An interview with Ismat Shahjahan on the dynamics and contestations in Pakistan’s growing feminist movement.

Saba Gul Khattak

Ismat Shahjahan is the founding Federal President of Women’s Democratic Front (WDF), a Pakistan-based socialist-feminist collective. WDF’s activities include bringing together the progressive struggles of women across Pakistan through solidarity building along gender, class, and national liberation lines; organizing collective political resistance including through political education and art; solidarity with the wider left fraternity; and people’s relief campaigns in disasters, pandemics, and war. WDF is also the founder and main organizer of Aurat Azadi March [AAM – Women’s Emancipation March) and a co-organizer of Aurat March (AM – Women’s March).

Ismat has been involved in Left politics and progressive resistance movements for the past four decades. She comes from a Khudai Khidmatgar family from district Karak in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and started her political journey in 1983 with the Pakhtun Students Federation. In this interview, we discuss the dynamics of Pakistan’s growing feminist movement, the increasing securitization of feminist politics, and the potential of alliance building and feminist unity.

SGK: We have seen a resurgence of popular feminist politics in the last few years in Pakistan, especially with large Aurat Azadi March/Aurat March rallies held in most major cities. They have also faced significant aggression and belligerence from sections of the state and the Right. How do you view these developments in the larger horizon of Left progressive politics?

IS: In the last five years, there has been a wave of youth uprisings in Pakistan. New resistance movements, both urban and rural, have emerged challenging class oppression, patriarchy, national oppression, imperialist war and militarization, religious fascism, and state-led austerity, dispossession and disappearances. These include the Students’ Solidarity March; the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement [PTM, an anti-colonial and anti-war Pashtun civil rights movement]; Baloch and Sindhi missing persons movements; the Katchi Abadi Movement and Karachi Bachao Tehreek against land dispossessions by state and private capital; and movements of Lady Health Workers, Young Doctors, and Young Teachers against privatization and budget cuts under financial imperialism. The formation of Aurat Azadi March (AAM), Aurat March (AM) and Pakistan’s first declared socialist-feminist organization, Women’s Democratic Front (WDF), is part of this resurgence.  

These movements broadly espouse progressive, democratic ideologies and operate in solidarity with each other. They have been supported by progressive and nationalist forces, while bourgeois mainstream political circles remained criminally silent. I believe this mutual nationalist-socialist-feminist solidarity shocked the state and bourgeois parties because the leaven of these movements could create a greater leftist political force, like the erstwhile National Awami Party (NAP), to overthrow this exploitative, oppressive, and rotten system. In fact, the strength of solidarity among nationalist, socialist, and feminist forces in 2018-2019 had not been seen since the banning of NAP by Prime Minister Bhutto in 1975.

“We didn’t agree with the idea of an Aurat March without the concept of Azadi [emancipation], and without a clear ideological and political direction based on socialist-feminist principles.”

And so the crackdowns began against all these forces, aiming to crush and oust them from the political scene and break their unity. This included engineered defamation and disinformation campaigns through false accusations of treason, sedition, and blasphemy; outright violence on political gatherings, targeted killings, and imprisonment of key leaders; thousands of enforced disappearances; and sham court trials. In line with historical patterns, right-wing religious extremist forces, both armed and unarmed, have also been used by the state, especially against nationalist and feminist movements. The PTM rally was attacked in Kharqmaar, North Waziristan by the army on 26 May 2019 leaving 13 supporters dead and 25 injured. I see the targeted killing of [Baloch resistance leader] Karima Baloch and Malik Naz Baloch in 2020 in the same vein.

WDF has actively supported these movements. WDF was officially founded on March 8th, 2018 (International Working Women’s Day, IWWD) at Islamabad Press Club, following which our members gathered from across the country held the first Aurat Azadi March. We didn’t agree with the idea of an Aurat March without the concept of Azadi [emancipation], and without a clear ideological and political direction based on socialist-feminist principles. We also saw our organization as a form of genuine political resistance, not just a civil society organization. These considerations led us to organize IWWD activities under the banner of AAM, rather than the AM held in Karachi that year.

WDF traces its legacy within Pakistan’s left tradition. Historically, Anjuman e Jamhuriyat Pasand Khawateen (Democratic Women’s Association, DWA] was a leftist women’s organization formed by members of the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP) in 1950. They marked Pakistan’s first IWWD in 1948. DWA supported NAP and stood with the Bangladesh liberation movement, particularly opposing the genocidal rape of Bengali women by the Pakistan Army. Similarly, the organization Sindhiani Tehreek was established by Sindhi women from Awami Tehreek, a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist political party. They fought against patriarchal oppression by the military dictatorship of Zia ul Haq and for land and water rights in Sindh. It is noteworthy that DWA was banned by military dictator Ayub Khan in 1954, while Sindhiani Tehreek faced strong repression in the ‘80s from the Zia regime.

Activists from the Sindhiyani Tehreek protest the state execution of former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1979. Image: Flickr

SGK: Why do you think recent feminist mobilizations have elicited so much belligerence from the state? Is it because younger feminists’ agendas are different from past feminist politics? Can you tell us more about the challenges you have faced?

IS: Patriarchal hostility by state and society to feminist organizing is a historical reality but the new round of targeted and organized campaigns started in 2019. The belligerence we are observing is specifically against WDF, not AAM or AM. We are a known socialist-feminist organization, and we are being attacked for our core principle — that patriarchal oppression, class oppression, national oppression, state oppression, imperialism, and religious extremism are intertwined and interlocking. Each form of oppression articulates itself within the other. We believe that solidarity with all the oppressed is necessary for the genuine liberation of the masses: either we all are free or none of us is.

“The organic emergence of socialist-feminism from the womb of the native Left also provided ideological and political space for national liberation, anti-war, anti-imperialist politics.”

The momentum of feminist mobilization by WDF in 2018-2019 was noticeable due to its unprecedented scale, and a highly politicised Left agenda. The ideological boundaries and political shades of feminism were expanded from gold and purple to red and white. The organic emergence of socialist-feminism from the womb of the native Left also provided ideological and political space for national liberation, anti-war, anti-imperialist politics. It was this new political boundary-making which was not acceptable to the establishment and its cronies. We were clearly told to ‘stop injecting national liberation into feminism’!

In addition to patriarchal oppression, we raised issues faced by Pashtun women due to imperialist war, militarization, and radicalization of our region; those of Baloch women due to state oppression and enforced disappearances, and of Sindhi and Punjabi women living under feudalism. We also raised issues of working-class women including class oppression, privatization, debt servicing, and exorbitant military expenditures. Our agenda goes beyond those of past liberal feminist projects demanding secularism, reforms in Islamic Law, and neoliberal developmentalism—we clearly declare that our struggle will continue until a socialist-feminist revolution in Pakistan. This is why WDF continues to face an organized and prolonged crackdown by the state.

In 2019, WDF held AAMs in Quetta, Islamabad, Faisalabad, and a ‘Pakhtunkhwa Mehnat Kash Aurat Jalsa” at Peshawar. We co-organized marches in Hyderabad (with WAF) and in Lahore and Karachi with AM. Soon after, on June 21st, our federal council meeting and political school – a gathering of 40 women – was disrupted by the Islamabad administration. Our bookings at the Youth Hostel were canceled at midnight; we were harassed and told to leave the city. We nevertheless conducted the events at a private residence guarded by comrades.

During the 2020 IWWD preparations, the religious Right threatened and attacked us publicly with the backing of the state, including through harassment and disinformation campaigns under the garb of Haya [modesty] and legal challenges to AAM. WDF-Islamabad bore the biggest brunt: our mural was defaced by seminary students, our units in katchi abadis were threatened in mosque announcements, and seminaries in Tarnol ordered public transport stations not to provide us with vehicles and instead to join their counter-rallies, called Haya Marches.

The Islamabad AAM was attacked by a 2000-strong right-wing counter-rally in the presence of law enforcement in broad daylight. They pelted us with stones. Several female marchers, including myself, were injured; others were harassed, even molested. Haya Marches were also mobilized in Peshawar and Sukkur. Pakistan’s religious Right has historically mobilized against Left and nationalist movements, especially since the Cold War. They have enjoyed state and military patronage as ideological, political, and strategic assets. However, this marked the first time that the religious Right mobilized women on the streets against the feminist movement.

In parallel, a campaign was waged to engineer public opinion using so-called ‘fifth-generation warfare’ tactics. Sophisticated faith- and culture-based disinformation campaigns and videos circulated on social media threatening those who support us. They alleged that WDF is working on a ‘foreign agenda’ as our flag (red, white, and purple) resembles that of France and our emblem (based on the female sign) ‘resembles the Christian cross’. We were painted as an anti-national organization defaming Pakistan by exposing patriarchal violence. WDF leadership across the country was harassed by state agencies checking our income sources, finances, and links with foreign NGOs.

All this served as the backdrop for the events of 2021. Months-long anti-feminist and anti-AAM/AM campaigns were run on television, print, and social media prior to IWWD activities. Right-wing press such as Daily Ummat targeted WDF-Islamabad leadership with front-page stories. Provincial and national assemblies passed resolutions to ban our rallies and file blasphemy cases against AAM/AM organizers. Counter-marches were organized in Islamabad, Peshawar, and Sukkur. There was even a campaign to declare March 8th as “Aafia Siddiqui Day”, after the Pakistani female Al Qaeda operative imprisoned by US forces from Afghanistan. In Mardan, the Pakhtunkhwa Women’s Peace Conference we co-organized was cancelled through pressure from state agencies, religious groups, and the Chamber of Commerce. In Islamabad, influential seminaries and right-wing parties filed a High Court petition to ban AAM citing our ‘anti-Pakistan and anti-Islam agenda’. They staged a sit-in at Aabpara (ISI headquarters) threatening us with direct action. We set up self-defense systems to guard our marches.

After the marches, brazenly doctored videos using footage of Lahore and Karachi AMs launched false accusations of blasphemy against us. Cases were filed specifically against AAM Islamabad (i.e. WDF) in the Peshawar and Islamabad High Courts. Blasphemy allegations bring serious threats to life – these cases were meant to terrorize us and incite public hatred and condemnation. In Peshawar, we mobilized support in media, legal, and political communities and were legally represented by Lala Latif Afridi Advocate, an old comrade and ustad from the Communist Party and President of the Supreme Court Bar. In Islamabad, the petition (filed by known religious extremist organizations) was shelved based on police testimony. Interestingly, the petition also framed our sister organizations, the Awami Workers’ Party (AWP) and Progressive Students’ Federation (PRSF), further revealing the intents behind the campaign. After eight months, WDF fought off all the cases through our ideological and organizational strength, solidarity from the Left fraternity, pressure from international human rights observers, and support for feminist politics from wider political and media circles.

SGK: How have these crackdowns impacted WDF and the feminist movement at large?

IS: The above circumstances led to internal conflicts among AAM/AM organizers, which was precisely the purpose. WDF faced political hostility from the feminist fraternity, mainly from liberal feminist sections, due to collateral damage they faced from repression on WDF. For instance, WDF was dissuaded from pursuing police cases lodged against us and criticized for taking pride in our “red” Marxist politics and allowing flags of leftist formations in our marches. In 2022, some AAM Islamabad organizers broke away due to controversy on security threats and organized a parallel AM while publicly maligning WDF and the Left. Similarly, the organizational unity of AAM Hyderabad fell apart when our co-organizer Women’s Action Forum (WAF) objected to WDF’s visibility in the media and our public association with Left politics.  

By IWWD in 2022, we had clearly articulated the coordinated nature of attacks by the religious right-wing through state patronage as being centered on WDF, the solidarity of progressive forces, and socialist-feminist politics in Pakistan. We had concluded that the threat was not merely to AAM/AM, but to WDF and the socialist-feminist-progressive nationalist politics it represents. AAM/AM served only as the flashpoint to stoke right-wing outrage and manipulate public opinion against us.

In 2022, the counter-narrative came directly from the state—the Minister for Religious Affairs officially announced Haya Marches. Despite explicit threats against us, the administration refused to provide security. Moreover, the prolonged crackdowns were causing us to lose our strength, support base, and organizational energy. Our strength and resources were focused on responding to immediate state belligerence, drawing us away from organizing and cadre-building. Combined with the COVID-19 pandemic, this severely restricted our organization. To ensure the safe participation of women, especially working-class women, we opted not to hold a march but a protest, Aurat Azadi Jalsa, on IWWD at a park in Islamabad. Other WDF units attended IWWD activities in their own cities. We are now refocusing our energies on organization building.

SGK: Does everyone agree on a united agenda within the feminist movement? How does friction among different feminist standpoints play out and how do you see the question of unity?

IS: We are not “one” and we must acknowledge this objective reality. The coming together of AAM and AM organizers for a yearly event on IWWD can only create artificial optics of unity. These forms of unity cannot survive because they don’t have shared ideological, political, organizational, and historical foundations.

“An isolated unity of feminists within the capitalist and imperialist framework comes at the expense of women’s class and national liberation struggles”

WDF believes that we can form a united feminist front with feminist resistance organizations around a minimum feminist agenda along secular democratic lines, without compromising our core ideological and political principles. In this regard, we sent an invitation letter with a position paper and proposal in 2020 to key feminist resistance organizations in Pakistan. However, as a socialist-feminist organization, we cannot—and will not—acquiesce to any form of unity that denies or tolerates class and national oppression, and imperialist wars. We don’t see patriarchal oppression as an isolated issue—it is part of the overall exploitation of the masses and oppressed nations. Therefore, instead of going for artificial optics of “feminist unity” and performative politics, we intend to form a unity with the struggles of the working-class masses, oppressed nations, secular sections of persecuted religions, and khwaja siras.

An isolated unity of feminists within the capitalist and imperialist framework comes at the expense of women’s class and national liberation struggles. It may win women a few legal rights but perpetuates their subordination in the long run.  At the same time, we cannot form an abstract “class unity” or “ethnic unity” that denies or tolerates patriarchy or the distinctive gender-based subjugation of women. We have to find ways to build feminist resistance within and together with all other people’s resistance movements.

SGK: How do you see the future of Pakistan’s feminist movement?

IS: Women’s marches have succeeded in bringing the gender question into mainstream political discourse, but now the feminist movement is facing constant aggression from the state to oust it from the political landscape. As usual, religion is being weaponized, but there is now a more organized narrative that “the fundamental contradiction of feminism is with religion.” This was systematically popularized by corporate and state media, such that the dominant view is that the face of patriarchy is religious extremism. This aligns with neoliberal rhetoric, which has been used by Western imperialist powers to justify their interventions and expansions across our region and the Middle East.

“Pakistan’s feminist movement today stands at a crossroads. On one hand, feminism is being morphed into capital’s agenda – it is being weakened and rendered politically infertile due to co-option by capital through ‘corporate’ or ‘lean-in’ feminism. On the other, feminism is being pitted against religion and forcibly evicted from politics. ”

I believe that it is the state that enables patriarchy and its material and political structures, not religious extremism in itself. Religious extremism is an asset to the state and so is ‘extremist patriarchy’. The ruling classes benefit from religious and non-religious fascism because in the final analysis, it serves to maintain gender and class exploitation. Gendered inequalities in resource distribution, exploitation of labour, and violence are enabled by feudalism and capitalism with the help of the state and its religious cronies. Religious extremist forces no doubt advocate ‘extremist patriarchy, but so do our state, social, and economic institutions. Our state has the most violent patriarchal power fueled by a coercive constitution and legal system. Our capitalist bourgeoisie also support violent patriarchy and discrimination while remaining silent on sexual harassment in the workplaces they own and denying women equal pay. The patriarchal structure is intertwined within the state and class structure of our society.

Pakistan’s feminist movement today stands at a crossroads. On one hand, feminism is being morphed into capital’s agenda — it is being weakened and rendered politically infertile due to co-option by capital through ‘corporate’ or ‘lean-in’ feminism. On the other, feminism is being pitted against religion and forcibly evicted from politics.

The third path—the one we progressives must forge—is to take feminism to the masses as a pro-people ‘political agenda’, and mobilize against all oppressive structures that subjugate the masses, especially women of the working classes, oppressed nations, and subjugated religions. We must include all those who want to participate in politics but are waiting on the sidelines.

 We must also take a critical look at the anti-politics, anti-political party, and individualistic liberal tendencies within the movement, which only target culture and religion while excluding three important lines of struggle from the boundaries of feminism: those of national liberation, class, and anti-imperialism. To free the feminist movement from the political entanglement of religious forces, we must take it to all sections of society and mobilize throughout the year. We need to form solidarity with women’s political, economic, social, and cultural movements and rebuild solidarities with other resistance movements.

The mass entry of women into the labor market over the last few decades due to the capitalist boom of the services sector has changed gender relations, causing patriarchal panic in society and state. The breakdown of traditional feudal family institutions especially in urban and cosmopolitan centers has resulted in more violence toward women, even by liberal families. The brutal murders of Noor Muqaddam and Sara Inam in Islamabad by their rich and ‘liberal’ male partners are cases in point.

Feminist resistance organizations need to have an honest conversation among themselves instead of just bracing for annual women’s marches and reactive politics around the responses of the religious right wing.

Saba Gul Khattak is a Pakistan-based feminist researcher and author.
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