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Many young feminists in Pakistan aren't in touch with the forebears of the movement. HERstory aims to change that

Passion and anger

New project sheds light on Pakistan’s lesser known feminist history

By Sanam Maher on July 14, 2015

It had been there for decades  — a red, blue and white flag unfurling in the wind, an unwanted blot in the sky for many who walked under it. And then, in the blink of an eye, it was gone, removed by a woman who heard the calls for the flag’s removal and decided to do it herself.

This is not the story of Bree Newsome, but instead, of Fatima Sughra. In 1947, Fatima, then a 14-year-old girl living in Lahore (in undivided India) pulled down the Union Jack from the Punjab Civil Secretariat Building and replaced it with the emblem of the Muslim League, the political party fighting for the creation of Pakistan and freedom from British rulers in the Indian subcontinent at the time.

But while Bree Newsome’s name may be familiar to many young women in Pakistan, Fatima Sughra’s is known to a handful, relegated to a time when hashtags did not commemorate heroes. Sana Saleem and Ghausia Rashid Salam, two Karachi-based women, are hoping to change that. HERstory, an online record of Pakistan’s feminist legacy, is a collection of oral histories the two women have been collecting for eight months, since an intern they worked with elsewhere mentioned she had no clue about Pakistan’s feminist movement.

“Young Pakistani feminists are embracing The Second Sex, A Room of One’s Own, and The Yellow Wallpaper, but ask them about Fahmida Riaz’s beautiful Chador Aur Chaar Devari (Four Walls and a Black Veil) or the poem by Kishwar Naheed that is affectionately referred to as a women’s anthem among feminists, and you get blank stares,” Sana and Ghausia explain.

The two are close in age — Sana just turned 28, and Ghausia is 25– but their encounters with Pakistan women’s rights activists is markedly different. An avid reader and freelance journalist, Sana had heard the names of many of these activists. “When I started going to protests at a young age — I was still a medical student at the time — it opened up a world to me of people who had been in activism since the 1970s and 1980s,” she explains. During the 2007 lawyers’ movement against army chief-turned-president Pervez Musharraf, Sana found a community of women’s activists eager to welcome younger women into the fold — the second day after she met these women, she was already planning further protests and marches against the regime with them.

Meanwhile Ghausia, who started her career in journalism before moving to advocacy and human rights work, is quick to admit that she lived “in a privileged bubble” up until three years ago. “A friend of mine is a member of the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) rights organization,” Ghausia explains. “She would tell me about her WAF meetings and throw around the names of women who were part of the group. Because I idolized this friend, I didn’t want her to know that I had no idea who she was talking about.” Ghausia would scribble down these names and search for them online. “I realized that I had been going on about Sylvia Plath when there was a part of my heritage, my legacy as a woman in Pakistan that I knew nothing about.” Today, as part of HERstory, Ghausia has interviewed many of the women whose names she would surreptitiously write down.

Both young women want to fill in the blanks in textbooks regarding the rich history of female activism in Pakistan, one that is often sidelined in order to tell the stories of male political leaders and freedom fighters. “I learned about Fatima Jinnah only as the sacrificing sister of the father of our nation, Mohammad Ali Jinnah,” Ghausia explains. “According to our textbooks, she didn’t live her own life — she was just one man’s sister, not a political leader who went against a military ruler.” Women’s Action Forum and other women’s rights organizations have not maintained archives, and information online is scant with almost no first-person accounts of the fight for women’s rights. “I realized that many people would only find out about these women if they read their obituaries,” Sana explains.

The video interviews featured on the site lay the foundation of women’s activism in Pakistan, tracing the moment when many of the women interviewed were spurred to action. In one interview, Hilda Saeed, a microbiologist and activist, recounts the day in 1981 when she truly grasped the extent to which the Hudood Ordinances, a set of laws pushed through in 1979 by military dictator General Zia ul Haq that criminalized adultery and non-marital sex (including rape), would affect men and women in Pakistan. An 18-year-old woman, Fehmida was sentenced to 100 lashes in public, while the man she had eloped with against her parent’s wishes, Allah Bux, would be stoned to death per the 1979 ordinance.

When Hilda and her compatriots were told by every government official they appealed to that “we cannot do anything to counter this,” they decided to form the Women’s Action Forum as a pressure group and hired a lawyer to plead Fehmida’s case. “I never thought of our work as feminism,” explains another of HERstory’s interviewees Mahnaz Rehman. “It was social revolution.”

Many of the women interviewed speak of two pivotal emotions driving their involvement in activism: jazba (passion) and ghussa (anger). It was this rage that brought the women in droves, their children by their side, to marches and protests. For Ghausia, these interviews were a powerful reminder of the strides that women have made. “Girls my age spend their twenties crushing over some boy or fretting about a teacher who is being mean,” she explains. “We don’t realize we are privileged, entitled brats. At our age, the women I interviewed were getting tear gassed and baton charged.” She says her meetings also left her humbled, painfully aware of her generation’s apathy. “I think my biggest fear during the interviews was that these women would ask me how I am politically active and any cause that I am involved in, and I would have to reply, ‘I’m not.’”

On the other hand, Sana uses these interviews to counter a complaint leveled at activists her age: if women have been fighting discriminatory legislation and heinous crimes such as ‘honor’ killings in Pakistan for decades, they don’t seem to have achieved very much. “I tell these critics that today, girls can attend a protest or a march whereas a few decades ago, they might not have enjoyed that freedom,” Sana explains. “I am a medical student, a freelance journalist and I run my own organization – had these women not fought for their rights, would I still have these liberties today?”

HERstory also counters the criticism of feminism as a ‘western concept,’ an import that does not respect cultural and religious traditions in Pakistan. “I grew up learning about Hazrat Zainab, the granddaughter of the prophet Muhammad, and how she always confronted authority, so feminism was never a new concept,” explains Farhat Parveen, whose organization NOW Communities focuses on labor and women’s issues.

Sana and Ghausia’s interviews are deliberately low-fi, recorded in spaces where the women felt the most comfortable. “There was no script, no fancy production values,” says Sana. “We wanted to show these women as ordinary people – they are not larger-than-life, and their actions were extraordinary because they reacted to the circumstances they were faced with.” The key message the interviews hope to put across, she says, is that feminism isn’t “extraordinary,” but part of our everyday lives.

Of course, HERstory also grapples with funding issues, and so, sleek production values just weren’t an option. Sana owns the camera used to film the interviews, and she pooled money together with Ghausia to buy the microphone they used to record audio. In many cases, the two traveled to interviews in rickshaws or begged friends for a ride. In one instance, the woman they were interviewing offered to drive them to her house.

Sana and Ghausia plan to take these videos to schools and colleges across the country. With a recording option available via the HERstory site, they hope that young women will come forward to record their stories, and the stories of the generations before them. “Our goal is for people to realize that feminism isn’t a plague,” Sana says. “It’s not a disease and it doesn’t mean that no man will ever want you.” A message they received from one viewer perhaps indicates that this goal isn’t too far off. “Can I volunteer with the Women’s Action Forum?” this viewer asked. “Do these women still have meetings?”

Sanam Maher is a Karachi-based journalist and tweets @SanamMKhi.