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Author Archives: Dakshita Singh

One of "the bravest women in the world": an interview with Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena

There is never a dull day at Zubaan. If it’s not the discussions on the origins of water closets and showers or the age-old debate of ‘Tom-ay-to’ versus ‘Tom-ah-to’, there’s always chocolate runs and a constant stream of visitors – mailmen, writers, aspiring writers, activists, friends, interns and more mailmen – to keep things interesting. One of the most interesting aspects of working at Zubaan is the inspiring women we get to meet and interact with, who have been doing amazing work for the cause of women’s rights across South Asia.

So we recently had the privilege of a yum cashew-filled visit from Sri Lankan lawyer and human rights’ activist, Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena. Kishali has been associated with Zubaan Books in the capacity of an advisor and contributor for the Sexual Violence and Impunity project and its Sri Lanka volume. Her tireless work towards safeguarding civil liberties and outspoken criticism of human rights abuses in Sri Lanka, under a repressive state regime has led her to being acknowledged as one of the bravest women in the world.

And with the general elections in Sri Lanka around the corner in August, the eyes of the world are all trained on the island nation. So we decided to chat with her a bit about politics, women and activism in Sri Lanka. Kishali’s razor-sharp intelligence and vast knowledge base left us floored. Take a look at the conversation we had.

Kishali Pinto Jayawardena


Dakshita: Sri Lanka has the proud claim of having had the first ever female head-of-state in the world in Sirimavo Bandranaike (1960). Then her daughter, Chandrika Kumaratunga, became the first (and only) woman to be president of Sri Lanka in 1994. However, there has been a lull in the political scene vis-à-vis women’s participation in recent years. What, in your opinion, is the reason for that?


Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena: It’s like this – the appointments of Sirimavo and Chandrika – even though the two events signalled, technically, a first for women politicians, they have really not resulted in any discernible or any positive impact on the political process where women are concerned. Infact, Sri Lanka has one of the lowest rates of female representation in the region across all political assemblies from central to provincial to local. But the issues are not merely on numerical factors.  Where civil liberties and substantive issues of justice are concerned, in fact Bandranaike’s time signalled the first Southern insurrection (1971) where thousands of (Sinhalese) young people were killed. Kumaratunga’s period saw a clamping down of civil liberties, disappearances of Tamil civilians in the North and East, the fettering of the judiciary and assaults of editors and journalists. So both terms, even though, technically and theoretically they were firsts [for women] were troubling times for Sri Lanka. I have, in fact, long argued that the greatest steps taken backwards in terms of protecting the independence of democratic institutions, particularly the Sri Lankan Supreme Court, took place during Kumaratunga’s time. Her successor, Mahinda Rajapaksa only took this process forward to even greater degenerative depths.

And that’s the paradox. Particularly in the case of the political process, when women have achieved positions of leadership, there has been no filtering down or no impact really on the betterment of women as a whole or indeed for the betterment of the nation. And I think this [problem] is probably there in South Asia in general but Sri Lanka exemplifies it…really, really symbolises it.


D: But until very recently, there was talk of increasing political representation of women to 25% in all forms of local governments and provincial bodies within the purview of the proposed 20th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution. How is that debate faring?


KPJ: Well, the debate is still on…[it] is still very much in the public forum. The January 2015  government – the minority government of the UNP (United National Party) promised to do [electoral reforms] for their own party, at least giving nominations…to have a quota [for women] for the nominations. And that’s there…that’s quite visible. But the problem that I’m having with this is that as much as one would want to see that happen, the degradation of the political process in Sri Lanka has been so profound and so great that having a technical or theoretical quota for women and letting it rest at that is very problematic. What we’ve been seeing so far is that these positions get stuffed [filled up] by the relatives of the male politicians. So this is the problem with making the struggle for nominations or for the quota the be-all and end-all in itself. Because there is really no functional political process to speak of, you know.

And we have this pattern, very clearly seen over the last two decades or so, where you get powerful politicians, male politicians at the centre putting their nieces, their wives and their daughters in various posts. It’s quite visible in Sri Lanka probably because it is a small country and everybody knows everybody else, it’s very obvious. And while I don’t want to put this forward as a reason for not giving the quota at all, because that is not a good position to take! But one has to be cautious and one has to be mindful that this cannot stop there. And as we have seen in the past, women when they come into positions of power have proved to be no better than men and sometimes they have proved to be worse.


D: And what are your views on women’s participation in public life currently? These days one gets to read about Sri Lankan women making headway in various fields – aviation, IT, even business – fields that have so far been inaccessible to them.


KPJ: Well again, theoretically you have the numbers, in terms of not the political process, but you have the numbers of women in university life, in the judiciary, in public administration, in the media. But whether they exert significant influence on affairs or on the process is another question all together.

I would say that in the field of public commentary, for example during the Rajapaksa regime it was amusing that some (male) commentators remarked on the fact that the women were the boldest in speaking out, in other words, that it was women who had the ‘balls’ so to say! So from that perspective, in terms of opinion-making, women have had a visible role but in policy-making, I wouldn’t really say that there has been significant influence exerted.


D: Even reading through your work, one can see that you have always been a very uninhibited critic of the state especially on the issue of civil liberties. Which begs the question of whether you have ever feared censorship.


KPJ: No, absolutely not. I have never in any way…on a personal level I have never let that govern what I write. I’ve always said what I wanted to say very directly and for some reason or the other…probably because the government also wanted particular dissenting voices to be there to show to the world or to show to people that ‘we have so and so and so and so…’ – I have only been subjected to hate propaganda not to actual physical threats.

I can’t remember a point where I’ve ever constrained or censored myself. But of course you took risks knowing that particular consequences may follow.


D: But in the aftermath of the war, one reads of how dissent has become problematic in Sri Lanka. Most political discourse would like the world to concentrate on the more positive aspects of the rebuilding of the nation. Do you really think there are enough safe spaces to generate and express dissent?


KPJ: Oh absolutely. This is an interesting question, because even during the worst of the times there were spaces within which one could work and you could fashion out spaces which were safe, in that process. In a sense, there was a little bit more vigour then than now, because at that time you were very conscious of the dangers around you and you were pushing the boundaries fully conscious of that and there is a certain push that comes with that because you’re doing it knowing what may happen but you’re doing it nevertheless.

Now it is a little bit more complex…because on the face of it there are more spaces within which one can work and far more freedom as it were. But there is also a certain sense of, not exactly disillusionment but a certain sense of acknowledgement that we have really deteriorated to a large extent. And the extent of deterioration is being realised only now. You can see the extent to which institutions are run by corrupt men and women, including the law, where we have bribe-takers and one (alleged) rapist sitting in the judiciary! I mean these are not things Sri Lanka was comfortable or familiar with decades ago. So these are the realities now that one has to contend with.


D: Yes, it has been almost over half a decade since the civil conflict in Sri Lanka came to a pronounced end. And there is now, of course, the larger issue of examining the extent and impact of human rights violations and atrocities committed during the war. In this context, do you see the state working consciously to address and redress women’s issues?


KPJ: There’s a very significant lack of gender sensitivity in the making of policy, particularly in the issues of liberty and security – you find that lacuna very strongly evident. Sometimes the impression is that we are talking of Sri Lanka as a country that has had to contend with this war for 30 years. But the point is that the problem Sri Lanka has, really goes beyond the war. So we have had not only the Northern and the Eastern war, but we have had civil conflicts in other parts of the country, twice during the ’70s and the ’80s, where over 60000 or so young Sinhalese teenagers died – women and girls and boys. So coming from that there has been a complete militarisation of the country’s civic structures and civic processes, to the extent that emergency law has actually but replaced the normal law for many, many years – for decades. And of course the North-East conflict brutalised society; in the war terrain,the minority had to contend with high levels of state and non-state terror while in the South, life became perilous with constant fear and suspicion prevalent between communities. These are common effects of long drawn out conflict, I assume.

In that context, women have become really fragile and vulnerable. Post war many of these problems have not been really looked at. And the state has actually taken no special steps towards addressing that. So if you look at the post-war years, the issue of safety and the issue of security have become predominant…not only for women in the North and East but also women in the South, because there has been an overall brutalisation of the culture and the process.

So for example, over last 2-3 years, in particular, we have had increasing incidents of rape being reported from all parts of the country, because there has been a breakdown of law enforcement. And you do not see the state or the government reacting strongly, and in a focussed manner to address these issues. It has just become political rhetoric which everyone is tired of.


D: But there has always been the presence of a strong feminist voice in Sri Lanka, in stalwarts like Kumari Jayawardena, Malathi de Alwis, Sunila Abeyasekara, yourself and many, many more. Looking beyond the government’s apathy, how has the Sri Lankan populace reacted to women’s movements? How significant is the society’s attitude to women’s empowerment?


KPJ: At one level, women’s movements have not really been stigmatised or demonised as has been done to other movements like the human rights. You know you work on human rights in Sri Lanka and you are immediately demonised, so it’s like you’re this Western lackey... But the same hostility and the vituperative impact has not been seen with regard to women’s movements. The marginalisation of women has not been evidenced to that extent in Sri Lanka, because as you said, women ascending positions of significance and articulating authoritative views have never been strange to Sri Lankan public.

But that does not mean that women have not been oppressed; across classes…at all levels…there is oppression. There is the oppression of working women, oppression of professional women and there is oppression of those women who are….particularly those who are in very security conscious, militarised environments.

And again discussions on, say for example the legalisation of prostitution. It’s got so bound up in the false ideas of morality and what a Buddhist country should be like. ‘We should not have prostitutes…we are very moral…this is a country which has Theravada Buddhism.’ Such tying up of religious and moral values into this narrative has actually had the impact of marginalising women even more! There are very powerful forces when you talk of religion, you know, in a society like Sri Lanka. So that oppression comes at various levels…at societal, at legal and at….law enforcement, or administrative, government machinery, or bureaucracy, as the case may be.


D: While reading about the Sri Lankan civil war, I was fascinated by the kind of activism that was born as a result of the civil war. I learnt about the ‘Mothers Fronts’ – a peace effort – a distinctive convergence of women, across fault lines, who had lost their children to either death or worse, disappearance in war. Are these fronts still in existence or have different causes taken precedence? How is activism in present-day Sri Lanka shaping?


KPJ: The Mothers’ Fronts were a signal example of women coming together across racial and ethnic boundaries. And to my mind, it was actually one of the best achievements of activism that activist movements in Sri Lanka can talk of. Because that recognised the pain of mothers regardless of what area of the country they came from, you know. But unfortunately that movement was subverted by political forces and it ultimately faded away to nothingness at a point long years ago. And this politicisation of movements is a highly worrying factor in Sri Lanka. The inability of movements to stand up against irritants of all colours and all hues has been a persistent problem within the last 10-15 years.

So the nature of political movements that we see now in Sri Lanka, particularly after the defeat of the former president in January 2015…they have been very vibrant, very vocal…particularly the vernacular which was not so earlier, and I see that as a very good sign because earlier the movements and the activism was very confined to English-speaking [communities/circles]…to elites. But now, from January – or December onwards, that has been conducted more in the vernacular – both Sinhala and Tamil – interestingly and importantly. But the problem is that within a country where there are such fractured histories of political movements, subversion of political movements and the corrosive influence of politics, as it were, on activism….the problem I see now is how to sustain the momentum…in an intellectually rigorous manner, without letting that momentum fizzle out or deteriorate.

Because even though the government changed and though the president changed, the old problems still remain the same. And these are problems impacting directly on women. Like, for example, the issue of security. Like, for example the issue of democratic electoral process. You know enabling good women to come into politics. Who wants to enter politics? Because it’s so corrupt and so horrendous now! So these are institutional, systemic problems that remain with us even though there has been a change of political leadership.


D: And what are your views on the involvement of the Sri Lankan youth in facilitating the democratic process? Considering the fact that the generation that is coming of age has only experienced the war from a safe distance.


KPJ: You don’t have a generation right now in existence, in Sri Lanka, that has not experienced the war in any way at all. The generation that is coming of age has in fact seen the war, because the war ended only in 2009. The difference in us is that we have seen the war in all parts of the country and not only limited to the North and the East.

When I was studying in the Faculty of Law in Colombo and simultaneously involved in political journalism, I saw the unfolding of the second Southern insurrection along with the Northern war and its devastating impact on communities…that the young generation now has not seen. They have experienced only the Northern war as a distant…essentially a distant war…but resulting in bombs and calamities in the South, though not actual fighting in the South.

However, the reason why the government was defeated in January 2015, was in large part because of the young people and due to the social media, because they came out in numbers and said they wanted a change…and there was a lot of momentum around them…pressure…and I think the pressure is still there. You know, the significant contribution made by young people who are just attaining the age of voting is quite strong. And I see that continuing for the future as well, in a very positive way.


D: On that note, I’d like to shift the focus to you and your work…


KPJ: On a general level my work has to do with how systems and institutions in Sri Lanka have survived as a result of decades of degenerative political assaults and attacks and seeing how some core values can be fashioned out of this collapse. So my focus has primarily been that – legal institutions and legal process.

The work I have been doing for many years has focussed mainly on where the gaps in the systems have been…where the failures have been. So now seeing all that in perspective, and in a context where we don’t have authoritarian leadership anymore, seeing where we can build anew ….renew…and encouraging discussion and debate around those issues. And making people aware of the basic problem – that the issue with Sri Lanka is systemic impunity, it’s not to do with one political leader or one particular government or period. It is decades of impunity and insensitivity. So how to tackle that really and to engage in the rebuilding and renewing of Sri Lanka’s democratic process and institutions.


D: You have also been working as an advisor for Zubaan’s Sexual Violence and Impunity project. What kind of collaborations in women’s movements do you see forming, across South Asia?


KPJ: One major issue of collaboration is exactly this – sexual violence and state violence. And I think that really is a focal point…it should be a focal point! It’s extremely important and I think that right now the context that South Asia finds itself in, is very, very central to the discourse.

It is also looking at impunity from various aspects and identifying issues that are common across the region so that you understand that this is also part of a shared problem in the region and that it is not peculiar to a country, as it were. So I think that is really very important.


As told to Dakshita Singh. Title quote from Amnesty International.

ON TOPIC: As July splatters on

Women and Sports:


On the 'Runaways' revelations:


On Rihanna's 'Bitch Better Have My Money' video: 

  •  An interesting read on female music artists and the appropriation of violence in music videos like 'BBHMM' and 'Bad Blood'.
  • On why Rihanna's video is disturbingly misogynistic and why it is not.
  • On how the video is ultimately empowering in the context of Black Feminism. Here and here.


Meanwhile here in India:


Read on!


So a cup of coffee later, our conversation with Lala Rukh continues...where we talk about censorship, modern-day Pakistan and the death of activism.


Dakshita: Could you tell us about the kinds of events that transpired between ’81 till ’83?


Lala: We used to do all kinds of things. The two years before the big demonstration, there were all these issues coming up. Like I said the first protest was about the Pakistan Women’s Hockey team, we went to the airport and protested there. But that was a very initial one, humara experience bhi kuch nahi tha (We also didn’t have much experience). But I remember the political workers were also protesting, they were courting arrests and so on. People were tortured; I mean it was really bad martial law. So he (Zia-ul-Haq) had already done these things in the first few years.

From ’79 onwards he started changing school textbooks. I remember at that time one of my father’s friends used to work on the textbook board and once he came home for lunch and talked about what was going on. He told us “Har ek department mein maulvi bithaya gaya hai” (A maulvi has been appointed in every department), who would go through all texts. For instance there was one story about a letter. Matlab khat apni kahani suna raha hai, kaise us ko likha gaya aur lifaafe mein bandh kiya gaya, stamp lagayi aur phir daakia us ko ek ghar leke gaya aur usne ghanti bajai. Kisi ne darwaza khola (That a letter is narrating its story, the manner in which someone wrote inside it and then enclosed it in an envelope, how it was stamped and then the postman took it to a home where he rang the bell. And then somebody opened the door). So this maulvi said “You can’t have that, you have to say very clearly that a man opened the door!” (Laughs) The implication here was that it could be a letter written by a boy to a girl! And they were having none of that.

So we did a study on the impact of Zia-ul-Haq’s measures on education, film, also various aspects of media, ads etc. He effectively finished the film industry for a very long time. You couldn’t have women half-dressed on cinema hoardings. So what they would do was to put crosses on all of the parts of the body that would show skin — legs, arms…But there was no ban on men holding guns and things like that!


Shamini: You’d mentioned earlier that when you meet young people who think in a certain way, you know that they have read from the textbooks that were printed during Zia-ul-Haq’s time. Could you elaborate on that, in terms of whether it is still possible to locate that kind of thinking, is it common or are things changing?


L: Yeah things haven’t changed very much, you know? Because kids still have to go through those aspects of the curriculum, especially history which was entirely distorted but now they’re trying to change that slowly. Social studies bhi khatam ho gai thi (Social studies had been rendered obsolete). In place they introduced what was known as ‘Pakistan Studies’ and ‘Islamiyat’ which is mandatory all the way up to graduation. The kids that have come out of that education have actually been quite religious. I mean, we were secular people but our children are religious, because they’ve been through that education system. Although some things have changed and a lot of contradictory things are taking place now…On the one hand, you have globalization and exposure to all kinds of media but on the other side, you also have the Taliban types. So they’re somewhere in the middle and some do see that this kind of religious extremism is not acceptable. But if you end up in an argument with any of these kids, they will defend religion to death.


D: You had said that their basic idea was that Islam can be imposed by curtailing women’s freedom. So in terms of the censorship of women’s bodies what were the changes that took place? Was there an immediate change over to wearing burkhas or…?


L: No, not immediately. But he had imposed a dress-code. So if you were a government servant or especially if you were on television you had to cover your head. There was one woman that refused to wear a dupatta over her head, Mehtab Channa. She was an anchor person or newscaster and basically she just resigned over the issue and she was the only woman to do that. Everyone else covered their heads to save their jobs.


D: What about you and the members of WAF?


L: As you can see *pointing to photograph* (laughs).

October 1982: Lala (in front) at the national convention of the Women’s Action Forum in Lahore. Photograph by Lala Rukh.

October 1982: Lala (in front) at the national convention of the Women’s Action Forum in Lahore. Photograph by Lala Rukh.

D: So just to compare, around the same time in ’79, Iran also witnessed the Islamic Revolution when Khomeini came back and women completely lost any freedom…


L: Yes, in fact we would compare and say “ki inko dekho, inka toh kitna bura haal hai” (Look at them, their condition is a lot worse). Some women had come, not to meet us but for some government work, and they couldn’t even show both eyes, it was just one eye. It was that extreme! Now slowly things are changing and I think you can roam around in Iran with just a headscarf.


D: This is an interesting parallel, in that the coup [in Pakistan] and the revolution [in Iran] happened at the same time and in Iran things became really radical and extreme, whereas Pakistan showed serious resistance. Why do you think that is?


L: Geo-politics really makes a big impact. If you look at what was happening in Afghanistan at the time, the Russians had taken over. I don’t know if Zia-ul-Haq would’ve had such a long life if the Russians had not walked into Afghanistan. So, of course, America prolonged his political life, giving him full backing, arms, ammunition…you name it and he developed the Afghan Mujahideen [to counter the Soviet occupation]. These are the same people who’ve become the Taliban now, by the way, you know?

So such elements…obviously people were not very happy with Afghan refugees coming in, because that changed the whole nature of social structures. They’re much more conservative – the Afghans, especially the tribal pathaans – they’re very conservative. I think all of these radical changes were taking place at the time, and a lot of resistance was also building-up at the same time. Of course, we [WAF] were at the forefront, in the sense that we were the only ones who were organised and doing something.

On the question of why Islamisation was such a success in Iran…they had a revolution! Khomeini was brought back by people, which was not the case in Pakistan – here it was imposed. That’s the difference. And in fact in Pakistan we have never really had a conservative government. People just do not elect religious parties...they never have the majority.


S: You mentioned yesterday that some of the demonstrations that were held by WAF had huge support from men too — radical poets, artists etc., but that it was a conscious decision for it to be an only women’s demonstration. So where did you and these other left-wing men meet, where did you differ?


L: We mostly agreed on the whole issue of martial law and the issue of Islamization. But we believed, at least at the time that if you let men come into our space then they will take over. And then women don’t have that kind of confidence to push them out or express their ideas as much. So that was one of the major reasons to keep the men out. I mean c’mon, men don’t realize the kind of macho thinking they have unless you point it out to them. And then when you do, they get defensive. I mean they had never been challenged before and when we kept them out, they made jokes about us. They would call us WAFS or Wives or Waifs. (laughs) I mean they joked about it but I don’t think it came from a humorous place.


S: Yes, it sounds more passive-aggressive.


L: Yeah it was! And they felt threatened because it was a loss of control for them. I mean they were quite supportive but they loved to tell us what to do. And we wouldn’t let them! (laughs)


D: Do you see any parallels between the activism that happens in India and in Pakistan?


L: Both the Indian and Pakistani women were one of the first to start networking across the border. And because of us a lot of things started, we generated a kind of cross-border networking. But things have changed a lot now. People choose to go to conferences and seminars, things like this – which is true across world, I guess. And also I think this generation of activists are now all in senior positions. And the very nature of activism has changed, really.


D: Is WAF still active?


L: Not really. I mean what happens is that when democracy comes WAF becomes dormant. That sense of urgency is gone. But when Emergency (2007) happened we were the ones fighting at the forefront, holding up the men. 55 of us got arrested! And we were the ones to initiate any kind of serious challenge to the whole business of Talibanisation in Pakistan. And in the last Peoples Party government, a lot of our members in power and we had access to parliamentarians. In fact, they would as us, ask WAF for inputs when passing a proposed bill. So this is the kind of work that is being done more now than any street activism.


D: And do you regret the loss of this kind of activism in Pakistan?


L: Personally, I do. I mean those were very heady days. They were also dangerous but very, very heady. (laughs)


As told to Dakshita and Shamini Kothari


June 2015: Lala Rukh at the Zubaan office. Photograph by Shamini Kothari.

June 2015: Lala Rukh at the Zubaan office. Photograph by Shamini Kothari.

Newly returned from the 12th Sharjah Biennale, Pakistani artist and activist Lala Rukh came visiting the Zubaan office one hot, sunny day in June. Dressed in a Beatles’ t-shirt and denims with bangles jangling on both wrists, she walked in with a lively air and began telling us stories with her easy charm: stories that captivated us, had us spend the entire day listening to her. She talked to us about her art, her inspirations, and the heady days of activism in the ’80s as she walked us through her work – photographs, posters and paintings – giving us a visual sense of all that she has been part of, of history and of history-in-making…

As she narrated anecdote after anecdote, we began to get a sense of what life and oppression under Zia-ul-Haq’s regime was like, with its rhetoric of chaadar aur chaar diwari. We learnt about the beginnings of the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) and how the women’s rights movement in Pakistan blossomed through intrepid acts of resistance, to counter the violence faced at the hands of repressive state arms and rampant censorship of all forms of art and media. From singing in arrest vans to the iconic chaadar burning, Lala Rukh shared her experiences with equal parts nostalgia for her days of activism and irreverence for the system.

Thoroughly inspired, we decided to interview her so that we could share with you stories of her life, her art and her work!


Dakshita: Was there ever a particular point when you realized that you wanted to work for women’s rights, and made that a conscious decision?


Lala: I had been reading a lot of the feminist literature that was coming out at the time, in the late ’70s — a lot of radical feminist literature was coming out. And actually that was very, very powerful. If you had been through something like that, it could give you a different sort of emotional upheaval. And then I became involved with the inception of the Lahore chapter of the Women’s Action Forum.


D: Was it a spontaneous decision to start WAF?


L: Yeah, it was. It was actually after General Zia-ul-Haq enforced the anti-women Hadood ordinance. You know that in ’77 General Zia-ul-Haq overthrew the Bhutto government in a coup and imposed martial law in Pakistan. As part of the process of Islamisation, he enforced the Hadood Ordinance in 1979, to establish a system of justice in accordance with Islam. The most controversial aspects of the ordinance were the Zina and Qazf, under which there was no distinction between adultery and rape. If a woman reported rape, she had to produce witnesses for the same. And not just any ordinary witness, it had to be four adult male witnesses or the woman would be punished by stoning or public whipping, for the crime of adultery.

Of course nobody really considered what the implications were until the first case took place. It was known as the Fahmida-Allah Bakhsh case. With this first case under the Hadood, we realized that this can be really dangerous, you know? A woman exercising autonomy becomes a crime against the state! And now women were actually the ones that would get picked up and sent to jail on the basis of confession. If you even went and reported rape, and you were unable to produce four male Muslim eye witnesses then you were in for adultery. So when the first case happened, in Karachi, about four or five women decided to get together and discuss what the hell was going on!  And that is how it started.


D: Was this at the university? Were you studying together in Lahore?


L: No, no this was in Karachi, while I was teaching art at the Punjab University, in Lahore. And these were women who had been working as journalists, in theatre and so on. There was Najma Sadeque, Aban Marker and others. And two people from Lahore were there – Farida Shaheed and Farrukh Nigar Aziz – who then came back to Lahore and told us that some women from Karachi had decided to form uh, Women’s Action—I think Forum. And they called a big meeting of a lot of women and that’s when we decided that we would also start a Women’s Action Forum in Lahore, all on basis of that first case.


Shamini: What was the initial period like? As in, how did you know where to start, what to do, what to say?


L: Well you see, one of the things that the two women (Farida Shaheed and Farrukh Nigar Aziz) came back with, was a 13-point charter, very basic you know? Although it is still very much there, but we really didn’t have to say “Okay, now we’re going to do this or that,” because such events were taking place that it just galvanized more and more women.

First one, was the Pakistan Women’s Hockey team that was banned in 1981. So that got a lot of women very upset and more women came together. After that there was this, uh, Dr. Israar Ahmed, who was a mullah, who made statements like, all women should be sent home—pensioned off and sent home, women should not be seen on the streets, they should be covered and so on. Oh! And that they should not even answer the phones, because their voice could be enough provocation. I mean look at the power we have! (laughs) It was all quite ridiculous. And it angered all of us so we started a campaign (mostly through the press) against him and he was removed from the council of Islamic Ideology and his television programme was also removed — so we felt very powerful (laughs). And then almost immediately after that, we had our first National Convention when there were already three chapters. First Karachi, then Lahore and then Islamabad and a year later in, Peshawar. And so it was the 10th of October in ’81 that WAF started in Lahore.


S: So how did the older generation at the time — you parents, teachers — take to Zia-ul-Haq’s laws?


L: Nobody really agreed with them. I remember talking to the cleaning lady who would come to our house and told her that this is what he is saying, that your testimony alone will not be enough and she said, “How is that possible? Is he mad?!” So nobody was really in favour of all of his laws against women except of course the fundamentalists. And they’re still at it.


D: So then the majority chose to stay silent.


L: Yes, of course. I mean martial law is no joke, you know? Since Zia-ul-Haq came to power he banned all political parties, arrested all their leaders. There was no leadership to even start a movement. And he clamped down on a lot of liberties, so people were afraid. In fact he even publicly hanged two men — like a spectacle and it was all broadcast on television, live. So it immediately filled people with terror. But there were also quite a few people that had the courage to do things. Usne Bhutto (Z.A. Bhutto) ko arrest kara diya tha (He had had Bhutto arrested) and so Peoples Party (Pakistan Peoples Party/PPP) workers were coming out and a lot of them immolated themselves. But nothing really took off in a big way… these were isolated incidents here and there.

I think WAF was the only organization that was consolidated. We were very conscious of the fact that we didn’t have an office or a permanent space, we were just meeting here and there — in people’s homes and nobody could really catch us. So it was a very amorphous body. Anyone who came was a WAF member. But we were clear that we didn’t want any right wing elements to come in and take over. But because of the nature of the group there was a lot of difference in opinion, and especially with the chaadar burning (below), we got a lot of flak.

February 1983: Lala Rukh (far left) along with other members of the WAF burning their chaadars to protest the Islamisation under Zia-ul-Haq’s regime.  Photograph by Rahat Ali Dar

February 1983: Lala Rukh (far left) along with other members of the WAF burning their chaadars to protest the Islamisation under Zia-ul-Haq’s regime.
Photograph by Rahat Ali Dar

S: Why? What was the reaction?


L: Basically, they said “we don’t want people turning against us” and so on. I mean this kind of symbolism was very powerful, the burning of a chaadar and especially when the whole state’s vocabulary was ‘chadar aur chaar diwari’. And also people are conservative you know? You have all shades of opinion. But the funny thing was that I was sitting in one row and behind me were the other two women [from the protest] and they were wondering if we should confess because it was our little plot and I was like, “Shh! Chup kar ke sun lo (Shh! Let’s just listen quietly) Why should we confess?” (laughs)


Watch this space for more from the interview.



Presenting Part II of 'What We've Been Reading Lately' and hoping that we can make it a more regular feature.

What's on T.V.:


On trans-activism, trans and queer identities (internationally and in India):


On the Obergefell verdict:


Selfies and Sexism:


On Gender, Sexuality & Feminism:

Happy reading!

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