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Defining moments for the Pakistani woman

Begum Liaquat Ali Khan, talks on “Women of Pakistan” at Town Hall, in New York, New York. -Photo Courtesy: Truman Library.

They are the hardy flowers of an uncertain spring. Pakistani women are one half of a country that is unsure about their value, reluctant to invest in their welfare and ready to relegate them to the margins.


In this year 2014, against the unraveling saga of talks with the Taliban, lapsed literacy rates, inattention and apathy; Pakistani women continue to persevere. This year, like so many recent ones, they continue to push their way into unwelcome public spaces, fight for equality in private ones, and claim their country for their own.

It is a difficult battle, in numbers a little over a third can expect to enroll in secondary school and more than half will have no education at all. Each one will give birth to an average four babies, and less than half will get any medical care while pregnant. Too many will die in the dangerous process of giving life.

The challenge of the Pakistani woman is one of survival, of persevering against odds perhaps unseen by women of any other country. Looking back at the defining moments in the Pakistani woman’s story then, is an exercise in constructing the history of resilience; a parallel history of achievements and milestones often ignored amid the more pressing, more urgent and more prominent demands of histories written by men.


Equality before existence


One defining moment for Pakistani women took place before Pakistan itself was an actuality. In 1932, the All India Muslim League, which counted many strong women among its ranks met and passed a resolution giving women complete equality in politics.

 Many women contributed to the struggle for Pakistan and the rights of women and fought for freedom. They have gone down in history as pioneers and are remembered for their untiring efforts.
Many women contributed to the struggle for Pakistan and the rights of women and fought for freedom. They have gone down in history as pioneers and are remembered for their untiring efforts.

At the occasion, the founder to-be of Pakistan, Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah said the following words,

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 four walls of the houses as prisoners. There is no sanction anywhere for the deplorable conditions in which our women have to live.

Saying these words over a decade before Pakistan became a reality, perhaps the Quaid-e-Azam hoped, the creation for a homeland for the subcontinent’s Muslims would also mean the liberation of its Muslim women.


A new country of first women


 Begum Shaista Ikramullah. -File
Begum Shaista Ikramullah. -File

In 1947 when the country was created, Begum Shaista Ikramullah became the first female representative of Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly. Begum Ikramullah a fiery and well known advocate for the cause of Pakistan was also the first Muslim woman to earn a Ph.D. from the University of London.

Among this vanguard of Pakistan’s first women, was also Princess Abida Sultan, the former heir to the princely state of Bhopal, who moved to Pakistan alone with her son. She would go on to become one of Pakistan’s first female Ambassadors and first female pilots. The vision of progress and achievement represented a vision of the Pakistani woman as a modern, dynamic trailblazer.


Equality in the family


The Muslim Family Law Ordinance was passed in 1961. The law determines the balance of power in marriage; a cornerstone of the Pakistani woman’s life story. The controversy and debate surrounding the advocacy and ultimately the passage of the law reflected the confusions about Pakistan’s identity that continue to plague the country today. The intent of the initial advocates which included Begum Raana Liaquat Ali Khan was to put some restraints on the practice of polygamy in Pakistan. This was ultimately not possible as, the religious lobby insisted that it was unIslamic to place restrictions on Muslim men wanting to have multiple wives.

 Begum Raana Liaquat Ali Khan. -File
Begum Raana Liaquat Ali Khan. -File

As with other insoluble problems, a Commission was created to look into the matter. Unsurprisingly, the Muslim Family Laws Ordinance that was passed in 1961 did not ban polygamy in the country. It did, however, create two provisions that sought to increase women’s power in the relationship.

The first was the requirement that any man seeking to contract a second marriage had to obtain permission from an Arbitration Council. The second requirement was that all divorce proceedings had to be registered with the local Union Councils. This last provision meant that only oral pronouncements of divorce did not by itself constitute a legal divorce. This legislation, which has since been repeatedly challenged by opponents, continues to be the law governing marriage, divorce and consequently women’s lives in contemporary Pakistan.


Madam Noor Jehan – songstress of the nation


 Madam Noor Jehan.-File
Madam Noor Jehan.-File

In 1966, Madam Noor Jehan, who had migrated to Pakistan at Partition, received the Tamgha-e-Imtiaz which is the country’s highest civilian honour. Women had won the award before and would win it again but Madame Noor Jehan’s win was significant because it was representative of a feminine presence in the burgeoning cultural scene of a new Pakistan.

Starting her career as an actress, Noor Jehan who came from a family of singers, reinvented herself as a playback singer in the 60s. Charming, uninhibited and unafraid, she was a public figure, a prominent one and a female one in a still patriarchal world.


The fight against Islamisation


 Women organisations were protesting against Zia’s laws on the streets but a time came when some women employees of PTV also refused to follow the moral dictates of the regime. -File
Women organisations were protesting against Zia’s laws on the streets but a time came when some women employees of PTV also refused to follow the moral dictates of the regime. -File

Martial law imposed in the late 70s brought for Pakistan women, perhaps the most significant challenges of the country’s existence. On February 22, 1979, self-appointed President General Ziaul Haq promulgated four separate Ordinances.

These included the since notorious Zina and Hudood Ordinance which applied Haddpunishments to the crimes of adultery and fornication. After the passage of these laws, Pakistani women who were raped or sexually assaulted, required four male witnesses to prove the crime. If they were unable to provide these witnesses, the victim herself could be prosecuted for fornication or adultery.

 A woman’s rally in Lahore protesting against the Zia dictatorship is baton-charged by the police (1980). -File
A woman’s rally in Lahore protesting against the Zia dictatorship is baton-charged by the police (1980). -File

Also passed as part of General Ziaul Haq’s Islamisation campaign was the Qanun-e-Shahadatlaw which reduced women’s testimony to count to half of male testimony in certain cases. Challenges test the mettle of those on whose shoulders they land, despite military rule and the threat of force, hundreds of women came out on the streets in protest. Many of Pakistan’s women’s organisations gained their most ardent supporters during this time, forming the base of resistance against laws determined to reduce the stature of women in the society.


The election of Benazir Bhutto


 Benazir Bhutto. -Photo by Reuters
Benazir Bhutto. -Photo by Reuters

On December 2, 1988, less than 10 years after Islamisation, a Pakistani woman made history. Clad in the national green, Benazir Bhutto was sworn in as Prime Minister of Pakistan becoming the first Muslim woman to be elected to such an office.

Addressing the enormous crowd gathered outside Parliament for the occasion, Benazir Bhutto said,

We are gathered together to celebrate freedom, to celebrate democracy, to celebrate the three most beautiful words in the English language: “We the People”.

In that moment, Benazir Bhutto became the woman who represented in one person the potential of millions of others, an icon of courage and an emblem of inspiration. Even though, the tragic events of the future were unknown then, the very fact of a woman’s leadership was for a Muslim country, a huge leap forward that would light the darkness of times to come.


A judge, A climber, A fighter pilot


Caught in the wrenches of civilizational struggles, the War on Terror and the incursion of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, the past decade has been a difficult one for Pakistani women. We have seen over a thousand girls schools bombed, schoolgirls shot, girl’s college buses attacked and nearly every iteration of women in public life discredited as un-Islamic.

The weight of such misogyny has been exacting, but its burden is borne bravely by Pakistani women. Despite the grim surroundings, the antagonism and the criticism, the confusion and the finger pointing, they have managed to push new boundaries and carve new frontiers.

 Federal Shairat Court Chief Justice Agha Rafiq Ahmed (R), receives an oath from Justice Ashraf Jehan (L) in Karachi. -Photo by AFP
Federal Shairat Court Chief Justice Agha Rafiq Ahmed (R), receives an oath from Justice Ashraf Jehan (L) in Karachi. -Photo by AFP

On December 30, 2013 Pakistan’s Federal Shariat Court swore in its first female judge in the 33 year history of its existence. The appointment of Ms Ashraf Jehan, who had already been serving as judge in the Additional Court in Sindh province, represented an opportunity for Pakistani women to play an important role in the determination of religious law, a field from which they have been traditionally excluded.

 Samina Baig. -File
Samina Baig. -File

Around the same time last year, 22-year-old Samina Baig, from the small town of Shimshal in Hunza Valley, became the first Pakistani woman to climb Mount Everest. As she unfurled Pakistan’s green and white flag on the summit of the mountain she thought only of her sisters, “about the women of Pakistan, those who are not allowed to get an education, those who are not allowed to do what they want to do in life.” She hoped then at that victorious moment that Pakistanis would realise that the contribution of women is important and crucial to making a country stronger.

 Ayesha Farooq, 26, Pakistan
Ayesha Farooq, 26, Pakistan’s only female war-ready fighter pilot. -Photo by Reuters

Pakistani women are nothing if they are not fighters, and while most women fought on Pakistan’s contested ground, one took to the skies. Last year, at age 26 Ayesha Farooq became the first Pakistani female fighter pilot. Flying the F-7PG, the Chinese version of the MIG 21 jet, Ayesha is a role model for millions and a literal testament that Pakistani women are fighters.

The air base where she trained and passed her final qualifications had been built exclusively for men and had no lavatories for women. They had to be especially built for her, in recognition of the fact that a woman was now present, and there to stay. Her country, Pakistan, also constructed to accommodate only the needs of men, must make similar accommodations, as Pakistani women, proclaim that they are here, and here to stay.

Begum Liaquat Ali Khan, talks on “Women of Pakistan” at Town Hall, in New York, New York. -Photo Courtesy: Truman Library.

They are the hardy flowers of an uncertain spring. Pakistani women are one half of a country that is unsure about their value, reluctant to invest in their welfare and ready to relegate them to the margins.

In this year 2014, against the unraveling saga of talks with the Taliban, lapsed literacy rates, inattention and apathy; Pakistani women continue to persevere. This year, like so many recent ones, they continue to push their way into unwelcome public spaces, fight for equality in private ones, and claim their country for their own.

It is a difficult battle, in numbers a little over a third can expect to enroll in secondary school and more than half will have no education at all. Each one will give birth to an average four babies, and less than half will get any medical care while pregnant. Too many will die in the dangerous process of giving life.

The challenge of the Pakistani woman is one of survival, of persevering against odds perhaps unseen by women of any other country. Looking back at the defining moments in the Pakistani woman’s story then, is an exercise in constructing the history of resilience; a parallel history of achievements and milestones often ignored amid the more pressing, more urgent and more prominent demands of histories written by men.


Equality before existence


One defining moment for Pakistani women took place before Pakistan itself was an actuality. In 1932, the All India Muslim League, which counted many strong women among its ranks met and passed a resolution giving women complete equality in politics.

 Many women contributed to the struggle for Pakistan and the rights of women and fought for freedom. They have gone down in history as pioneers and are remembered for their untiring efforts.
Many women contributed to the struggle for Pakistan and the rights of women and fought for freedom. They have gone down in history as pioneers and are remembered for their untiring efforts.

At the occasion, the founder to-be of Pakistan, Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah said the following words,

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 four walls of the houses as prisoners. There is no sanction anywhere for the deplorable conditions in which our women have to live.

Saying these words over a decade before Pakistan became a reality, perhaps the Quaid-e-Azam hoped, the creation for a homeland for the subcontinent’s Muslims would also mean the liberation of its Muslim women.


A new country of first women


 Begum Shaista Ikramullah. -File
Begum Shaista Ikramullah. -File

In 1947 when the country was created, Begum Shaista Ikramullah became the first female representative of Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly. Begum Ikramullah a fiery and well known advocate for the cause of Pakistan was also the first Muslim woman to earn a Ph.D. from the University of London.

Among this vanguard of Pakistan’s first women, was also Princess Abida Sultan, the former heir to the princely state of Bhopal, who moved to Pakistan alone with her son. She would go on to become one of Pakistan’s first female Ambassadors and first female pilots. The vision of progress and achievement represented a vision of the Pakistani woman as a modern, dynamic trailblazer.


Equality in the family


The Muslim Family Law Ordinance was passed in 1961. The law determines the balance of power in marriage; a cornerstone of the Pakistani woman’s life story. The controversy and debate surrounding the advocacy and ultimately the passage of the law reflected the confusions about Pakistan’s identity that continue to plague the country today. The intent of the initial advocates which included Begum Raana Liaquat Ali Khan was to put some restraints on the practice of polygamy in Pakistan. This was ultimately not possible as, the religious lobby insisted that it was unIslamic to place restrictions on Muslim men wanting to have multiple wives.

 Begum Raana Liaquat Ali Khan. -File
Begum Raana Liaquat Ali Khan. -File

As with other insoluble problems, a Commission was created to look into the matter. Unsurprisingly, the Muslim Family Laws Ordinance that was passed in 1961 did not ban polygamy in the country. It did, however, create two provisions that sought to increase women’s power in the relationship.

The first was the requirement that any man seeking to contract a second marriage had to obtain permission from an Arbitration Council. The second requirement was that all divorce proceedings had to be registered with the local Union Councils. This last provision meant that only oral pronouncements of divorce did not by itself constitute a legal divorce. This legislation, which has since been repeatedly challenged by opponents, continues to be the law governing marriage, divorce and consequently women’s lives in contemporary Pakistan.


Madam Noor Jehan – songstress of the nation


 Madam Noor Jehan.-File
Madam Noor Jehan.-File

In 1966, Madam Noor Jehan, who had migrated to Pakistan at Partition, received the Tamgha-e-Imtiaz which is the country’s highest civilian honour. Women had won the award before and would win it again but Madame Noor Jehan’s win was significant because it was representative of a feminine presence in the burgeoning cultural scene of a new Pakistan.

Starting her career as an actress, Noor Jehan who came from a family of singers, reinvented herself as a playback singer in the 60s. Charming, uninhibited and unafraid, she was a public figure, a prominent one and a female one in a still patriarchal world.


The fight against Islamisation


 Women organisations were protesting against Zia’s laws on the streets but a time came when some women employees of PTV also refused to follow the moral dictates of the regime. -File
Women organisations were protesting against Zia’s laws on the streets but a time came when some women employees of PTV also refused to follow the moral dictates of the regime. -File

Martial law imposed in the late 70s brought for Pakistan women, perhaps the most significant challenges of the country’s existence. On February 22, 1979, self-appointed President General Ziaul Haq promulgated four separate Ordinances.

These included the since notorious Zina and Hudood Ordinance which applied Haddpunishments to the crimes of adultery and fornication. After the passage of these laws, Pakistani women who were raped or sexually assaulted, required four male witnesses to prove the crime. If they were unable to provide these witnesses, the victim herself could be prosecuted for fornication or adultery.

 A woman’s rally in Lahore protesting against the Zia dictatorship is baton-charged by the police (1980). -File
A woman’s rally in Lahore protesting against the Zia dictatorship is baton-charged by the police (1980). -File

Also passed as part of General Ziaul Haq’s Islamisation campaign was the Qanun-e-Shahadatlaw which reduced women’s testimony to count to half of male testimony in certain cases. Challenges test the mettle of those on whose shoulders they land, despite military rule and the threat of force, hundreds of women came out on the streets in protest. Many of Pakistan’s women’s organisations gained their most ardent supporters during this time, forming the base of resistance against laws determined to reduce the stature of women in the society.


The election of Benazir Bhutto


 Benazir Bhutto. -Photo by Reuters
Benazir Bhutto. -Photo by Reuters

On December 2, 1988, less than 10 years after Islamisation, a Pakistani woman made history. Clad in the national green, Benazir Bhutto was sworn in as Prime Minister of Pakistan becoming the first Muslim woman to be elected to such an office.

Addressing the enormous crowd gathered outside Parliament for the occasion, Benazir Bhutto said,

We are gathered together to celebrate freedom, to celebrate democracy, to celebrate the three most beautiful words in the English language: “We the People”.

In that moment, Benazir Bhutto became the woman who represented in one person the potential of millions of others, an icon of courage and an emblem of inspiration. Even though, the tragic events of the future were unknown then, the very fact of a woman’s leadership was for a Muslim country, a huge leap forward that would light the darkness of times to come.


A judge, A climber, A fighter pilot


Caught in the wrenches of civilizational struggles, the War on Terror and the incursion of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, the past decade has been a difficult one for Pakistani women. We have seen over a thousand girls schools bombed, schoolgirls shot, girl’s college buses attacked and nearly every iteration of women in public life discredited as un-Islamic.

The weight of such misogyny has been exacting, but its burden is borne bravely by Pakistani women. Despite the grim surroundings, the antagonism and the criticism, the confusion and the finger pointing, they have managed to push new boundaries and carve new frontiers.

 Federal Shairat Court Chief Justice Agha Rafiq Ahmed (R), receives an oath from Justice Ashraf Jehan (L) in Karachi. -Photo by AFP
Federal Shairat Court Chief Justice Agha Rafiq Ahmed (R), receives an oath from Justice Ashraf Jehan (L) in Karachi. -Photo by AFP

On December 30, 2013 Pakistan’s Federal Shariat Court swore in its first female judge in the 33 year history of its existence. The appointment of Ms Ashraf Jehan, who had already been serving as judge in the Additional Court in Sindh province, represented an opportunity for Pakistani women to play an important role in the determination of religious law, a field from which they have been traditionally excluded.

 Samina Baig. -File
Samina Baig. -File

Around the same time last year, 22-year-old Samina Baig, from the small town of Shimshal in Hunza Valley, became the first Pakistani woman to climb Mount Everest. As she unfurled Pakistan’s green and white flag on the summit of the mountain she thought only of her sisters, “about the women of Pakistan, those who are not allowed to get an education, those who are not allowed to do what they want to do in life.” She hoped then at that victorious moment that Pakistanis would realise that the contribution of women is important and crucial to making a country stronger.

 Ayesha Farooq, 26, Pakistan
Ayesha Farooq, 26, Pakistan’s only female war-ready fighter pilot. -Photo by Reuters

Pakistani women are nothing if they are not fighters, and while most women fought on Pakistan’s contested ground, one took to the skies. Last year, at age 26 Ayesha Farooq became the first Pakistani female fighter pilot. Flying the F-7PG, the Chinese version of the MIG 21 jet, Ayesha is a role model for millions and a literal testament that Pakistani women are fighters.

The air base where she trained and passed her final qualifications had been built exclusively for men and had no lavatories for women. They had to be especially built for her, in recognition of the fact that a woman was now present, and there to stay. Her country, Pakistan, also constructed to accommodate only the needs of men, must make similar accommodations, as Pakistani women, proclaim that they are here, and here to stay.