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Sunday May 19, 2024, Zul-qaadah 11, 1445 Hijri

Feminist dimension of the Pakistan Movement

15 August, 2005

By Yasser Latif Hamdani

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Nationalism and Feminism in Asia have gone hand in hand historically.  Populist Nationalism could not afford to ignore the women.  It was the women who thus formed the vanguard of popular movements, struggles, electoral battles and even war.  So is true of South Asia.  Annie Besant, the famous English theosophist, could be regarded as one of the pioneers of women’s participation in politics.  So too were women like Srojini Naidu and Ruttie Jinnah, Jinnah’s wife, who rose to fame as quick-witted Indian Nationalists. Amongst the conservative Muslims we saw Ali Brothers’ mother Bi Amman jump into the fray at ripe old age in the non-cooperation and Khilafat movement.  Later Gandhian freedom struggle also saw active women’s participation.  Kasturba Gandhi, Kamla Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Arun Asaf Ali are some of the names of the more famous women in the Indian freedom struggle.  This was not all.  It was in Lahore in 1931 that the Asian Women’s Movement was born.    That first conference of barely 20 activists today has grown into a vibrant movement with network all over Asia. However by and large Muslim women remained oblivious to such developments.

It was the exponential rise of progressive Muslim nationalism of the Aligarh variety in 1930s, based on the twin planks of modernity and reform brought the common Muslim woman out of seclusion and into mainstream. It was around this time that Shaista Ikramullah became the first Muslim woman to earn a PhD and Abida Sultan became the third woman pilot in the entire Islamic world.  Both were ardent Muslim Leaguers and later served Pakistan in several official and unofficial capacities. But more than this it was the Muslim League and its leadership that for the first time asked the common Muslim women to shun “chador” and “char dewari” to become part and parcel of the political struggle.  It had all begun with the Muslim League resolution in 1932 promising complete and total political equality to women. Later the League became more active in supporting Muslim women’s liberation.  For one thing Mahomed Ali Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League, had been an activist for the Suffrage movement in his student days in London.  He was genuinely distressed to see the state of women in the Muslim community something which he alluded to on several occasions.  He famously said:

"No nation can rise to the height of glory unless your women are side by side with you; we are victims of evil customs. It is a crime against humanity that our women are shut up within the four walls of the houses as prisoners. There is no sanction anywhere for the deplorable condition in which our women have to live." (taken from the US Library of Congress report "Pakistan - A Country Study")

In order to reinforce this notion he made sure his sister was always by his side during his campaigns and political engagements.  He no doubt realized more than anyone else in the Muslim community how essential women’s participation was to his struggle.  After all women’s participation meant doubling the number of voters and twice the number of agitators.  Anis Haroon writes in his essay that women threw off their dopattas and made flags out of them for the movement.  Thus Jinnah galvanized the Muslim women into a lean mean fighting machine and enlisted the feminists amongst Muslims to work for the cause of Muslim women and to break the shackles of the religio-feudal order that had reinforced Chador and Char devari particularly in the areas of Punjab and NWFP.   The effect was electric.  Muslim women came out in large numbers attending Muslim League meetings, talking against the maulvis and agitating against the Unionist government. In the closing  stages of the civil disobedience movement in Punjab more than 500 Muslim League women courted arrest in one day.  It was here that the most famous incident of the Pakistan movement saw a young woman, Fatima Sughra, jump the fence of the Lahore secretariat, climb up onto the top, throw away the British Union Jack and hoist the Muslim League flag up instead.  In NWFP where Purdah is still unheard of, Muslim League women courted arrest while protesting against Dr Khan Sahab’s ministry without a Purdah.

Brilliant young women poets and writers like Mumtaz Shahnawaz were amongst the agitators.  Mumtaz Shahnawaz, whose mother Jahanara Shahnawaz was a stalwart of the Pakistan movement and the first woman in Asia to preside over a legislative session, has left behind a touching novel on the crucial events of partition called “Heart Divided”.  Written from the Muslim League perspective, it tells the story of the struggle for Pakistan and the women’s sacrifices for the nation state.
Mumtaz Shahnawaz died at the age of 35 in a plane crash months after the creation of Pakistan, en route to New York to represent Pakistan at the UN General Assembly. Before leaving for New York, she had told her mother to work towards making Pakistan a progressive state, the reason why they had toiled and struggled for its creation. Her death was mourned not just by Jinnah but Nehru and Atlee as well who she knew very well.

There was a strong feminist dimension in the Pakistan movement.  Women like Shaista Ikramullah, Jahanara Shahnawaz, Mumtaz Shahnawaz and Salma Tassadaque were attracted to it because of the potential it held for women.  They got an opportunity to organize and liberate Muslim women the four walls of their homes. Through out the Pakistan movement, the League leadership relied on the women in their ranks to take their message forward to the common people as well as the media.  Indeed when the need arose to counter Congress’ propaganda in the United States it was Jahanara Shahnawaz who was dispatched and there she managed to convert many to the Muslim League’s point of view. After the creation of Pakistan these women fought and a long and drawn out battle with the religious conservatives for their rights. With Jinnah’s patronage they had formed the Muslim Women’s National guard, during the Pakistan movement, which later became the Pakistan National Guard. It was a civil defence organization for women that protected women during the riots of 1947.    After Jinnah’s death, the Women’s National Guard came under scrutiny of the Mullahs and conservatives.  The main criticism that was leveled against the organization was that its members went around unveiled and armed.  Some how that threatened the patriarchy of the Mullahs, the majority of whom had opposed the creation of Pakistan in the first place.

For three decades however Pakistani women seemed to make progress towards complete equality.  The Muslim Family Law Ordinance all but banned polygamy. All constitutions of the republic affirmed complete equality of women. In fact all three constitutions promoted activism and affirmative action to bring about complete equality.  All was proceeding as planned, even as Pakistan got more consciously Islamic under Bhutto, till the women’s movement in Pakistan hit a brickwall called Zia-ul-Haq’s military regime. The hudood ordinance and the tampering with the evidence act, halted the progress made from 1947-1977.  Overt Islamisation via state patronage of the Jamat-e-Islami brand of Islam laid the foundations of progressive isolation of women in Pakistan.  With this, the nationalist discourse in Pakistan took a completely opposite direction from the feminist discourse, which is why even today under the enlightened moderation of General Musharraf the women’s movement is in dissent of the nation state. But that is another story.


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