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Old Monday, December 11, 2006
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Muhammad Haseeb Khalid is on a distinguished road
Default Women’s Movement in South Asia

Reflections of Resistance

Women’s Movement in South Asia

According to one definition a movement differs from individual acts of resistance, in that it consists of concerted action by a group of people who share a vision and an aim and act together to bring changes necessary for the realization of that aim. However, individual acts – even a single gesture of defiance, can pave the way for change and give an impetus to movements.

Description of women’s movement in South Asian countries definitely gives a clue to the capacity of agency and activism in South Asian women and the role they played towards the achievement of justice and peace.

While analyzing women’ s socio-political participation in a country like Sri Lanka one finds the women’s movements are playing a vital role for the attainment of human rights and justice. Women’s movement in Sri Lanka has an independent history. Women participated in the cultural revival of the late 1880- 1910 period, educated them selves and began to enter professions, and in the 1920 s’ the Women’ s Franchise Union led the demand for female vote, which was obtained in 1931. In subsequent year, many organizations including the Women’ s Political Union and the All- Ceylon Women’ s Conference agitated for equal rights for women. Women were also active in trade unions in the 1920 s’ and in 1930 s’ they participated in the anti imperialist struggle and demanded their basic economic and social rights with one of the leftist parties of that time. The first autonomous women’ s feminist socialist group was the Eksath Kantha Peramuna, formed in 1948, and led by women of the Leftist parties. By 1975, women had already made important strides, not only in obtaining political rights, but also in education, employment, literacy, life expectancy and health.

During the uprising in 1987-1991 by nationalist Sinhala youth (the JVP or Janta Vimukhti Party), the country was gripped in the stranglehold of terror. Countless people were disappeared and killed. It was in such a context that the Mother’ s Front, a grass root women organization with an estimated membership of more than twenty five thousand women, was formed in July 1990 to protest the disappearance of approximately sixty thousand young and middle aged men. Making a spectacular appearance on the Sri Lankan political stage, the Mother’s Front proved to be a space for the protest. It placed the government on the defensive, awoke a nation from a terrorized stupor and indelibly gendered the discourses of human rights and dissent.

In the Nepali context, the women’s movement dates back to the struggle against British imperialism starting with the battle of Nalapani in 1814. The women marched with men in the 1948 civil rights movement. They were also part of the democratic revolution of 1951, which overthrew 104 years of Rana autocracy. In this struggle, women from political families came forward and formed the Women’s Committee. The first Adarsha Mahila Samaj (Ideal Women’ s Society) was formed with the objective of raising social and political consciousness among Nepali women. Similarly in 1948, the Nepal Women Association was formed with the same objectives. Along with the women’s welfare, it pushed strongly for political awareness among women.

However, after the downfall of the Rana regime in 1951 women’s organizations affiliated themselves with various political parties. During the thirty years rule in 1960-1990 of the party less Panchayat system, political activities and independent women organizations were all banned. Nevertheless, the Left democratic forces continued their struggle against the oppressive political system.

As in other parts of the world, many Nepali women participated in the liberation struggle. The women upheld the banner of Marxism high and put forward the idea that the liberation of women is contingent upon the liberation of the working masses. Thus the Nepali women’s movement developed alongside the political movement and was not a separate women struggle. Praja Paris was the first political party, which launched underground activities against the Rana rule. The Nepal Women’s Association was established in 1948 with the objectives of increasing awareness among women to fight for their rights and to complement the anti Rana struggle. The organization, however, split over differences in responding to government proposals. Afterwards, the All Nepal Women Association (ANWA) was established in 1951 and launched joint struggle with peasants, labour, and student’s organizations. With the advent of democracy women became more aware of their rights and in the following two and a half decades women’s movement went underground and witnessed the division of communist party influenced by International communist movement.

However we see that due to the complex political history of this very region there were great restrains that some of the movements had to face, and this is what one can observe in the history of women’s movement in Bangladesh.

After the liberation of this country on December 16, 1971 women organizations were aware of the horrendous violation of human rights during the war and it’s after math. At that time government’s inadequate response was more critical towards the thirty thousand female victims of mass rape by the Pakistani Army was a critical issue. Interestingly, the nascent women’s movement did not work actively to mobilize support for these rape victims either. In reflecting on the reason for this there are various perspectives, however this argument seems more convincing that many groups and individuals were still hesitant to challenge the society’ s strong patriarchal traditions. Even some organizations such as Mahila Parishad that later vocally and successfully challenged the government’s stand on gender violence did not articulate a position on rape at that time.

In 1973, a group of young women called ‘Women for Women’ was the first autonomous women organization to analyze the marginalised position of women in Bangladesh. This provided the basis for many women’s organizations to advocate for strong women in development policies, which they still continue to do. The Women’s movement has come a long way since 1905 and women as the most vulnerable and marginalised segment of society in a country with limited resources had been resisting the human right violation by the state, the constitution and political parties and it has gained its solidarity and strength over time. The prevailing mood of the women’s movement is one of cautious optimism. As one Bangladeshi rural women declared, ‘we have come this far …because our cause is just. We shall neither give up nor give in’.

Coming to Indian women and tracing the steps of their resistance from the independence in 1947 we observe that the Congress (ruling part) made partial attempts to fulfil their promises made to women with reference to their socio-economic and political rights. Therefore, in the 1950 s’ and 1960 s’ there was a lull in feminist campaigning. The movement that started in the 1970 s’ was very different from its predecessors, for it grew out of a number of radical movements of the time.

In the early 1970 s’ the Indian Left fractured, new Leftist ideas and movements developed, albeit on a small scale. Among these the most interesting movements for feminists were the Shahada and anti-price agitation in Mahashtra and the Self Employed Women s’ Association (SEWA) and Nav Nirman (New Light) in Gujrat. The Shahada movement was landless laborer s` movement against the exploitative practices of non-tribal local landowners. These movements mobilized women of the city against inflation and they agitated against state sponsored famine.

In the same year when the Nav Nirman movement developed and was subdued the first women’s group associated with the contemporary feminist movement was formed in Hyderabad. Comprising women from the Maoist movement, the Progressive Organization of Women (POW) exemplified rethinking within the Left. POW attempted an over reaching analysis of gender oppression in its manifesto, which was largely influenced by Friedrich Engles and Isaac Babel. Influenced by the POW, Maoist women in Pune formed the Purogami Stree Sangathana (Progressive Women’s Association), and Maoist women in Bombay formed the Stree Mukti Sangathana (Women’s Liberation Organization). Several women groups fought for socio-political issues and emphasized women’ rights to education, widow remarriage, shunning purdah etc including dalit movement, Janwidana (Distress of People), Mahila Samta Sainik Dal (League of women ‘ soldiers for equality). Whenever feminist movements against dowry and rape etc. However by 1975 the development of the fledgling women’s movement was interrupted by Indra Gandhi and the repressive policies of her government. These brief descriptions of contemporary Indian women’s movement show its complex, variously placed and fertile nature. It is perhaps the only movement today that encompasses and links such issues as work, wages, environment, ecology, civil rights, sex, violence, representation, caste, class, allocation of basic resources, consumer rights, health, religion, community, and individual and social relationships and goes to show the strong amount of resistance in the women of this very region.

To understand the forces and factors behind the formation of women’s movement in Pakistan one has to trace the steps of Muslim women’s struggle in the Subcontinent and the role of Islam in contemporary history. Since independence Islam like other defining factors such as Hinduism, has been used by those in the power, and more often by Right wing elements as a power strategy.

In the fifty years preceding independence, progressive Muslim groups justified women’ s education, emancipation and rights from within an Islamic framework though it was often being done in name only – it was only with Zia that Islam was used as a means to control, define and restrict and not just women and minorities but also political parties. As of 1947, having been monopolized by reactionary elements, Islam has been used by those wanting to curb or deny women their rights. Certainly since the turn of the century, women have found themselves confronting the conservative religious elements in their struggle for their rights. However, at the same time women also used the Sharia in the first half of the 19th century to press their claim to property that was being denied to them under customary law – their quarrel with Islam – or rather the official and ultra right use of Islam came later.

This struggle by the Muslin women was joined by women of other communities as well and this joint struggle made a strong impact in the fight for rights. It was 1903 when a Muslim woman Bi Amaa was heard for the first time speaking in public on the conditions of Muslim women, their lack of education and general backwardness. Anjuman Khwateen-e-Islam (Muslim Women’s Organization), Haqooq-e-Niswan (Women s’ Rights), Rahbar-e-Niswaan (Women s’ guardian) and Khilafat movement were some of the movements women participated actively even if they were not initiated by women themselves. The second instance of the mass mobilization of Muslim women was the Pakistan movement. As the idea of Pakistan took shape, Muslims, women as well as men, wrote articles, gathered support, held meetings, and finally came out on the streets to fight for a separate homeland. Muslim Girls Student Federation, Muslim League Women’s wing, Women’s National Guard are some of the examples where women played a major role in the freedom struggle. Women who had been mobilized during the nationalist (anti British movement) and subsequently the Pakistan movement directed their energies towards the refugee problem after 1947.

The Women Voluntary Service (WVS) was the first attempt to organize women and was followed by the formation of Pakistan Women’s National Guard (PWNG) and Pakistan Women Navel Reserve (PWNR) in 1949.
The All Pakistan Women’s Association (APWA) was conceived and formed the same year to mobilize and organize women at one platform. Receiving full support from the government APWA s’ most visible activities consist of the schools, colleges and the industrial homes for fund raising. However, APWA’ s fight for the family laws ordinance was definitely political entailing street protests and fairly widespread mobilization. Ironically, the apolitical APWA managed legal change – something that the self consciously political WAF etc have been unable to do due to various historical reasons. Though condemned by the right wing Islamic parties and seen as a lobby promoting women’s movement, APWA by the lapse of time continued its struggle for the women rights and was joined in by several other women organizations. After the promulgation of the discriminatory Family Laws Ordinance and the restrictions imposed on political activities under Ayub s’ Martial law regime it became inactive until the early seventies when Bhutto’s new constitution was drafted.

After the beginning of Zia’s repressive martial law regime by the end of nineteen seventies Women Action Forum (WAF) was formed soon after the promulgation of the Hadood Ordinance. It saw itself as both a pressure group for women’s rights and as a conscious raising forum for women. As such it became a platform for dissent for individuals and organizations as diverse as women groups like Shirkatgah, APWA, Women Trade Unionists, Anjuman Jamhooriat Psand Kwteen (women supporters for democracy), Tahreek e Khwateen (women’ s movement) and many others.

In the middle of 1980’s when mainstream politicians and political parties, conservative and progressive alike, were discretely silent, women came out into the streets and openly confronted military regime. Women’ s legal status as a half witness, Hadood Ordinance, discriminatory personal laws, right to work, right to sports, political participation are some of the issues they fought for. Within a month, WAF chapter had been formed in Lahore and soon after one in Islamabad/Rawalpindi. WAF therefore came about in response to a need for Pakistani women to fight for equal rights and an equal status in this society and to fight against any changes in the law or in society that affected them negatively. It sought to achieve its objectives by increasing awareness, primarily among women of their existing rights and of rights which are their due; of their equal status in society, and their contribution to it; and of the legal, economic, social cultural and familial discrimination against women in Pakistan.

While analyzing the evolution of women’s movement in Pakistan and its current scenario one realizes that despite the conflict of ideologies within these movements and the criticism made on them, whether justified or not, they have still managed to turn human rights issues into national issues. We can see this in the way it has brought socio political issues especially with reference to women to the forefront. These issues are now freely and openly debated among people and the press, and all the political parties, including those of the Right, and this makes the contribution of these organizations visible and incontestable.

There is no doubt that whenever women raised their voices in protest, no matter how weak or strong their voices were, they were heard and were able to make a difference. They challenged their own passivity proving the stereotypes attached to them entirely wrong by asserting themselves and by making a positive contribution towards change and justice. Despite the contradictions we see in the numerous political ideologies followed by the women’s movement in South Asia, there is a strong presence of women’s resistance and their capacity for agency as a marginalized segment of society and their ability to carry out a strong movement. However the prevailing socio-political situation in South Asia emphasize the fact that it is not easy to win the battle against injustice on social, political and economic levels and therefore there is a great need to rethink, redefine and broaden the definition and frame of reference for the women’s movement and gender perspectives in order to make a concrete contribution towards the cause of justice and peace.

Nevertheless, the women’s movement in South Asia continues with different levels of activism and ideological directions. Even today we see a strong peasant movement in Pakistan where women are in the forefront of the movement (WAF is still part of it) and from resisting against the oppressive state forces including Army and rangers to organizing rallies, protests and deciding political moves, they are playing a visible role. They are aligned and supported by the feminist and non-feminist forces both and women are fighting their battle of rights for justice and peace. The same goes for the active women’s movement in India today, the Narmanda Bachao Andolan (a movement against the so called development in India in the name of dam making) is one of the examples. Women’s active involvement in a campaign against Rakshi (a campaign against alcohol) in Nepal endorses the same concept. Hence it makes us believe that no matter how different ideological courses these movement may adopt, women in South Asia are there to bring about a change for peace and justice by resisting the ‘sacred’ and the ‘secular’ both.

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