In which the author argues for the importance of open and public forums for women, untainted by the opinions and interpretations of the less fairer sex.
By Ghausia Rashid Salam
Karachi is… well, everyone knows what Karachi is. So everyone also knows that it’s a pretty big deal for the city when the Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) comes around once a year, in February. I’ve been going to the KLF since its inaugural in 2010. The downside of being a regular at literature festivals is that you tend to look at the schedule and the speakers, and predict the topics that will be discussed in each session as well. Because of this, I opted to attend only the feminist sessions, such as “Aap Beeti, Jag Beeti: Khawateen Aur Khudnavisht”, a discussion of women’s biographies and the book launch for Kishwar Naheed’s translated collection, ‘Defiant Colours’. Both were dominantly feminist sessions, aimed at and attended by women. The atmosphere in both rooms was generally friendly, one of feminist solidarity, and the first session, i.e. Khawateen Aur Khudnavisht was emotionally charged up, with many women, including me and one of the writers on the panel sniffling now and then. The spell was broken though, when the panelists gave the mic over to the audience for questions. The first three or four questions were all asked by men, and veered entirely too much towards the judgmental side. There was entirely too much talk of “young women today” and their lifestyles, and for me at least, it was pretty uncomfortable to sit and listen to these men who were so obviously critical of my generation.
When it comes to women-friendly spaces, Pakistan has a long history dating back to pre-Partition. Until the 1940s, upper-class women were generally kept in purdah. Working class women didn’t face these restrictions because they simply could not afford to be socially immobile. It was the elite who were not expected to work and shame the men of the family, since if a woman with a wealthy father, brother, or husband to provide for her chooses to work, it surely indicates that the men in her life are not providing adequately for her. As suffocating as this purdah must have been, at the same time, women did have their own space as well. Begum Shaista Ikramullah describes her life as a young girl growing up behind the purdah in ‘From Purdah to Parliament’:
“One of the mistaken notions women of the West have about our women is that ‘the poor things’ missed all the fun of shopping, but that was not so. Our women did not miss any of that great joy of Eve’s life… they did not go to the shops, the shops came to them… Jewelers, silk and cloth merchants and gotay-walas were all sent for to bring their goods… The takhat on the ladies’ verandah was turned into the most attractive of counters.”
I do not mean to indicate that a life spent learning only the Qur’an and Urdu, sewing and cooking, and more often than not, discouraged from studying subjects like geography, is a wonderful life because you have all the clothes and jewels that you want. My point is that, despite how awful enforced purdah was, it co-existed along with the concept of the zenana, that is the women’s part of the house. Women, along with their many maids and daughters, sisters, cousins, etc. would gather in their own part of the house, share gossip, do their sewing, and even receive vendors selling various items which they could not very well go out and buy due to their enforced purdah. It was, in all effect, a women-friendly space, a space to call their own.
Women in Pakistan have continuously struggled to create a space for themselves, both in public and private spheres. Some say that Pakistanis are eternally stuck in the Zia-ul-Haq era, but this is because we can never afford to forget those dark times, lest we fail to rise up if they should come upon us again. Journalist Meeran Karim writes about this in ‘Reclaiming Space,’ reminiscing about how famous kathak performer Nahid Siddiqui’s program was banned in 1978, and the dancer herself unable to go to London because her name had been placed on an Exit Control List. When she was finally allowed to go, it was under the condition that she would not perform kathak unless given permission by the government. Women found themselves struggling to make space for themselves in the public sphere as Zia-ul-Haq, under the pretense of enforcing Shari’a (Islamic law, as revealed in Prophetic tradition and the Qur’an), promoted chador aur chaar diwari, (literally, shawl and four walls, meaning that a woman is to be kept under veils in the four walls of her male owner’s home). Even women who were publicly visible, had various controls enforced to make them “decent”. One such example is how female news anchors could not appear on television without their head covered, in both state-owned and private channels. It reached the point that even in television shows, if an actress was shown waking up from her sleep, her head would still be covered with the shawl draped across her shameful bosom as well. Actresses could not be photographed for print media, and sportswomen could not compete against, or in the presence of, men. In Zia’s decade, women were forced so far out of the public sphere and gender inequality so greatly institutionalized, that the next decade was spent not just in political turmoil, but also in a great deal of fieldwork, as attempts were made to reclaim the spaces that had been lost to women in the Zia era. Perhaps this is why we see no women’s legislation during the 90s, and yet, a great deal of work was still being done for the empowerment of women, much of which is attributed to Benazir Bhutto. I’m not a supporter of the Pakistan’s People’s Party, but there is no point in denying the facts, which are that Benazir contributed a great deal in female empowerment, and that a majority of pro-women legislation was passed in the Zardari years. But this is politics, what about society in general? We still dwell on Zia, because our society changed radically, and grew so misogynist that even now, we are struggling to make space for women. Zia-ul-Haq’s legacy endures even today in the form of intolerant attitudes in society, and conservative attitudes of politicians, the great leaders who object to anti-domestic violence legislation, claiming that it denies a man his “right” to slap his wife to discipline her. “The form changes, but the substance remains.” (Aldous Huxley)
Coming back to the present day, as society enforces more barriers on women, there have been ways to overcome said barriers by women themselves. In ‘Architectures Of The Veil’, Amber Riaz writes:
“The burqa is worn only when the woman needs to be in the public spaces of the city—schools, colleges and offices where she may need to interact with unrelated men. The burqa is taken off, discarded, when in the company of women, and men who belong to the woman’s family: father, brother, son, husband. The fabric of the burqa, then, is theoretically linked to the walls of the zenana, for as long as a woman wears her burqa in the public domain, she is protected by the sanctified sacredness of the zenana’s spatiality. Just as unrelated men cannot enter the boundaries of a household’s zenana, unrelated men’s gazes cannot penetrate the fabric shroud of the burqa. Even when a woman does not don a burqa, she continues to wear some form of the fabric veil—be it the chador, the dupatta or the hijab—which then acts as the barrier between men and women. An impalpable barrier—a curtain, a hijab—is erected as soon as a woman dons a fabric veil. The fabric of the veil makes the zenana portable, allowing women to signal their religiosity and their intrinsic chastity.”
Coming back to the initial question of women’s spaces, as difficult as it may be for critics to believe this, these spaces do exist in Pakistan. One such example is Shirkat Gah which launched their Women Friendly Spaces (WFS) program to help women return to a normal life after suffering from disaster or abuse, by providing safe public spaces. Moreover, since 2012, Shirkat Gah worked on empowering women in Swat, resulting in the Purple Women’s Movement, which was a national alliance of women who participated in Shirkat Gah’s Sister Collective programs in all four provinces. Nor is Shirkat Gah the only organization that works to provide safe spaces to women. Even the admittedly upper-class Women’s Action Forum (WAF) conducts meetings with women setting the narrative, and if the male members attempt to dominate the conversation, they are actually silenced!
As disappointing as the lack of women-friendly spaces at the KLF was, this certainly does not indicate that such spaces do not exist in Pakistan. And we do need more women-friendly spaces, we really do. More importantly, we definitely need more feminist spaces; I often see younger feminists, in their late teens or early 20s, looking to learn about Pakistani feminism, and we lack spaces that can cater to these needs. We may celebrate National Women’s Day on February 12, but many are not aware that Pakistan has a national commemorative day for women, or why it’s celebrated it. For this purpose, and for the purpose of drawing out young urban women towards feminist activism, there is a definite need for feminist-friendly spaces. Detractors may accuse me of wanting more for an already privileged social class, but unless we are to believe the poverty myth i.e. abuse and harassment only happens to the lower middle and working classes who lack a “liberal” and “enlightened” environment, we can’t deny that a lot of urban young women need a safe, friendly space. I know I certainly would have benefited from such a space when I was 20, and I’m certain other young women can as well. Perhaps the first step can be women-friendly spaces at social events such as literature festivals?
Ghausia Rashid Salam is both an articles editor for the magazine and Assistant to the Editor-in-Chief.