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).
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