Pakistani Conundrum: Public, Private, and Female

Pakistani Conundrum: Public, Private, and Female

On my way back from the bakery, which was closing early because of the rally scheduled that afternoon, a car full of women pulled up in front of mine. Like many other vehicles weaving through Karachi’s dusty streets, it was an old hatchback from the eighties, patched and primped into longevity. Inside were teenagers holding out tricolor flags from the open windows. On their wrists were glass bangles in red, green, and white, colors of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement that has controlled Karachi politically since the car was new, since before the young women were born.

That evening, the rally, held at the Bagh-e-Jinnah, a huge park surrounding the white mausoleum of Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, drew thousands of women—young and not so young. Not all were as brazen as those in the car or had their faces and arms uncovered; many wore burkas or headscarves or chadors that cocooned their bodies against the open air. The MQM’s white-clad volunteers could be seen filing in and out of the orderly queues, directing women to tents providing water, refreshments, bangles, and even tricolor wraps for those nipped by the chill of the February evening.

The banner behind the stage cried out “Ba’ikhtiar Aurat: Mazboot Pakistan” (“Empowered Women: Strong Pakistan”). Many of the speakers were also women, representatives of the MQM serving in Parliament in Islamabad, elected from Karachi. They spoke of equality and freedom, of making workplaces safe for women, of the strong role of women within their party. The highlight of the evening, as it is for all MQM rallies, was an address by the party’s founder, Altaf Hussain, who lives in exile in London. Via satellite, the man known for his rhetorical theatrics spoke about the history of women in the party. He spoke of how it was the women of the party who rose to the challenge when the male leadership was jailed by General Zia-ul-Haq’s military regime, of the women who had buried sons and husbands and withstood the terror of police brutality in the ethnic war of the early nineties. He ended not with the past but with the present, the crucial necessity of ending discrimination against women, of enforcing legislation that provided them with protection in the public sphere, a stop to honor killings, a route for ensuring that women could be truly free to marry whom they wished.

Hundreds of thousands listened in rapt attention. Originally formed to represent the refugee Indian Muslims who migrated to Pakistan at Partition, the MQM has over the past decade tried hard to escape the taint of being an “ethnic party” limited to Karachi and unable to develop a national platform. The rally, its call for women’s rights, its open courting of urban women used mostly to those wishing to shut them out of the political and the public, was part of this attempt. When the speeches ended, the music began. Female folksingers took to the stage, women in burkas and jeans swayed in the crowd. The subversive message was clear in the songs and those who sang them, the girl children of refugees claiming belonging to the land by singing songs in the local Sindhi dialect of a heritage that had for too long conspired to exclude them.

THE MQM is not the only party that has a message for women in Pakistan. Two weeks after the rally, on International Women’s Day, the Jamaat-e-Islami, one of Pakistan’s oldest and most powerful Islamist parties, also held an event, a seminar, for women only. All the speakers were women, wearing not only burkas but niqabs or face veils. The several hundred women who sat in the crowd were dressed similarly, in the polyester coats and headscarves and veils that can now be bought at any market in Karachi. It was not yet hot, and the layers worn indoors were less challenging than they would be in a few weeks, when rising temperatures would make them nylon ovens.

The event was organized by the Women and Family Commission of the Jamaat-e-Islami, which operates under the leadership of its secretary general, Dr. Rukhsana Jabeen. There were seven or eight speakers, and each counted down a litany of human rights violations: the stories of bereft mothers in Bajaur whose babies were killed by U.S. drone attacks; the grim existence of widows in Baluchistan who roamed craggy plains in search of shelter after their men and boys were carried away by the Pakistani military. The issues were familiar: a catalogue of the abuses all Pakistanis watch, aghast, stunned, and more than a little confused, on news broadcasts morning and night. The angles, however, were deliberate; political issues framed from the perspective of mothers, daughters, sisters, and wives, all suffering because others—the Pakistani state, the Pakistani military or Western imperialist powers—had failed them.

In her Women’s Day address, Jabeen used the occasion to make a pointed attack on the women’s movement as conceptualized by secular forces. March 8, she emphasized, had been selected by the United Nations. That transnational organization, like so many others, she charged, had for years piled resolutions and conferences atop each other, using up millions and millions of dollars. Yet, despite the expenditures and promises, the condition of women in Pakistan and elsewhere in the developing world remained reprehensible. Acid attacks, female infanticide, forced marriages all continued, even flourished, and women were driven to sell their bodies, abandon their children, and subject themselves to the ignominies of a patriarchal world that failed to respect them.

According to the Jamaat, the answer to all of the failures enumerated by Jabeen lies in Islam and a return to enforcing the rights it provides women and the duties it imposes upon men. If the proper rules of conduct and responsibility were enforced in the home and the family and a true Islamic society achieved, none of these problems would exist. Under such a system, men would have to ensure that their wives and children were cared for, that archaic tribal and cultural customs did not take away women’s Islamically provided rights to own property, and that foreign forces would not be permitted to rape and pillage the country’s resources. In such a world, where the society envisioned by the Quran and Sunnah was realized, women would be protected and empowered, and a force higher than the trite constructions of organizations such as the United Nations would be in charge.


Pakistan and Pakistani women stand at the cusp of change, where the boundaries between the public and private are challenged by an urbanization whose rates have nearly doubled in recent years, economic pressures, and cultural change. It is a nation anxious about the future before it and nostalgic about an idealized past behind it. You can never forget that you are a woman in Pakistan, not when you are getting on a bus, eating at a restaurant, studying at a university or simply walking along a city street. Yet gender identity, or the idea of making decisions as a woman first, rarely operates alone. It is always in tension as well as collusion with other identities, ethnicity in the case of the MQM, religion for the women of the Jamaat-e-Islami. The popularity of one over the other, then, perhaps depends on how well forms of activism can best ally with the experience of being a woman in Pakistan, can best explain choices in a way that provides women with more meaning or power than gender alone.

The MQM, an urban political party, is trying hard to provide some assurances about the future, focusing on the women forced by economic necessity or the quest for education into the public sphere. Their assurances, the promises to enforce laws against harassment and discrimination, punish the perpetrators of honor crimes and acid attacks, or crack down on tribal jirgas that treat women like chattel, are geared toward making the public sphere safer, more equal, and less menacing.

The MQM’s solution for the muddied boundaries between the feminine sphere of home and the male sphere of the world is to make the latter, like the transformed park around the Founder’s mausoleum, a space that welcomes women. In Karachi, which is uncontested MQM territory, the rally was a political statement of what MQM has to offer, a public space made safe by the power the organization can command. The national message to women watching on television in other parts of Pakistan was also clear: we can transform the public, the threatening, the uninviting, and the harsh and make it safe, respectful, even fun. The women of Karachi, descended from the refugees who came decades ago or the millions of migrant women who arrived more recently, seem willing to consider the promise. Whether others elsewhere in Pakistan who see the MQM as an ethnic, Karachi-based party will do so remains to be seen.

The Jamaat-e-Islami’s vision, articulated by Rukhsana Jabeen and the other women within its ranks, relies on another strategy. Instead of making prescriptions for a reformed public sphere, its argument is to enforce the proper order in the private sphere such that it no longer pushes women onto city streets and unfriendly workplaces. If the MQM’s rhetoric is aimed at women who have already emerged into the public sphere, the Jamaat’s agenda is to deter those teetering at the edges. The middle-class housewife unhappy at her husband’s inability to provide properly for the household or the aging, unmarried sister whose brother complains about her inability to bring in an income are reassured by their divine right to be provided for by men who are in charge of them. Under this equation, the solution to a half-and-half society, neither truly Islamic nor truly modern, lies in choosing the former and enforcing with greater exactitude its rules and responsibilities. Then a safer public sphere would not be necessary. After all, if women were truly able to avail their rights in the private world of home and family, the Jamaat and other Islamists argue, they would not even wish to be in public world of men. If the MQM’s power lies in aligning ethnicity and gender, the Jamaat seeks to ally gender with religion, insisting that the combination of faith and gender will give women the power they are currently denied.


The discourse of the Jamaat-e-Islami and even the MQM’s women-only rally rests on other failures. When Pakistan was created sixty odd years ago, the vision of Pakistani womanhood, like that of the nation itself, was to be a hybrid between modernity and faith, tradition and progress. Women, or perhaps those who sought to organize or save them, did not see the need to ally with a claim to ethnic or religious identity to make a more equal or safer world for women. Indeed, this initial vision was a markedly and intentionally apolitical one, which saw work on women’s empowerment as a project best operating under rather than on the radar of a tumultuous political milieu.

In tune with this initial belief, the All Pakistan Women’s Association (APWA), both “non-partisan and non-political,” was established in 1949, by Begum Raana Liaquat Ali Khan, to “oversee, consolidate, and coordinate women’s activity for the social, cultural and economic empowerment of women.” Over the years, other organizations joined the fray, still seeing empowerment as social service. Money was raised in well-appointed drawing rooms, where educated women sipped tea and talked about the tragic lives of poverty-stricken others: the refugees from India still living in tents, the tribal women married at puberty and languishing in villages where their best hope for education was to learn a few verses of the Quran. More enterprising women of this “begum”* class opened schools and went into slums, as “social work” became the popular occupation for upper-class housewives yearning for a vocation.

This changed in the seventies and eighties, when the secession of East Pakistan and successive rounds of martial law piled atop one another over the carcass of democratic rule. The battle over a vision of the country and a vision of its women became so intertwined that the difference seemed barely perceptible. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a democratically elected prime minister, was executed, hanged in the dark of night in a prison cell in Rawalpindi. The general who ordered his execution wished to purify himself and the society before him, and the way to do it was through Islamization. This project of purifying a country that already had a limb hacked off to create Bangladesh pivoted on the regulation of women. The Zina and Hudood Ordinances of 1979 made those found guilty of adultery and fornication subject to flogging. The Qanoon-e-Shahadat (or law of testimony) reduced a female witness to half of a man.

These catastrophes brought activist women from the drawing rooms to the streets; they protested against the laws imposed by a military dictator, the use of women’s bodies as the terrain for political power. They belonged to educated families, liberal ones where money enabled an evasion of the more stringent mores of a middle class obsessed with respectability.

Its first failure lay in its inability to draw into its ranks women who still had to beg for permission to study in universities that were not segregated by gender or whose fathers, brothers, or husbands could not imagine them marching into the streets, let alone being charged by batons and tear gas. Its second was not being able to foresee that, from then on, gender would be a hyphenated issue, attached to religion or ethnicity, trying to harness the power of one or the other or in turn being used and exploited by it.


In the heart of crowded Karachi, two roads meet at an awkward T-shaped intersection that, like any other street in the city, is almost always riven with snarls of traffic. On either side are two establishments, the stories of which represent the contemporary reality of Pakistan. On the left is an old, one-story yellow building, with a chain-link shutter before its door. On weekdays, the shutter is open, but always only partially, as if uncertain about making any promises to those who may wish to venture inside. A small white sign affixed to the shutter says “APWA” in neat red letters. The office seems desolate, even abandoned, and if you walked by it, you probably would not wish to go inside.

Across the street is a restaurant called “The Village.” It is an outdoor place that boots up for business in the early evening, when the bedraggled fairy lights strung between poles are lit up. It opens every evening, and seems deserted every evening, save for two or three straggling tourists from some up-country locale. It was as he was on his way here to meet an informant that journalist Daniel Pearl was kidnapped. It was called The Village even then, and perhaps the crowdedness of the intersection made it seem safer than it was. After the Pearl murder, the restaurant shut down for a while, and then a few years later inexplicably opened up again, with even fewer clues as to how it stays in business.

The intersection of an abandoned women’s movement and a restaurant hosting terrorist rendezvous is heavy with symbolism: the past on one end, the present on the other; and unaware, oblivious Pakistanis coursing through the road in the middle, unsure of both.


Five years after Daniel Pearl was found dead thirty miles north of Karachi, and five years before the MQM rally in February 2012, a group of young girls from a conservative religious school in Islamabad did something that would illustrate the vexing intermeshing of religious extremism and women’s activism as it exists in post–War-on-Terror Pakistan.

In June 2007, several girls from Jamiah Hafsa, an all-female religious seminary located in Islamabad, got into a car after the last prayers of the day had concluded and the capital city settled in for the night. The women, dressed in black from head to toe, were on a mission. Through Islamabad’s quiet nighttime streets, they drove to a massage parlor whose location they had stalked out weeks earlier and rang the bell. When the door opened, they saw twenty-five Chinese women dressed only in their underwear and lounging on couches. Faced with the black-clad Jamiah Hafsa women, the occupants scattered, most trying to hide in the more remote rooms of the house. Five, however, were apprehended by the girls from the madrasah, wrapped up in shawls for modesty, and taken back to Jamiah Hafsa.

The kidnapped women remained at the madrasah for more than twenty-four hours, during which the flustered government of General Pervez Musharraf tried to appease irate Chinese officials. The act was the boldest of a campaign of moral vigilantism in which the girls of Jamiah Hafsa had been engaged for months; an effort, they stated, that was in response to the failure of the Pakistani government to safeguard the moral values of the society. To register their protest, the Jamiah Hafsa women, many toting large bamboo sticks known as lathis, often stood en masse on the street outside the institution. Months earlier, they had also occupied and then taken over an adjoining children’s library, run by the government, to further taunt the Pakistani state. Because the library was a public space, its occupation represented, in a very visible way, the women’s ability to take away something from the public as well the state, right in Pakistan’s capital city. The fact that it was a children’s library said even more, that the cultivation of the future generation belonged not to the government of Pakistan, but to the women of Jamiah Hafsa. The acts of the Jamiah Hafsa women set off a siege of the adjoining Red Mosque that lasted several months and ended with a storming of the compound by the Pakistani military, a decision that is credited for having instigated the eventual collapse of the Musharraf government later that same year. One leader, Abdul Rasheed Ghazi, was killed in the military operation along with seventy-two other people. Ghazi’s older brother, Abdul Aziz, was apprehended attempting to leave the besieged compound wearing a woman’s burka.

The women of Jamiah Hafsa—young, militant, and organized—demonstrated the ability of Islamist movements to penetrate women’s worlds and spur them to political action. The Islamist women of Jamiah Hafsa had employed a particular recipe for success. Cultural norms in Pakistan keep women in the private sphere by imposing costs on families that risk their honor by exposing their women to the vagaries of public life in education or employment. Allied with gender, religion became a counter argument to culture, and the objections of fathers and brothers could be overcome, because in this case the women’s leaving the private sphere was part of accomplishing their divine duty. As activists, they were doing the work of bringing about a more Islamic society, where the modesty of women, their role as mothers of the ummah (worldwide Islamic community) would be respected. Thus envisioned, they would be warriors, a role permitted by faith, if not by the patriarchal culture that surrounded them.


Islamists have also made incursions into the staunchest constituency of the NGO-based women’s movement, the drawing rooms of the elite. As Sadaf Ahmed has written in her book Transforming Faith: The Story of Al-Huda and Islamic Revivalism Among Urban Pakistani Women, the phenomenon of attracting elite Pakistani women into Islamist ranks is notable because of its reversal of the push of other pressures. Rich women entering the ranks of Al-Huda are not doing so because it gives them a reason to leave the private sphere; but rather are retreating from the public sphere and voluntarily embracing “seclusion” or “purdah” as an attempt to reinstate Islamic conduct within their homes. Large homes whose sprawling lawns sported mixed-gender gatherings where smuggled alcohol was served by turbaned waiters now host special prayers in the fasting month of Ramadan and feature speaking events where clerics from Mecca address women from behind a partition.

In penetrating the private sphere thus, Islamist-based discourse, in its alliance of gender with anti-imperialism, moral rectitude, and social acceptability, has enabled some women to enter the public sphere by using the argument that their presence in it is symptomatic of an insufficiently Islamic society failing to enforce rights and duties in the private sphere. On the other hand, elite women, using the post-feminist rhetoric of choice and of embracing seclusion voluntarily, are engaging in their own subversion of existing norms, attesting that the security of women lies in retaking the private, making the battle over the public redundant and irrelevant.


Around the end of January 2012, Maya Khan, the host of a popular morning show called Mornings with Maya, decided to take a camera crew into a Karachi park. The objective was to shame publicly the many couples that have begun to use public parks for dates and trysts. Prior to taking on the unaware lovers, Maya Khan, who herself wears a traditional shalwar kameez and does not cover her hair, interviewed a number of women, each of whom vehemently condemned the colonization of public space by these errant couples. On that day, as viewers across Pakistan watched, Khan, flanked by a small coterie of supporters and her camera crew, marched into a public park. On seeing the cameras, several couples fled, but one or two were cornered. The men appeared indignant, and the women, all of whom were in burkas, simply pulled down their niqabs before they could be exposed.

This spectacle set off a spirited debate, which exposed the ambiguous translation both of women wearing the veil and of the transformation of public space in Pakistan. Is the popularity of Maya Khan-style moral vigilantism a sign of growing antagonism toward men and women consorting publicly? Or could wearing the veil be termed a subversion of traditional forms, where women can take the moral purity attached to covering up and use it to facilitate encounters not possible without its anonymity?

The answers to these questions may be elusive, arbitrary, or both. Veiled women are everywhere on the streets of Karachi or Lahore, shopping in the crowded urban malls, they are dark triangles of black, gray, or beige, against the constant hum of traffic and concrete and power generators that patch holes in Pakistan’s errant electricity supply. Some tote children, others backpacks; some drive cars, others clamber on to buses. To watch their scurrying forms is to see the ambiguity of their future become as palpable as their anonymity. On an optimistic morning their feminine presence is itself a prognosis of change. Women who are temporarily in public until the private becomes a better place are nevertheless there, shoulder to shoulder with others who have no intention of ever returning to seclusion. On darker mornings, their nameless shadows and anonymous bodies portend something dismal, where the patriarchy of culture is merely being recalibrated in the language of faith.


Rafia Zakaria is a columnist for DAWN, Pakistan’s largest English newspaper. She is an attorney and human rights activist whose work and views have been featured in the New York Times, the Progressive, Guernica, Dissent, and on Al Jazeera English, the BBC, and National Public Radio. She is the author of Silence in Karachi, forthcoming from Beacon Press.

Anila Agha was born in Lahore, Pakistan. She completed her BFA from the National College of Art in Pakistan and her MFA from the University of North Texas. Her work focuses on the duality and contradictions of women’s existence and constraints on female creative expression.

Image: “Illuminated Inner Spaces I” Mixed Media on Paper, 30″x22″ Copyright 2005, Anila Quayyum Agha


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