25 years of WAF
Posted by Taimur Rahman on June 4, 2006
Published in The Post 04/06/2006
I was eight years old but I distinctly remember holding my mother’s little finger while we marched in a protest called by the Women’s Action Forum against the Hudood Laws enforced by General Ziaul Haq. I was too young then to really understand the politics of what was going on but I do remember thinking to myself, “I must defend my mother against the police. I’m old enough now.” However, when the police came charging at the WAF demonstration I was overwhelmed with fear. As the police baton charged the women who were demonstrating for equality, I gasped with wonder at how all the women fought without any kind of fear, often charging into a volley of lathis. This profound experience politicised me. Later when I was sitting in front of a TV screen watching a speech by General Ziaul Haq I asked, “Ma, what is Martial law?” She replied, “Martial Law is the worst thing that can happen to a country. It means that the country is under a dictatorship and the people have no rights.” That was 25 years ago. Things haven’t changed much.
This year will mark the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) — Pakistan’s only feminist movement to date. Of course there was the All Pakistan Women’s Association (APWA) long before WAF emerged, but APWA not only lacked the radicalism that was gripping the young in the late 1960s, it was also not “feminist” but merely an “association of women”. The association with feminism of WAF implied an attempt to develop a new way, or, more accurately, a non-male-centric way of looking at the world. It implied the development of the concept of ‘patriarchy’ and the struggle against it. The high point of WAF began in 1983 when the first demonstration against the Safia Bibi case was launched. Safia, a blind girl, was gang raped, but since she could not identify her rapists she was charged under the Hudood laws for Zina. WAF’s signature campaign, protests, letter writing, and public campaign forced the Shariat Court to back down. Later the same year WAF protested against the newly pronounced Islamic law of evidence. In the general political situation of the time, the MRD had launched its second massive agitation against military dictatorship and the Ansari Commission, under the rhetoric of Islam, suggested the banning of women from holding high public office (Prime Minister or President) in addition to barring women below age 50 to participate in elections — clearly aimed at Benazir Bhutto. This small but vocal and militant demonstration against the law of evidence was lathi charged by the police, sending shock waves all around the world at the sight of women being beaten on the streets of Pakistan. Women were carted off to the police station under section 144 (that infamous British colonial law), although released soon after.
WAF, shooting into the limelight in the struggle against military dictatorship, instantaneously became ‘a movement’ with all the associated problems, dilemmas, and ironies that accompany success. There were questions of direction, strategy, tactics and democracy. “Should WAF be political or apolitical?” “Should WAF transform into a mass organization or remain a small ideologically clear pressure group?” “Should WAF challenge the religious right on the ideological territory of the right-wing Islamists or should it remain entirely secular?” These and so many other issues were hotly contested and at one point WAF split into two organizations: WAF and WAF (National). Despite these differences, sometimes acute and sharp differences, WAF continued its journey until the arrival of NGOs.
One would have thought that foreign funding would have transformed this small organization into a massive conglomerate but unfortunately the impact was the opposite. The movement splintered into dozens of teeny tiny organizations that continue to speak in the name of women’s rights or feminism from their individual platforms. In fact, it would be no exaggeration to say that the public image of NGOs in Pakistan is largely associated with the original group of WAF. Although the fissiparous tendencies within WAF could, in fact should, have found a creative synthesis with each organization specializing in a specific aspect of women’s rights while operating collectively under the larger banner of WAF, this was not to happen. Ironically, the Joint Action Committee (JAC) is today composed almost entirely of the same group of old WAFers, and to some extent has assumed the role of the larger umbrella organization, but JAC simply does not have the necessary cohesiveness to be anything more effective than a sounding platform. However, it would be unfair to conclude from this final result that the WAF experiment was entirely a failure. Nearly all the founding members of WAF can easily be identified as leading lights in their respective diverse fields that range from education, law, business, arts, research, and literature to name a few. The fact that these women have excelled to the top of their fields in an otherwise male dominated society is a tribute to the continuing spirit of the jute-bag carrying hippie WAFers of the 1980s.
They say history is the version of events written by the victor. Once in a while, other voices can also be heard if one concentrates carefully enough. Rumour has it that old WAFers are getting together on the silver anniversary of the organization to celebrate/remember the contribution of the movement towards women’s emancipation. This event could be an opportunity for a new generation to learn an aspect of our history from a viewpoint other than that of the victor. Given the continued influence of religious extremism, the relevance of the struggle for women’s equality, and the need to eradicate discriminatory laws against women, minorities, and oppressed people in this country, the best contribution this Silver Jubilee can make is to pass the torch to another generation of activists and intellectuals yearning for freedom and equality.
Since women today face the same problems as they did 25 years ago, it seems appropriate to say that ‘the more things change, the more they remain the same’. Despite this superficial observation, the world has changed so much since the ‘heady days’ of the struggle for democracy that every movement, save the Islamists, finds itself hard-pressed to pass the baton to the next generation, not to mention the fact that people find it emotionally difficult to let go of an organization that was such a vital part of their youth. Nonetheless, the Women’s Action Forum will only have lasting significance in the longer view of history if it can lay claim to a generational continuity.
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