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'Women are the strongest critics of fundamentalism'

Feb 25, 2009

Pakistani social activist Khawar Mumtaz feels that religious extremism poses grave challenge to advancement of women. In an interview, she discusses various options available to women across borders to influence policy change and bring about lasting peace.

Khawar Mumtaz, a social activist, combines her interest in research with the insights of women at grassroots levels to provide inputs in policy formulation. She is also a founding member of the Women’s Action Forum (WAF), the leading platform for advocating women’s rights in Pakistan since 1981, and the founder-coordinator of Shirkat Gah, a women’s rights organisation.

khawar mumtaz

She was the secretary of the Pakistan NGO Forum, a coalition of over 2,500 organisations from across the country for four years. Khawar Mumtaz has a number of publications to her credit including a book she co-authored in 1987 - Women of Pakistan: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back? - which received the Prime Minister's Award.

She talks to Rajashri Dasgupta about the importance of resolving conflict and the role that women can and have played in bringing about a more just and equitable society.

Excerpts from the interview:

Rajashri Dasgupta: These are troubling times for the peoples of both Pakistan and India, with heightened jingoism and war-mongering. What has been the role of the people’s movement?

Khawar Mumtaz: Leaving aside the extremist and fundamentalist viewpoints, in mainstream Pakistan there are two points of view. One section is critical about how India responded to the terrorists who were non-State agents. Their criticism was about how the official channels in India seem to assume that the government and officials in Pakistan were involved.

Another point of view is that we should look at things as they are instead of being in denial. The terrorists - who are non-State elements – are equally harmful to us and come with impunity to Islamabad and burn down the main hotel (the Marriott). We have become hostage to them.

If we have very strong criticism coming at us from India, then people in Pakistan get further antagonised against India to the extent that one of the officials and an ex-general actually said that if India strikes at us, these people (terrorists) will be our allies. I think it will be disastrous if at any point these terrorist groups become our allies!

The constituency for peace may not be huge, but it is very strong, visible and articulate, as it is in India, and it is pushing its own government for peace. Even before the Mumbai incident, the government has from time to time vacillated and we have had major setbacks in our relationship with India. But, on the whole, we have been moving towards the peace process.

RD: Such as…?

KM: In Kashmir, India and Pakistan have made major headway. Pakistan stopped the training camps of terrorists, has facilitated the movement of people between the two Kashmirs across the line of control, and has allowed trade between the two regions. I think the movement of people and trade is very important and has the support of the people, except for a small minority. I call it a minority because the religious parties do not have a popular mandate or support in elections. But they have street power and militancy power and they also terrorise people.

Generally, people in Pakistan are curious about people in India, about the films and songs. This has revitalised the entire theatre culture. Culturally, there is a lot of exchange and meetings and appreciation for the people of India. Many cultural troupes from India have come to Pakistan and vice versa, which is a very healthy trend. 

RD: Is there a backlash against the government in Pakistan when it takes anti-terrorist measures?

There is a backlash in Pakistan and that is why the government moves very carefully. There is strong sentiment in Pakistan about how globally Pakistan is getting isolated, Muslims are being persecuted, are being besieged by forces in Afghanistan and by the international community, and are being pushed to the wall, and how the government is buckling down to Indian hegemony.

It’s the rhetoric and the campaign that make it more difficult for the Pakistan government to take strong action and justify this action to the people. 

The reaction is not from the people but from the terrorists who increase bomb attacks against government installations and schools. The terror tactic is basically to make civilians suffer, just like in Gaza and Palestine, and create so much collateral damage that people would just give up. That is what they hope. But people don’t give up.

RD: After the Mumbai attack, were there protest demonstrations against war with India?

There were a number of protest demonstrations in the cities stating that we want peace and to clearly define the real enemies. But the peace groups have been put on the defensive by the aggressive language and posturing on both sides of the border. When the prime minister in India postures, there is pressure on our prime minister to do counter-posturing.

RD: What is the role of women in the movement for peace?

KM: Women have been part of the peace movement for years. These movements started as urban movements and gradually spread to smaller towns and villages through social activists. It is the women who bring with them the desire for peace.

The women in the peace movements are strongly against the right-wing religious parties and the Taliban. They can see what a tremendously restrictive impact it will have on women. In fact, the effect is already being felt by women in Pakistan and therefore women there are the strongest and most vocal critics of the fundamentalist groups.

RD: Is the women’s movement led by a centralised organisation?

KM: The contemporary face of the women’s movement in Pakistan is the Women’s Action Forum (WAF). This is a national forum, and it is middle class and urban-based. It’s a platform, not legally registered, but recognised by the women’s movement. I am one of the founder members.

WAF has challenged sitting governments and was set up during Zia-ul Haq’s military rule; in fact, it was the first organised political protest against the military government. Not even the political parties had done this in the 1980s. 

Our main struggles started with discriminatory laws which we challenged within the political framework and we brought women into every political party manifesto. The movement tackles a wide spectrum of issues: structural, religious fundamentalism and laws based on religion. We succeeded in changing laws and policies. 

The Hudood Ordinance (on rape and adultery), for instance, has been amended to such an extent that it no longer has any teeth. There have been successes in the struggle, but it has taken 25 years of relentless agitation. The agitation for the political participation of women has been going on for 10 years. The campaign finally resulted in getting reserved seats for women. 

RD: Has the movement forged alliances with other struggles?

KM: The women’s movement does not have numbers but it has an influence and galvanising power. We have supported and been part of the lawyers’ movement, negotiated with political parties, met political leaders, and have struggled on the issue of peace with other groups. After the first 10 years, it has linked itself to and works with human rights movements and other social movements. 

RD: Has there been any pressure on women’s groups from religious parties?

KM: There has been a gender discourse between women’s rights activists, feminists and male religious groups in Pakistan. The point of discourse was with reference to the emergence of the first organised platform of women’s rights in Pakistan - the Women’s Action Forum (1981) - which challenged the obscurantist and questioned the validity of measures that had been introduced to curtail women’s rights in the name of Islam. WAF confronted the religious lobby (the maulvis), condemning their interpretations of Islam and rejecting their self-appointed role in defining women’s rights.

The reaction from the religious parties/groups was through the press. The print media at the time organised various debates on specific issues (like the new Islamic laws, women’s rights, political participation, etc), with women’s rights activists and male representatives of religious parties/individuals face to face. It is important to remember that the WAF was initiated by urban, middle-class professional women, while the men from religious groups/parties belonged to the lower middle class, first-generation- educated (mostly madrassa) strata. 

A few years later, in the mid-1980s, a vocal lobby of “fundamentalist” women emerged to debate issues. Their framework of women’s rights remained that of Islam, while WAF campaigned from the human rights platform. This debate continues in Pakistan through the print and electronic media, in parliament and various other forums.

KM: How do we restore confidence among people across borders?

We need to remind ourselves that it was women’s groups who reached out to each other when the two governments were not even on speaking terms.

In the late-1980s and 1990s, Pakistan had a military government, conducted nuclear testing and threatened it had a bomb and the two governments were not talking to each other. It was the women’s groups who met and found ways of meeting, of building bridges and alliances, keeping  in mind that governments will continue the hype, but the people-to-people contacts will have to continue on the basis of the belief that people do not want war despite what media barons keep telling us. 

We have to give space to saner voices. While we are critical of our own government, we also realise the bind it is in. The more pressure the United States puts on the Pakistan government, the more people tend to rally in favour of the government since the State is still important.

We are critical of our leadership, but it is very important that the process for the civil and political leadership continue rather than be replaced by the military.

If the political government is destabilised, the military makes a comeback. Since the civil government in Pakistan is very weak, we have not had any political continuity. Even when we are critical of our own government, we are aware that we cannot destabilise it to the point where it collapses and we have the military back. 

The author is an independent journalist based in Kolkata.

Source : Infochange
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