Private Portraits: An Exercise in Visibility

Private Portraits: An Exercise in Visibility

Rafia Zakaria: Private Portraits – An Exercise in Visibility

This is the sixth post in Rafia Zakaria?s series at Dissent, ?Private Portraits: A Pakistan Diary.? Read the previous post here.

Somewhere around the center of Karachi is a white mausoleum for Pakistan?s founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Its convex dome, set atop a square marble building, is a national landmark. Adjacent to it is the Bagh-e-Jinnah (Garden of Jinnah). It was on her way here that the former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, and her convoy were attacked by a suicide bomber in October 2007, two months before her assassination. It is a symbolic spot, and Pakistan?s political parties regularly select it as a site for displaying their political muscle: they stake their flags here, and they make their promises to the masses here.

This past Sunday, February 19, 2012, something new happened at Bagh-e-Jinnah. Women, hundreds of thousands (by some estimates close to a million) of them, poured into the park. They came from all the nooks and crannies of Karachi, from the fetid slums where sewage gushes between tiny hovels, from cramped apartments in teeming suburbs, from stately mansions by the sea. They came in black burkas, some with full face veils, in jeans and t-shirts, in bright-flowered shalwar kameez, toting babies and bespectacled grandmothers. They came for a women-only rally organized by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the party that controls the city and represents what is now the fourth generation of migrants who arrived from India at Partition in 1947. The women came in such great numbers that the BBC declared the rally to be the largest congregation of women ever organized in the world.

Preparations for the rally had begun weeks in advance. On the day itself MQM party workers organized buses that would bring women to the rally site from all parts of the city. Older women in neighborhoods convinced reluctant parents to send young girls normally never permitted to attend political events; reassurance that it was a women-only affair went a long way in getting girls out. At the site itself, attendees encountered hundreds of volunteers, all women, alert and ready to provide first aid, to locate misplaced purses, and to ensure that everything went smoothly. After the speeches and promises by various party leaders, enacted before a stage that proclaimed ?Empowered Women: Strong Pakistan,? there was music. When it began, a veritable sea of women, stretching as far as the eye could see, sang and danced along as fireworks lit up the sky.

Women are everywhere in Karachi: they ply the streets; they drive cars; they work as doctors, as shop girls, as journalists, and as maids. Despite this, they remain politically invisible. Military dictators and spineless governments have all helped to harass women out of the public sphere, to treat them as nothing but indicators of honor. As Altaf Hussain, the leader of the MQM, said in his speech, women in Pakistan are ?treated worse than animals.?

As with any event, this rally came with its caveats. The MQM has, over the years, been accused of running land mafias and being involved in a grisly series of targeted killings that felled its political opponents. Internecine warfare by Karachi?s majority Muhajirs against migrant Pashtuns (who make the largest chunk of new migrants to Karachi and who threaten to overturn MQM?s power) often shuts down the city for days. Skeptics could find more faults, point to many other instances of thuggery, and descend into the pool of self-pity that is never far off.

It is not despite all these reasons but because of them that a rally that safely provided hundreds of thousands of Pakistani women a venue for political expression was so groundbreaking. The talk was not about America or the NATO supply route or the foreign bank accounts of the prime minister or the president, but about the need for respect, honor, and recognition. The gift to Pakistani women was not a trite promise of change, but immediate visibility and the realization that the struggles of one woman are in fact that struggles of many. The euphoria of crowds is contagious?and Pakistani women bearing the burden of a flailing economy and rising fundamentalism needed a dose of just that.

In the upcoming months, Pakistani voters will be courted by a variety of political parties whose messages will revolve predictably around their misgivings about the United States, the corruption of current leaders, and other assorted gripes. The MQM rally allowed women to finally begin asking questions that relate to their own lives: about harassment, honor killings, participation in the workforce, and claiming political space. It allowed them to say to the rest of the country, to the mullahs who held an all-male rally in the same spot exactly one week ago, that if they want women?s votes, they must first answer women?s questions.

Read the seventh post: ?Our Camping Trip to Abbottabad?