Loading the content... Loading depends on your connection speed!

Shopping Cart - Rs. 0

Tag Archives: Pakistan

On Topic: The March Review

Having just crossed the threshold into April, let’s look back at what March had to offer this year.

 

Since the month marks international women’s day on the 8th of March, why not start this blog with some stories on the social achievements for women’s lives that we have seen of late – and yes, there are a few worth mentioning.

On March 9th, the Lok Sabha passed the Maternity Benefits Bill. An amendment of the 1961 Maternity Benefit Act, this has now extended the period of paid maternity leave for mothers after the birth of their first two children from 12 to 26 weeks. On top of that, work environments with more than fifty employees, must now provide work-site crèche facilities for working mothers. Of course, as articles by The Ladies Finger and Hindustan Times rightfully point out, shortcomings are found to remain among this amended bill. Thus, while the ILO-recommended maternity leave time suggests a minimum of 14 weeks, the Maternity Benefits Bill sticks to its previous 12-week maternity leave for mothers after the birth of their third child. And while maternity leave for commissioning mothers is addressed by the bill, mother surrogates remain excluded. Most significant of all, perhaps, is the structural premise of the bill, whose parameters exclude women from the unorganized work sector. This means that the majority of working mothers currently will not benefit from this bill at all. Nonetheless, its gender-neutral language to include fathers for some of the principles laid out does indicate a tentatively changing perception for the significance of creating structural support for parents in the first few months after their children’s births.

Further on the note of births and motherhood, Telenaga’s new budget, announced on March 13th, now includes money-provision schemes for new mothers of Rs. 12,000 for the birth of a baby boy and Rs. 13,000 for the birth of a baby girl, provided that mothers give birth in government hospitals. In addition, so-called ‘KCR Kits’ have now been implemented, named after Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrashekar Rao. Drawing inspiration from other such incentives across Europe and India, including Tamil Nadu’s ‘Amma Kit’, the KCR Kit will provide sixteen vital items to new mothers and their new-born babies, including a cradle, diapers, mosquito nets and hygiene products for mother and child. Both can be seen as a structural incentive to increase birth-rates in institutional settings, in an attempt to further reduce the maternal mortality ratio (MMR) and infant mortality ratio (IMR).

Finally! The tax on sanitary pads has been removed in Delhi – at least for those sanitary napkins that cost below Rs. 20. All those priced higher will see a tax cut from 12.5 to 5 per cent. So although there has been an ongoing and important debate in India surrounding the hygienic and environmental consequences of using sanitary pads, this at least, demonstrates that women’s health and sanitation is regarded a necessity rather than a luxury in Delhi.

Some might argue that this can be seen also in the recent ‘toilet for all’ order, called for by the South Delhi Municipal Council (SDMC). Implemented on April 1st of this year, the policy has called upon all restaurants and hotels in South Delhi to open their washrooms to the public, in the hope that this will facilitate circumstances particularly for women. That the latter are indeed among the most vulnerable when it comes to lack of toiletry access is hardly surprising and was recently demonstrated by the Rohini rape case in Delhi. Two children girls were raped, while urinating in an open space, given that the washrooms in their area – even after continuous complaints by the community – were out of order.

However, the question remains whether this target group is indeed best served by the new sanitary policy; even beyond its obvious geographically isolated response. Thus, while the policy was met with much positive feedback from the South Delhi community, social exclusion does not surpass its implementation. In theory, of course, the toiletry facilities are open ‘for all’, where a maximum charge of Rs. 5 has been imposed in the assumption that people from all economic backgrounds can afford to make use of them. In reality, however, it is feared that many will be denied entry due to hotel and restaurant dress code policies and social-class shaming. This is not unwarranted, given that many restaurant owners are unhappy about these changes, citing increased security problems and chaos as a main reason for their stance against the policy. We are yet to see, therefore, how effective the ‘toilet for all’ order will play out in practice.

Gender and toiletry policies appear to be a popular topic among politicians at the start of this year. Embedded in these, we find Donald Trump’s attempted move in late February, to exclude transgender students from schools’ locker-rooms and bathrooms on the basis of their gender identification. Although this was met with vehement rejection by several courts, on the premise of being unconstitutional, this policy marked only the beginning in a series of discriminatory stances  towards LGBTQ people and their rights in the current US administration this month. One was the US Department of Health and Human Services’ elimination of questions about LGBT people on two recent health surveys. Another was Trump’s revocation of the Fair Pay and Safe Workplace Order, introduced by the Obama administration, and concerned with a series of anti-discrimination policies in workplaces. Now this has been trumped by the administration’s announcement that the 2020 Census would no longer include options of sexual orientation, thus numerically excluding transgender Americans from public spaces and policy evaluations. At least hope sweeps over from Pakistan, where the country is currently preparing for its 6th census, the first to take count of transgender people, albeit as a separate category.

Less hope comes from the current discussion and implementation of so-called ‘anti-Romeo squads’ in Uttar Pradesh. A central part of the BJP’s campaign in the lead-up to recent state elections, Yogi Adiyanath’s stepping into CM office, was soon followed by his dedication to actualize his campaign promises. Particularly prominent in Ghaziabad, these police-formed ‘anti-Romeo squads’ have taken to rounding up young men, particularly outside school and college campuses, under the guise of protecting women from unwanted harassment. In actuality, it is argued, the targeted youngsters are ordinarily partners of these very women, and ‘anti-Romeo squads’, as their name suggests, are more concerned with the moral policing of public spaces, than the protection of women. At a time, when young women living in PG’s are required to stay indoors during the festival of Holi, and are continuously faced with curfews, often exposing them to more rather than less dangers, one cannot help but sigh in frustration at the age-old narrative that women’s ‘beautiful souls’ must be protected at any cost, even, or rather especially, when this serves to infantilize them.

Indeed, this appears particularly curious, given the opposing narrative currently found in legislative politics, where women, sometimes feminazis are dedicated the role of schemers who are seeking revenge from men and former partners, by falsely accusing them of rape. At least this seems to be the metanarrative which underpins the ‘Challenge to Unconstitutional Provisions of Anti-Rape Law’, recently issued as a petition to the Delhi High Court by women’s activist Madhu Kishwar. It’s purpose: to challenge the rape law amendments of 2013, including the persecution of non-penal-vaginal offences and victim testimony as sufficient evidence under the premise that this lends itself to mis- and abuses. Co-signed by a man and a woman currently convicted under these very rape law amendments and argued for by Kapil Sibal – defence lawyer in the Mahmood Farooqi rape case, currently waiting for its appeal – it is difficult not to see the petition as political back-door scheming. One can only hope that the Delhi High Court recognizes this and leaves the case to rest – an outspoken stance against it might be too much to ask…?!

 

Indian-Pakistani, and other, conflicts

March has been marked by an increasing sense of instability with regards to Indian-Pakistani conflicts in several spheres. One of the most obvious spaces where this is played out remains, of course, Kashmir. Following on from previous months, March too has seen a number of deaths among civilians, where notably those among children and minors, continue to cause most protesting response. Two such cases, supposedly caused by stray bullets though this remains contested, have made the headlines this month: that of fifteen-year-old Amir Nazir, killed during a protest in southern Padgampora; and six- or seven-year-old Kaneeza, who was shot in her home in northern Kupwara.

Analysts argue that such incidents continue to be linked to what they regard to have been the ‘tipping point’ in the contemporary conflict between militant rebels and civilian protestors, and army officers in Indian-administered Kashmir: the killing of Burhan Wani, former leader of the Hizbul Mujahideen, in July 2016. Indeed a recent video  released by Wani’s successor, Zakir Rashid Bhat, which calls upon Kashmiri youth to fight for Islam can be seen as a rollover from Wani’s previous recruitment policies. Thus, known for his skilled use of social media, Wani – sometimes referred to as the ‘poster-boy’ of militancy in Kashmir – gained reputation for his ability to recruit youngsters. That this will only fuel fire in ongoing tensions between militants and the Indian army officials can be seen in the latest killing of two militants  and the arrest of twelve youths for their alleged involvement in stone-throwing protests, both occurring in Pulwama district last week.

Another sphere in which Indian-Pakistani relations have been tense, has been with regards to the Indus Waters Treaty of 1960. Following a series of terrorist attacks on India in the summer of 2016, in which the latter accused Pakistan of providing support to ‘infiltrators’, PM Modi had declared that ‘blood and water cannot flow together’ and suspended Permanent Indus Commission (PIC) talks, mandatorily held once in a fiscal, as laid out by the treaty. Together with India’s disputed building of hydroelectric power plants among Pakistani administered Western rivers, including the Kishanganga and Ratle hydroelectric plants, which Pakistan claims violate provisions of the treaty, water relations among the neighbouring states began to deteriorate. The PIC meeting last week, the first since 2015, can therefore be seen as a vital step in reopening dialogue on these issues and a symbolic attempt to smoothen grievances. Nonetheless, India’s pre-emptive declaration that there would be “no compromise” with regards to its full exploitation of treaty terms, and Pakistan’s continuous insistence that India’s planned projects deprive Pakistan of its due water rights under the treaty, may prove to make this difficult in practice. Given that it was World Water day on March 22nd, one can only hope that the two parties of the world’s most successful water treaty translate symbolic gestures into practice swiftly, as ‘water insecurity’ remains to be a dire reality for the daily lives of about 800 million people across the globe, including many of their respective citizens.

However, it should not go unacknowledged that there have been a number of voices, who have called for peaceful resolutions. Not only was it Pakistan, who initiated the current PIC talks earlier this month; Maulana Syed Athar Hussain Dehlavi, chairman of the Islamic body Anjumana Minhaj-e-Rasool, has also urged the Centre in Pakistan to reiterate the latter’s recognition that Jammu and Kashmir are integral parts of India, by passing a resolution and thereby reaffirming the government’s 1994 declaration. So far this has seen little reaction from the latter. However, on a cultural-legislative note, the Hindu Marriage Bill passed in Pakistan on March 11th can be seen as a tentative step towards a reconciliatory gesture.

Meanwhile, such incentives have, unfortunately, not seen much reciprocated attempts by India. Indeed, the recent appointment of Yogi Adityanath as Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister, for example, is feared to ignite Muslim-Hindu political and cultural conflict within the region. A Hindutva hardliner, Adityanath had previously declared that he was in favour of Trump’s highly controversial Musilm immigration ban, a stance he believes India should also take in its fight against terrorism. In the context of such exclusionary narratives, it is perhaps rather unsurprising that March 27th, for example, was marked by the killing of a suspected Pakistani ‘intruder’ who was shot dead by the BSF after crossing the Indian-Pakistani border at Punjab’s Gurdaspur. The identity of the deceased remains unknown, as eventual finding of his body revealed that the 21-year-old male, dressed in a pathani suit, carried no belongings, including an ID card or weapons. While it is not useful to conflate this incident with Adityanath’s earlier remarks or, of course, Trump’s policies in the US, it does illustrate that Indian, like other contemporary politics, appears to find itself amidst a sentiment of national(ist) nervousness, both embedded in, and fostering of, a perceived threat of ‘otherness’.

 

This was clearly illustrated also in Greater Noida last week. Following the incident of a missing 17-year-old boy, who was later found in a drug haze near his house, and who died due to a drug overdose on Monday, racial violence broke out in Greater Noida and continued well into the week. Accused of cannibalism and drug trafficking, Nigerian inhabitants in Greater Noida, most of them students at Sharad University, were attacked last Sunday and Monday night, as large mobs – as many as 1200 other Noida residents on Monday night – blamed them for the death of young Manish. Currently, six FIRs have been filed against suspected persecuters. However, the communal sphere remains tense, as Nigerian students are cautioned not to leave their house, unless escorted by police and the Office of the Dean of the African Group Head of Missions continues to stress that not enough was done by the New Delhi municipality and police to prevent and deter these xenophobic and racial attacks. In particular, the lack of response by PM Modi and UP’s CM Adityanath have caused much disappointment. That the current situation is merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of racialized and nationalist profiling and prejudice in the area, was also demonstrated by mass protests that broke out in Noida last Tuesday, following the tearing and binning of the Indian flag by a Chinese national, employed by the Oppo mobile phone company. Police registered a case against a Chinese employee, Kevin Suhahu, under Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, 1971, while the company reacted by firing one of its employees, though name and nationality have not been made public.

 

March at Zubaan

March has also been a busy month at Zubaan, much of which was dedicated to internship applications and interviews, and we are excited to welcome eight new interns to the team throughout the year, starting this week! Further, Zubaan’s current e-pub project, which is to release individual essays from some of Zubaan’s published books online, is now well under way. Thank you to all those taking the time to answer our survey! Your responses have now been analysed and the first online releases are set to appear during the summer later this year. Big thanks also go to the anonymous donator in support of our translations project! Last but certainly not least, March at Zubaan was filled with a series of new releases. And here they are: For academics, we have New Intimacies, Old Desires: Law, Culture and Queer Politics in Neoliberal Times (eds. Oishik Sircar and Dipika Jain), as well as A Passionate Life: Writings By and On Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay (eds. Ellen Carol Dubois and Vinay Lal), coming fresh off the printing press. For non-fiction, the new edition of From Cork to Calcutta: My Mother’s Story (by Milty Bose) and Watercolours: A Story from Auschwitz (by Lidia Ostałowska), were both released at the beginning of the month. Enjoy!

On Topic: War and Pieces

It’s nearly time to bring out your boots as October marks the beginning of autumn, with a slight chance of war on the horizon. Delhi is in high alert as a result of alleged surgical strikes on terrorist camps conducted by the Indian army across the Line of Control, while Pakistan’s government and media continue to deny that these surgical strikes even occurred.

Surprisingly, Indian political parties and media outlets have been united on the issue, nearly unanimously taking pro military-action stances – so much so that it appears that the country is in favour of an impending war against Pakistan. Some voices of reason, thankfully, still exist: prominent South Asian women journalists as well as people from both nations have spoken out against an outright war.

The threat of war has taken up so much screen time that it’s easy to forget that something is still rotten in the state of Kashmir. Parts of Kashmir are still under curfew, and the Kashmir Reader was forced to stop publication for disturbing the 'public tranquility'Kashmiri journalists are protesting this #mediagag.

The unlawful arrest and the subsequent detention of the human rights defender Khurram Parvez of Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Societies (JKCCS) has raised many concerns on the human rights narrative in Kashmir.

 

Meanwhile at Central University in Haryana, two teachers – Snehsata and Manoj Kumar – put together a play on ‘Draupadi’, the iconic short story by Bengali writer and activist Mahasweta Devi, which portrayed the injustices faced by Adivasi women. The two teachers are now facing backlash from the ABVP, who protested the performance, claiming that the play insulted the Indian Army.

In the national capital, the Delhi police are branching out and attempting to set up a proper cyber crime unit to help solve cases faster. Earlier this year, over 150 personnel from police stations across the city received a week long training on cybercrime and currently the cyber cell team of Delhi Police has 40 personnels.

The #PinjraTod (‘Break The Cage’) movement escalates in Delhi as LSR women recently face repeated instances of sexual harassment outside college gates and paying guest accommodations. In response to complaints made by the students at hostels and paying guest accommodations, PG owners and landlords have, rather than increasing security, resorted to imposing restrictions on women.

This is no recent phenomenon but merely the continuation of a long-standing tradition of victim blaming. In fact the call of ‘Pinjra Tod’ began in 2015 by a student’s collective (under the same name). Pinjra Tod have organised several marches for safety of women and the right to public space, demanded accountability from concerned universities, as well as safe, affordable and non gender discriminatory accommodation for women. The campaign has received support and sympathy from those across the border despite the turbulent times of the current political scenario.

Meanwhile, issues of gender inequality concerning college campuses persist across the country and the world. College-going girls in Tamil Nadu face regressive college rules that pose a threat to their mental health and career, while many universities in the US still fail to acknowledge the seriousness of the issue of campus safety and gender based violence. Emma Watson, the UN Women Ambassador, addressed the issue in her speech at the UN.

Nearly 6 million women all over Poland gathered to protest the Polish government’s plans to ban abortion and succeeded, a huge relief for women everywhere because you should never have to apologise for getting an abortion.

On the other side of the planet, Japanese politicians are heading in the right direction with the Kyushu Yamaguchi Work Life Promotion Campaign, where male governors wear ‘pregnancy’ vests to simulate the experience of a woman in the seventh month of her pregnancy. The campaign hopes to encourage Japanese men to help out at home (Japanese women do five times the housework that their husbands do) and engage men in the equal pay conversation.

 

During the PBST festival, Uma Tanuku and Anupama Chandra released their documentary The Books We Made, which attempts to trace the legacy of Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon’s work in feminist publishing. You can watch the trailer here.

This month’s On Topic would not be complete without mentioning the much talked about film Pink. Despite its relatively optimistic ending and Amitabh Bachchan’s male saviour complex (which is hard to ignore), Pink does an excellent job of portraying the modern working woman and nails the message that ‘No means No’. However, as a review on The Wire has mentioned, the film does not explore all the nuances of consent and the fact that while “men have to learn to take No”, “women also have to learn to say No.”

Parched arrived in Indian theatres a week after Pink, and has a similar focus on women. Yet unlike Pink, which was a courtroom drama, Parched is a female buddy film (that is reminiscent of Pan Nalin’s Angry Indian Goddesses) and received mixed reviews.

In spite of the progress made on the big screen, behind the scenes the film and television industry holds some ugly truths. Sonam Kapoor, in a rather candid essay, opens up about her experiences with body shaming and unrealistic beauty standards in the Bollywood industry.

Meanwhile, Tannishtha Chatterjee, the star of Parched, spoke out against her experience of bullying based on her dark skin on prime time television. The repeated jokes at the cost of her skin is very telling of the pervasive reality of class and caste discrimination and marginalisation. Not only are they ridiculed for their status, they are routinely ignored. Read this interesting piece of on the erasure of Dalit wisdom and this piece on what it means to be a Dalit woman.

 

In the world of books, the much coveted identity of the Italian author Elena Ferrante (pen name) has been outed by Claudio Gatti on New York Review of Books’ website. The disclosure of her identity has been cause for much discussion, her anonymity some argue is part and parcel of her artistic endeavours, and fans of the author fear she may never write again. As Dayna Tortorici writes in n+1: "It’s difficult to read a man’s attempt to “out” a writer who has said she would stop writing if she were ever identified as anything but an attempt to make her stop writing."

LALA FROM LAHORE - II

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

LALA FROM LAHORE - I

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.

 

Mobile version: Enabled