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Pakistani Women and Democracy (Part I)

How have Pakistani women created a movement for democracy?

February 6, 2008

How have Pakistani women created a movement for democracy?

Well before Benazir Bhutto’s death, Pakistan was dubbed the most dangerous nation in the world — nukes, Taliban and all. After her death, Pakistan’s reputation as a country inhospitable to both women and democracy appeared to be a forgone conclusion.

And yet, this picture is two-dimensional at best. Pakistani society, thankfully, is much more multifaceted.

Women, who are uniquely attuned to the rhythms of social life, are leading a grassroots revolution for democracy in Pakistan. Pakistani culture has a tradition of strong women dominating the major social institutions.

It turns out that Benazir must instead be measured against the dedication of a new generation of strong women.

Sundas Hurain, a second-year law student at the prestigious Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) and one of the leaders of Pakistan’s student movement, expresses the viewpoint of the next generation of Pakistani women.

“She was a big leader who had been part of the national scene for quite some time,” she notes. “We didn’t expect her to die. It shocked us.”

And yet, the trauma of Pakistanis at her passing was real and intense. Her death, as well as the sheer fact of its violence, struck a blow to the national psyche.

Rasul Baksh Rais, head of the Social Sciences department at LUMS, describes the intensity of the mourning. “Every family in Pakistan was grieved. There was mourning in every town and village, even among the people who did not support her.”

However, as blogger Chapati Mystery insightfully remarks, Bhutto’s name has been invoked in breakfast conversations, political salons, and high tea chit chat for well over three decades.

Her elegant features have plastered billboards, political posters and street paintings. PPP political slogans sometimes find their way on the plastic back flaps of rickshaws. Whether for good or ill, she was as ubiquitous a part of national life as Lipton Tea.

To date, Pakistan has alternated under a self-serving, feudal-minded bureaucracy and military rule through its political history.

The mere fact that Bhutto spoke for self-governance — whether she delivered on the promises or not — still meant something.

Any alternative to Musharraf, who was seen by an exhausted public as selling out the country to the U.S. “war on terror,” was welcome.

There was also the fact that Bhutto presented herself measurably better than the general run of Pakistan’s burly, machismo politicians.

Benazir was not so much a leader as a celebrity, a glamorous woman who refracted her father’s populist slogans to the impoverished masses — and the discourse of democracy to the educated middle and upper classes.

At the heart of the nation’s longing is the desire for a representative government in tune with the needs and wants of the people. But often, the unsung heroines toiling at the ground are worthier ambassadors of that desire than the celebrities at the top political echelons.

Ironically, the media’s obsession with Benazir’s death is obscuring recognition of the extraordinary women at the helm of a brewing movement for Pakistani democracy.

Women activists, artists, professionals, academics, journalists and students have been mobilizing against General Musharraf’s unconstitutional usurpation of power with an energy that has not been seen at the grassroots for decades.

Tireless, determined and driven, women are braving considerable danger in order to create a new standard for citizen service.

Sundas Hurain, for instance, describes herself as a typical LUMS student. Her dream was to get her degree, go abroad and land a prestigious job. The extent of her patriotic commitment was to send money back home for educational institutions.

Everything changed for her when Musharraf suspended the Supreme Court and declared a state of emergency. The executive branch’s suppression of the judiciary escalated as the police unleashed a brutal campaign of terror against lawyers protesting in the streets.

To Hurain, the need for service was here and now. “We began to hold rallies in support of the lawyers,” she says. “Professors from the law department told us about the cases that the lawyers were filing at the Supreme Court to challenge Musharraf’s unconstitutional usurpation of power. Our hearts went out to them when we heard about their struggles.”

Lawyers were petitioning Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry to reconsider Musharraf’s eligibility to serve as president when he had not yet renounced his position as army chief. When Chief Justice Chaudhry was suspended and martial law declared on November 3, 2007, the silent sympathy flamed into protest.

Mass rallies erupted on the Lahore campus, and Hurain and a number of other students formed the Student Action Committee to channel the indignation into sustained action for representative government and rule of law.

The Student Action Committee, for which Hurain serves as convener, has since then grown into an umbrella organization including students from 21 universities in the city of Lahore. It also has with a thriving publication called The Emergency Times, which is available by weblog.

The Emergency Times weblog illustrates the e-savvy of young Pakistani women, who know how to use cutting-edge new media to reach out to a world audience. The publication has reported on intelligence agencies kidnapping Pakistani citizens to secret prisons, deconstructed fallacious government reports on Benazir’s cause of death, as well as providing up-to-date bulletins on the movement’s latest activities.

Student rallies have spread through the nation at large. Hurain describes how the news of the student-held rallies in Lahore sparked a rally of 700 students at the Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, the capital city of Pakistan. Pakistan now has a student movement for the first time in 30 years.

The young women of the student movement are participating at extraordinary risk to themselves. “Jails in Pakistan are quite different and very dangerous for women,” notes Hurain. “If you get arrested, the police can beat you and rape you. You can get arrested without even having charges pressed against you. You can become a missing person.”

Editor’s Note: Read Part II here.


Pakistan has alternated between feudal bureaucracy and military rule through its political history.

Whether for good or ill, Bhutto was as ubiquitous a part of national life as Lipton Tea.

Women activists, artists, professionals, academics, journalists and students have been mobilizing against General Musharraf's unconstitutional usurpation of power.

All in all, democracy's best and brightest hopes in Pakistan haven't been gunned down with Benazir.

"Jails in Pakistan are quite different and very dangerous for women. If you get arrested, the police can beat you and rape you."