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Old Friday, April 18, 2008
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Women's Role in Pakistan Movement

WOMEN played a major role in the Pakistan Movement. This was of great historical significance, for the Muslim women of the subcontinent had never participated in such great numbers in a political movement. It was a befitting culmination of the reformist movements of the late nineteenth century for the emancipation and education of Muslim women. The Quaid can be seen as source of inspiration for their emergence as players on the political scene.

The Khilafat Movement of the 1920s had been the first instance when Muslim women had made their presence felt. With Maulanas Shaukat Ali and Mohammed Ali in jail, their mother, Bi Amman, had taken up the cudgels against British imperialism. Her daughter-in-law assisted her. It took an old lady to strike the first blow at seclusion. She addressed meetings from behind the purdah of a sheet, and travelled to various parts of India to whip up support. Women came to hear her, and they were motivated to meet in various mohallas to raise funds. It was an old custom in the subcontinent that women sold their jewellery when the family was faced with a financial crisis.

When the Khilafat Movement demanded contributions from its supporters, the women came forward and gave up their jewellery, that being their only worldly possession. This would have been the first time that they made such a gesture for a political cause. However all this was short-lived and so with the demise of the Khilafat Movement women reverted to the strict seclusion of their homes and their domestic world.

The Quaid had seen the increasing participation of women in the Congress, his parent party. He realized the need to have Muslim women's participation in the Muslim League, which he had begun to re-organize and bring to life. It was at Lucknow in 1937 that he called for the creation of a Women's Wing of the Muslim League, but it remained dormant till the Patna Session of the Muslim League in 1938. His instructions were that there should be a recruitment drive through each and every district of India, and women should be made two-anna members of the Muslim League. Within two years of the Patna session political consciousness had begun to spread to all groups and classes of Muslim women, and on March 23, 1940, the women's section of All-India Muslim League held its annual session at the Islamia College for Girls, Lahore.

By now this college had begun to be at the centre of the women's movement for Pakistan. Its Principal, Fatima Begum, played an instrumental role in bringing this about. Begum Hafeezuddin gave the keynote address in which she called upon the Muslims of the subcontinent to unite under the flag of the Muslim League. Two resolutions were passed at this session. The first pertaining to the Muslim League called for the women to work amongst their friends and acquaintances and rally them to the Muslim League, and help the Party organize sub-committees in towns and rural areas. The second resolution called on Muslim men to help Muslim women get the legal rights which were rightfully theirs under the Shariat, but which they had been denied. Baji Rashida Latif, who was also a member of the Legislative Assembly, declared in her speech that "capitalists" had deprived Muslim women of their rights. She must have been referring to the inheritance of property which continued to be denied to Muslim women in Punjab, for the big landlords did not want their property divided and consequently had opposed inheritance by Muslim women.

The mobilization of girls and women was continued with full force. In November, 1942, the Quaid was invited by the Punjab Girl Students Federation to come to the Jinnah Islamia Girls College and address the girls. In his speech he said: "I am glad to see that not only Muslim men but Muslim women and children also have understood the Pakistan scheme. No nation can make any progress without the co-operation of its women. If Muslim women support their men, as they did in the day of the Prophet of Islam, we should soon realize our goal... no nation is capable of remaining a strong nation, unless and until its men and women struggle together for the achievement of its goals".

The Quaid exhorted the young students to join the Muslim League and recounted how at Patna he had formed a women's section of the Party, in order to increase the involvement of the Muslim women.

The women's section of the Muslim League organized mushairas and get-togethers. The movement for Pakistan had spread to girls' schools and colleges and got increasingly tied up with Muslim women's demands for the implementation of Shariat, as that would increase their rights under the law. By 1945 the Muslim League movement had become so widespread amongst women that they were touring the major towns and cities and trying to organize primary branches of the Muslim League.

The main purpose of these tours was to get them to attend the coming session of the All-India Muslims League in Lahore on March 23, 1945. As the Muslim League geared up for the elections of 1946, women's' divisional and district committees were organized and conveners appointed. A contingent of women arrived in Lahore from Aligarh to assist in touring the districts. In the last week before polling, women became so active that they held meetings in Simla, Amritsar, Gujranwala and Lahore. Meetings were held in Lahore to assign women to various polling stations. The first women's branch of the Muslim League in the Frontier was opened in 1939. In October 1945 Lady Abdullah Haroon, the President of the All-India Women's Muslim League, led a delegation of Muslim women to the Frontier province.

When a meeting was organized under the auspices of the Zenana Muslim League, as many as thousand women attended it. The audience contributed Rs 80,000 to the Muslim League fund. In the elections of 1945-46 it was very active and women Leaguers from other parts of the region, and especially from Lahore, toured the province to mobilize support amongst the women of the Frontier province.

During the Civil Disobedience Movement, women's demonstrations in Peshawar became frequent. Other towns affected in a similar manner were Mardan, Kohat and Abbotabad. Women Leaguers' militancy in the Frontier increased after the fall of the Unionist ministry in the Punjab. They agitated outside the government offices, hoisted the flag on the Secretariat and took out processions. The presence of a large number of women workers from Punjab and other areas of the country helped.

The Muslim League won all the Muslim seats to the Central Assembly. They celebrated Victory Day on January 11, 1946. Students from Aligarh to Lahore had shown great zeal, and the girls had played a major role. On January 18 the Quaid addressed the Muslim Students Federation in Lahore, and when he went to address the women's wing of the Muslim League he was escorted by two girls on either side of him with swords drawn. When, despite the Muslim League victory, the British Governor of Punjab asked the Congress and the Unionist Party to form a coalition government, it caused a furore amongst the members and supporters of the Muslim League. Meetings were held, and there was a demonstration of five hundred men and women on Queen's Road.

The Quaid was in the tradition of a whole host of Muslim intellectuals and thinkers before him who had been calling for the education and emancipation of Muslim women. However, he was the first to actively promote their participation in politics and the Muslim League. It is no accident of history that he took his sister everywhere with him. He set the trend and his followers emulated. It is not surprising that Liaquat Ali Khan had Rana Liaquat by his side. The message was loud and clear: women should come out of their seclusion and be equal partners in the social and political life of the country. He is quoted as having declared that the Muslim nation could not progress or free itself unless women were its equal partners.

The Pakistan Movement is an important watershed in the social history of Muslim women. While there is a long line of writers who in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were advocating that Muslim women be educated, there was none who had the audacity to suggest that they emerge from the physical seclusion of their homes. When the Pakistan fever caught the hearts and minds of the Muslims, it seemed but natural that the women should be drawn into it too.

While the Quaid encouraged this through every policy decision of his, the conservative and the orthodox sections of society do not seem to have provided any major opposition to this new phenomenon. Hence there was no suffragette movement as such. Women acquired voting rights in the process of waging a political struggle for Pakistan. There is no evidence of a war between the genders because both were caught in a common struggle, and were supportive of each other. There is a whole galaxy of confident, intelligent, articulate and committed women who emerged from this Movement. They were poised at this advantageous situation when Pakistan was born.
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