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Khawateen Mahaz-e-Amal or Women’s Action Forum (WAF): inception and its impact in Pakistan

Remember me, I am the one you hid In your walls of stone, while you roamed Free as the breeze, not knowing That my voice cannot be smothered by stones

‘I Am Not That Woman’, Kishwar Naheed.

Women Action Forum. Image Source link

Women cannot be locked up behind walls and expected to be docile. They will speak up, as is conveyed through these lines from Kishwar Naheed’s (one of the best known feminist poets of Pakistan) poem, ‘I Am Not That Woman’.

All attempts at controlling women have been rendered futile by the “fairer sex”. When an attempt to control women further was made during the reign of General Zia ul-Haq (1977-1988), a group of around 30 women rose to action, in September 1981, and Women’s Action Forum was founded in Karachi. WAF can be described as a women's rights organization. It has a presence in several cities in Pakistan like Lahore, Islamabad, Peshawar and so on. It is a non-partisan, non-hierarchical and non-funded organization. It is supportive of all aspects of women's rights and related issues, beyond political affiliations, belief system, or ethnicity. WAF is involved in active lobbying and advocacy on behalf of women through demonstrations and public-awareness campaigns. It is committed to ensuring a just and peaceful society based on democracy and is dedicated to secularism because it believes that the powers vested in the high and mighty of the society would only get worse with a theological backing. The issues picked up by WAF have included challenging discriminatory legislation against women, the invisibility of women in government plans and policies, the exclusion of women from media, sports and cultural activities, dress codes for women, violence against women and the seclusion of women.

Why did the WAF come into being?

Let us press the rewind button and go to July 5, 1977, Pakistan, where General Zia ul-Haq imposed martial law in the country after having the then-Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto arrested. The decade that followed was one of the harshest with strict military rule being imposed. As can be expected, this rule promised to be harsher for women. General Zia sought to legitimize his position by forging an alliance with the right-wing religious group, Jamat-i-Islami. This alliance ensured that women were at the receiving end of an Islamization campaign. Overnight, female announcers and newscasters were instructed to appear on air with their heads covered and with full-sleeved attire. A dress code came into existence. The Women’s Division of the Government circulated a questionnaire on the status of women which sought opinions of an extremely sexist nature like the role of women in an Islamic society, the type of education that women should receive and the kinds of employment that suit women in an Islamic context.

It was in this context that the Hudood Ordinance was promulgated in 1979. It sought to cover issues of adultery, rape, prostitution, fornication, theft, drinking alcoholic beverages and bearing false testimony. Most importantly, the Ordinance made zina (extra-marital sex) an offence against the State, which was earlier an offence against the husband. This was the part of the Ordinance that affected women the most as no distinction was made between rape and adultery. The discriminatory nature of the Ordinance comes into full view when one realizes the basis on which punishment was meted out. The maximum punishment, or hadd, could only be meted out when there was proof i.e. four adult Muslim men of repute who were eyewitnesses and ready for voluntary confession in a court of law. Hence, even if four Muslim women of repute came to testify the rape of a Muslim woman, it would not be admissible in a court of law. The rapist would forever be protected and women would continue to be victimized.

It was against this backdrop that a group of women rose in Pakistan’s Karachi against the discrimination and onslaught on women’s rights and thus, Pakistan’s first feminist organization and women’s rights lobby was formed.

Impact of WAF in Pakistan

The most prominent impact of WAF is evident in the Fehmida Allah Bux case. WAF took the case to the high court. The case follows the story of Fehmida and Allah Bux, consenting adults, who decided to marry out of their own choice. Fehmida’s father filed a case of abduction against Allah Bux. The couple was implicated under the Hudood Ordinance. The court gave the verdict that Allah Bux had abducted Fehmida and the two were living in sin. It was found that the couple had a valid nikanama which they had not gotten registered with the Union Council as is the law. According to Anis Haroon, one of the founding members of WAF, in an interview with Leena Z. Khan, “They should only have been punished for not registering the nikanama, not for abduction and adultery.” The motive was to make this case an example of what could happen if a woman chose to marry someone of her own liking (the man was implicated in the case but the motive has always been to control women). Within a week, WAF had raised seven thousand signatures in Karachi and ultimately, the high court dismissed the case.

WAF's activism has led to the birth of many women's rights groups and resource centres which has eventually increased its outreach. One of the current goals of the organisation includes securing women’s representation in the Parliament which proves how far the fight for dignity of women has come. According to Hilda Saeed, one of the founding members of WAF, finally, laws like the Hudood Ordinance are being rendered “toothless”.

Hilda Saeed, a microbiologist turned women’s rights activist. Image Source link

WAF was not really an ‘organized’ organization. It was not registered. It was more of an “umbrella” institution to home other such groups and mobilize women, according to Mehnaz Rafi, one of the founding members of the WAF’s Lahore chapter.

Mehnaz Rafi, one of the first members of WAF Lahore. Image source link

WAF laid the foundation for women’s rights and development and it is due to the tireless efforts of the women activists that Pakistan’s women can breathe fresh air and look at a bright future ahead.

Avery Banerjee, Advocate, Women for Politics

Avery is a literature postgraduate. She completed her B.A. English honours from St. Xavier's College, Kolkata and M.A. from Jadavpur University. She has worked as a Guest Lecturer and later, as an analyst at Indian-Political Action Committee (I-PAC). Currently, she is working as a freelance editor. She identifies as a feminist and politics is her area of interest. She hopes for a future where there will be gender equality everywhere, in the true sense of the term.

She can be reached on LinkedIn here

This article gives the views of the author, and not necessarily represent the position of Women for Politics.

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