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Pakistani Women and Democracy (Part II)

What are the prospects for democracy in Pakistan after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination?

February 7, 2008

What are the prospects for democracy in Pakistan after Benazir Bhutto's assassination?

Women’s commitment in the face of the perils of jail and police brutality was put to the test on December 9, 2007, when some students were arrested by the police at a political demonstration. The committee struck back with a 2-day protest and 4-day hunger strike that began at the police station and ended up at the Lahore Press Club, a feat that blazed into national headlines.

“We were 150 students from 21 universities in Lahore outside the police station facing off against 500 police officers who formed a barricade,” says Hurain. “We arranged a hunger strike camp and sat on the pavement outside the jail till 6 a.m. in the morning.”

“The pressure was intense. One of the girls’ boyfriends begged her to leave in case things turned ugly, but she refused. Our demand to the Police Commissioner was simple: Either he would jail all of us — or none of us.”

“We then arranged a hunger strike camp outside the Lahore Press Club and stayed there for three nights. On the last night, it was raining so hard that the police wouldn’t stay outside, but we did.” The women’s valor delivered a stunning victory, as charges on the student were dropped entirely. Other protesters who were carted off to prison have had to opt for bail.

When asked about the charges against the students, Hurain’s reply chillingly illustrates how the War on Terror has given nations world wide the license to purge opposition and civil resistance.

“He was arrested as a terrorist,” says Hurain, “everyone scooped up in the demonstrations has been arrested as a terrorist. You can get arrested as a terrorist for sitting on the pavement and shouting slogans.”

The students aren’t only ones putting their lives on the line.

At the now infamous November 4, 2007 rally outside the UN Human Rights Council in Lahore that gathered the cream of Pakistan’s intelligentsia, several women were jailed, including the Principal of the National College of Arts, Salima Hashmi and famed lawyer for women’s rights, Asma Jahangir.

Nighat Saeed Khan, who leads the Women’s Action Forum, a nation-wide organization of activists working for women’s political empowerment and legal rights in Pakistan, gives the inside story: “The police only wanted to arrest the men but the women formed a circle around the men and refused to budge.”

“The police were forced to arrest the women as well,” she says, “some of the women were jailed or under house arrest for a month.” Women are refusing any concessions that the police may be in a mood to offer them and are placing themselves directly in the line of fire for the nation’s constitutional integrity.

Strong women leaders are the norm in Pakistan, not the exception. Women define some of Pakistan’s major civil society institutions.

Luminaries include Bilquis Edhi, one of the co-directors of Pakistan’s famed Edhi Foundation, which works for the nationwide relief of the poor; architect Yasmeen Lari, who heads the Heritage Foundation and the Karavan Initiatives to preserve Pakistan’s historic sites and ancient traditions of folk art; and deceased journalist Razia Bhatti, who braved politicians’ displeasure (including Benazir’s) in her hard-hitting reporting.

Women’s organizations are another key element of society mobilizing its networks against Musharraf’s policies.

Khan’s Women’s Action Forum recently held a candlelight vigil in the historic part of Lahore and is planning an intensive session of talks within women in the province of Sindh to bridge the ethnic divides that Musharraf is tapping into to weaken his opposition.

“Musharraf’s administration and his political allies are trying to isolate Sindh from the rest of Pakistan’s provinces,” she explains. “The government is offering compensation for the homes and businesses damaged in the vandalism after Benazir’s death in all provinces except Sindh, as if to pin the blame for what was a nation-wide emotional reaction on that province alone.”

Sindh is the Bhuttos’ home province and a strong base of opposition against Musharraf.

Admittedly, the students at LUMS belong to some of the most wealthy and well-connected students in Pakistan and are, in fact, leveraging these advantages into a pressure strategy: “As we are the children of the establishment, it is harder for them to crack down on us,” Hurain says, “we want to take as much advantage of that as possible.”

However, women from Pakistan’s underprivileged classes are also stepping out to express their political conscience. Women activists in the less developed districts of the Sindh and Punjab provinces are at greater risk to police brutality and prolonged jail times because they are not as wealthy or well-connected as some of their counterparts in the cities.

The relative absence of media networks, watch-dog groups, and other instruments of social vigilance in the small towns and rural hinterlands provides additional license to the police to exert force. “Some of our own members in the Women’s Action Forum who were local activists in their communities have been arrested,” Khan reported.

Musharraf’s efforts to hollow-out the constitution has caused women from across Pakistan’s professional, class and ethnic divisions to lock step on the high-pressure platform of political activism.

All in all, democracy’s best and brightest hopes in Pakistan haven’t been gunned down with Benazir. They live in the ordinary extraordinary women who are mobilizing in the teeth of Musharraf’s crackdown on civil liberties.

They live on in women risking state and militia violence for the sake of the nation’s political future. They live on in the networks mobilized, the rallies organized, press conferences convened, and awareness raising programs developed.

There is no doubt that these are desperate times for Pakistan. But there is also no doubt that these desperate times are calling forth a new standard of heroism from Pakistan’s women.

“The year 2007 is the darkest year in the history of Pakistan,” notes Asma Jahangir, “but we are not afraid of the consequences as we are only raising our voices for our very basic rights.”

Editor’s Note: Read Part I here.


Benazir was not so much a leader as a celebrity, a glamorous woman who refracted her father's populist slogans to the impoverished masses.

The government is offering compensation for the homes and businesses damaged in the vandalism after Benazir's death in all provinces except Sindh.

The War on Terror has given nations world wide the license to purge opposition and civil resistance.

The Emergency Times weblog illustrates the e-savvy of young Pakistani women in how they use cutting edge new media to reach out to a world audience.