoxy was looked upon with disdain and irreverence by political leadership, it is equally true that measures to pacify them were also taken. These were exemplified by the concessions made to the moulvis. For instance Pakistan was declared Islamic Republic of Pakistan under the 1956 constitution and Ulema were provided with advisory role in legislature. (Mumtaz & Shaheed, 1987, p. 37). 

    The ruling elite during the early years of Pakistan was educated and found no time to investigate and philosophically rationalize “common” Islam for all or they thought it unnecessary. However the ruling elite had always remained defensive about being pronounced “un-Islamic” by Ulema and gave into the hegemony and blackmailing of Ulema. Ultimately, government(s) became hostage in the hands of clergy and could not break their stronghold till today. Women and their relation with state and society were regulated by the religious, cultural and societal norms and practices.

    To be continued..

    Donate To Naya Daur

    Leave a Comment

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    Naya Daur