Activism In Pakistan Is Tiring. And We Don’t Have The Luxury To Take A Break
It started with the rain. The unexpected, alien, and un-accounted for monsoon, the seventh ungodly spell in a city that barely gets two spells of rainfall a year. The thunderstorm was unstoppable for almost a week and left the biggest urban center of Pakistan –Karachi — heavily flooded. Besides the densely populated lower-income areas, what added to the momentum was the flooding of posh areas: the colonies so carefully curated by the armed forces were underwater.
The rich were introduced to discomfort, but nonetheless, tragic. People were stranded in their homes without food, clean water, and basements full of sewage drains. Electricity and tel-com networks had collapsed for as long as four days. Almost 90 people lost their lives and more than a thousand homes were uprooted.
Some of us, the activists, got busy in crowd-funding for the communities that were completely out of ration, had lost their road-side kiosks and food vendors who had no more deliveries to make. Some started organising a more systemic, structural protest with a set of demands that the civil society would be putting forward to the elected government officials. The main transportation avenues were dysfunctional and some of us coordinated with our own houses in knee-deep drainage waste.
While this movement of young activists for better urban infrastructure and restoring natural water bodies that have been unlawfully occupied by the Defense Housing Authority was underway, the federal government called for the eviction of the entire rural settlement on the outskirts of the city.
Late at night, in a local mosque, an announcement was made. The video went viral, and we did what we do best: social media outrage. Our WhatsApp and Signal groups buzzing at 11 pm in the night, asking for aggressive tagging of local body government in our tweets, all of us planning to reach the eviction spot at 7 AM the next day. The official announcement had barely given those living on the margins a total of 10 hours to leave their homes and find refuge elsewhere in a city that was already drowning and barely functional.
A few hours later, local politicians took notice and announced on Twitter that this order had been withdrawn.
We, the ones with privilege, step back and sleep. Take a break from our outrage, and laugh and look away from the life of screens and go back to our plates full of warm food and a roof over our head. But the fatigue of social media activism steps in when one after the other, the state keeps failing you. The city, the country, and its women and the intersections of marginality, keep hurting.
A week later, a woman was gang-raped in front of her own children on a highway as she waited for help when her car ran out of fuel in the middle of the night and the police chief reacted to that incident saying, “why was she out that late, alone, without a man? Why did her fuel run out?”
And there we were, out on the streets, rallying again, for the most basic right to exist without being violated.
Women at the forefront of activism
This year, some of the most monumental acts of activism were performed by women of all ages, whether it was the BLM, the introduction to legalizing abortion law in Argentina or the Chilean anthem being performed in different parts of the world with colloquial translations. Pakistani feminists translated it to Urdu and resisted in public spaces all around the country when a woman was raped on the police’s count.
With the sectarian hatred against the Shia community, that has led to hate crimes all around Pakistan, the anger only built up further.
Only in August 2020 alone, 42 blasphemy cases, primarily targeting the Shia, were registered. How do you make sense out of this? An activist from the community has been following the cases closely even while she’s not located in Pakistan temporarily.
“I have been losing sleep in recent days owing to the news from home. When you’re home, you can see your family members showing, and you can go out to protest but when you’re away, the helplessness takes over, and every time a group chat notifies you, it feels like something terrible is in store for you.”
There is no respite for the 20% population of Pakistan which identifies with the Shia sect of Islam.
“I’d distance myself from the news but the truth is that when there is a lot of physical distance, it feels like almost an obligation to keep up with the happenings,” she spoke from thousands of miles away.
Nothing in my 24 years of living had hit me like this before. Twitter and Facebook brimming with personal accounts of abuse and state violence, stories from men and women collectively asking for justice, and accountability for the victims in a country where the law is made by the men for the men, who are victims of majoritarianism.
“Too often you see people who don’t care be completely unaffected and never participate or lend their voice, and of course I have judged their lack of willingness to be involved in making things better when it is completely feasible for them to contribute. I low-key fear becoming one of those people and have a lot of guilt associated with that. I also worry about being judged similarly by other activists,” said Sana Gondal, a frontline organiser of the Women’s March in Karachi.
The fear of being judged for not showing up to protests when you’re so vocally protesting online is what really needs to change. This idea of accountability to other activists on the ground often discourages people to indulge in online activism and that just leads to further silence.
The emotional labour that women have to go through, in patriarchal households, to be able to step outside sans absolute necessity is immense and we should hence be welcoming all sorts of assistance. You can’t be there on the day of protest? No worries, get the poster printed and delivered, send food supplies for the protestors, write social media posts, lend your skills, it could be anything. So that the burden of organising is not solely falling onto the same five people who also over-lap with the areas of activism that they are involved in.
Ilma Zuberi, co-founder of the Besharam Baghi Tehreek, another young grassroots feminist collective chimes in,
“The problem with Pakistani activism is that the activist circle is relatively small. There are overlapping groups of people working on all the issues. They’re expected to turn up, organise, draft statements, come up with sound demands, show up, chat with authorities, gather the community, a million other tasks.”
This is also a kind of situation I’ve often found myself in. People who are away from activism for social justice often send messages on my Twitter, asking me to slow down, take a break, or ‘you don’t have to do this if your mental health does not allow’. But the truth is, to wait for our mental health to stabilise is a privilege we have been stripped off by the state, the very state that took an oath to protect us but instead, just granted impunity to hegemonic masculinity and its violence against trans people, women, non-binary and children.
Concluding with what Fizza Qureshi, a Karachi based feminist organiser, and researcher thinks causes ‘activism fatigue’ is the concerted effort made by the state to depoliticise a youthful Left over the years, which leaves very few people into the scene who are doing the grunt work. “This also builds a narrative that feminist activism is only performative where a bunch of women bring placards and get their photos taken, while the same people keep getting exhausted with the labor-intensive work.
This also occurs because of the gatekeeping that is built on the capitalistic and patriarchal tactics within the activist circle also, so we, as young people just end up getting tired way too early.”
The author is a multimedia journalist and covers pop-culture, gender and society in her stories.