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International Women’s Day; A Pakistani Perspective

International Womens DayMarch 8th marks the celebration of the International Womens Day worldwide, in Pakistan women have done some hard work to be considered at par with the men of society, probably their most notable event remains the protest of Feb 12th 1982 where women were brutally attacked by the state machinery (aka Zia-ul-Haq), that day is probably the ‘unofficial’ Women’s Day in Pakistan.

I share with you an article [unedited version] written by Beena Sarwar in Dawn on 3rd March 2008

Here comes that day again, the one dedicated to women all over the world, March 8, International Women’s Day. In Pakistan, we observe our own unofficial Women’s Day every February 12 since the watershed rally in 1983 organised by the Punjab Women Lawyers Association in Lahore. Sadly, the symbolism of this demonstration is still relevant: it was a protest against Gen. Ziaul Haq’s law of evidence that reduced the testimony of women in court to half that of men; like many other laws the general imposed, it remains in our statute books.

A heavy police posse outnumbered the demonstrators as they began moving from Regal Chowk to the Lahore High Court to present a petition. The courageous people’s poet Habib Jalib was among the few men participating in the demonstration who also got tear-gassed and lathi-charged. The image of Jalib fending off a baton wielded by a zealous tulla is frozen in a news photograph, as are images of policemen gleefully thrashing women demonstrators. Many women were arrested and hauled off to the thana, defiantly shouting slogans against the military regime. Two decades later, such scenes are still all too familiar, captured now by television cameras as well as still photographs.

Every year, women’s day brings a reminder of the women’s movement’s integral involvement in the struggle for democratic politics in Pakistan. If not for the impending elections, February 12 may well have been dedicated in many seminars and demonstrations to Benazir Bhutto. Her assassination snatched away from us a woman who epitomized this struggle, balancing an intensely political life with being a dedicated mother. International Women’s Day this year will also be overshadowed by March 9, the anniversary of the fateful day in 2007 when a `military president’ suspended the country’s chief justice. The Chief Justice refused to be suspended, and the rest as they say, is history.

The participation of Pakistani women in the struggle for democratic politics is marked by patterns similar to those that emerge in other such struggles by women elsewhere. To generalize, these patterns include the tendency of women activists to avoid seeking, taking up or demanding leadership positions; following a cooperative rather than hierarchal structure without formal positions; and consultatively-taken decisions.

These patterns are visible in the ongoing `civil society’ (for want of a better term) struggle for the restoration of an independent judiciary in Pakistan, in which women are prominent players, often the main event organizers.

At rallies taken out in Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi, women also bore the brunt of the police action. They surrounded male colleagues to prevent police from beating or dragging them away. “Arrest us all, or no one at all,” they demanded. Sometimes it worked, sometimes not. At times the police, particularly in Islamabad, showed no compunction in brutalizing women ignoring the legal requirement that only policewomen may lay hands on or arrest females. In many cases, male police specifically targeted and manhandled women.

On occasion the police ensured that policewomen were on the scene to `do the needful’, like at the journalists’ rally at Karachi Press Club on November 21 when over a hundred journalists, including women, courted arrest and were carted off to various police stations.

Sometimes, they forgot, like the time they arrested participants of the candlelight vigil outside Justice Rana Bhagwandas’ residence on January 13. The first information reports charging the protestors with Sections 147 and 148 of the Pakistan Penal Code — rioting and rioting with a deadly weapon (candles?) — were ready even before the eight arrested activists arrived at the police station. In the absence of women police, the male police refused to arrest the women demonstrators who tried to prevent them from hauling away the men.

As the nation awaits the installation of a democratic dispensation, one wonders if any of the patterns that typify women’s organizations low key, consultative, non-hierarchal will be among its features.

— Beena Sarwar

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