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Home > Women’s Rights > Woman behind the movement: An interview with Nighat Said Khan

Woman behind the movement: An interview with Nighat Said Khan

by Ammar Ali Jan, 7 July 2010

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The News on Sunday, 4 July 2010

Woman behind the movement

Nighat Said Khan is a feminist, social activist and academic. Besides being founder of Women’s Action Forum, she is Dean of the Institute of Women’s Studies and Director of Applied Socio-Economic Research (ASR) Resource Center for Women. Khan has worked for social transformation and the empowerment of women through art, writing, and media productions. She is also actively involved in South Asian peace initiatives as a member of the Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy. Throughout her career, she has been involved with women’s movement, people’s rights, and the peasantry, judiciously combining her academic background with her activism. Khan spoke passionately about women’s issues and brushed aside criticism that women’s movement had not achieved much. The News on Sunday had a discussion with her in her tastefully done Gulberg residence in Lahore recently. Excerpts of the interview follow:

The News on Sunday: What do you feel are the reasons that women studies could not grow as an academic discipline in Pakistan?

Nighat Said Khan: We cannot single out women studies as a discipline that was not able to develop inside Pakistan. This holds true for almost all areas in social sciences as the Pakistani state was always apprehensive of any serious scholarly attempts to study and analyse Pakistani society. Natural sciences were able to flourish because they did not pose a direct threat to the status quo while social science had the potential of formulating a critique of the existing state of affairs. Therefore, the government not only refused to fund any serious research by eminent scholars, but often suppressed those thinkers who dared to express dissenting points of view. So I think our state is essentially against critical thinking as that could help expose its own failure in crafting a viable project for its citizens.

Women studies are even more controversial for the state as a radical feminist approach is critical of certain basic notions held by our state and society. Most states are obsessed with moulding a woman’s body according to its own conceptions of morality and ethics. Since the 1980s, the Pakistani state has attempted to curb the freedom of women and has increasingly invoked religious rhetoric to justify its ideological position. Women studies can provide a radical critique of conservative institutions such as the family, the judiciary and the state as sites of oppression for women. This in turns threatens the whole of foundation of our state and society which is why this academic discipline was neither promoted nor tolerated by any government.

TNS: Do you think it is difficult to apply Western feminist theory in a conservative culture such as ours?

NSK: I think this dichotomy of "Western" and "Eastern" feminism is a false one to begin with. Feminism is a critique of the structures of patriarchy that exist in any society and it aims at removing such structures that suppress women. Hence there is no Eastern or Western feminism, nor did the conception of women rights originate in any particular geographical location. Our region has witnessed a long list of women who challenged this unjust order. In fact, you should bear in mind that the 1956 Constitution of Pakistan was the first constitution in the world that provided women with an affirmative action. Women were given special women seats throughout the country and a woman could vote twice: one for the reserved seats and one for the general seat. The American constitution does not even mention women. So this demonstrates that the concept of women liberation is not being borrowed from any part of the world, but it rises as a response to this patriarchal order.

The only things that change with each geographical location are the particular characteristics of this oppression. So for example, for us, it will no longer be an issue to have a female head of state while this remains part of the agenda for feminists in the US. We oppose the restrictions imposed on the female body while Western feminists critique the exploitation of a woman’s body as a sexual object. So while the nature of this exploitation is different, the basic premise remains the same i.e. a patriarchal order that marginalises women.

We should also remember that liberation struggles, such as those in Vietnam and Nicaragua, were able to incorporate the issue of women rights as part of the larger agenda of national liberation against imperialism. Indian feminists have also been successful in articulating a feminist critique of their own society. Hence, I feel feminist theory is not a Western monopoly and there is no reason why we must fail to develop such an analytical approach towards the problems we face in Pakistan.

TNS: How would you analyse the achievements and failures of the women rights movement in Pakistan, especially the role of the Women Action Forum?

NSK: We can divide the women rights movement in Pakistan in three broad phases. The first started with the creation of Pakistan as prominent women during the Pakistan movement worked with the Pakistani state to improve the status of women. The belief here was that it was possible to work within the contours of a mainstream framework and place pressure on the Pakistani government to grant more rights to women. This changed radically with the advent of General Zia’s draconian regime and the push for Islamisation that followed. That period witnessed the emergence of WAF which held the position that it was no longer possible to talk to this state and that this entire structure needs to change. WAF was able to emerge as one of the most vocal critics of the Zia regime and consistently opposed his government’s policies.

With Zia’s death and the advent of Benazir Bhutto’s government, a third phase started for the movement. Radical politics had received a setback all over the world and this was an era of accommodation and compromise for radical movements around the world. The women’s movement in Pakistan could not keep itself immune from this global trend and adopted the same tactics to further its cause.

TNS: Critics believe that a major reason for the failure of the women’s rights movement in Pakistan was that it failed to mobilise ordinary women. In other words, the movement was led by the elite who were alien to the local cultural and political dynamics.

NSK: I don’t take this criticism seriously as I feel it is unnecessarily harsh towards our movement. The truth of the matter is that most movements, political parties, NGOs and media groups are led by the elite in this country. Why do we have to single out the women’s rights movement? I think it is an old tactic used by the religious right to distract others from the content of the movement and the demands we have raised while living in an extremely patriarchal society. We should focus on the positions taken by organisations such as WAF, rather than placing needless focus on their leadership.

TNS: So why do you think that the movement failed to achieve anything substantial?

NSK: Again, I think it’s pretty harsh to suggest that we were unable to achieve anything substantial. The late 1960s witnessed the political awakening of the masses in Pakistan and women were not far behind men in this regard. During Bhutto’s rise to power, the issue of female emancipation was often articulated within the PPP, especially by Nusrat Bhutto. Since the 1980s, we have tried to direct this energy in such a way that women become conscious of their oppression not only as members of the working class or of a political party, but also as women. Such a radical discourse has certainly affected the internal structure of political parties that are at least forced to pay lip service for advancing women rights. The constitution guarantees them affirmative action and many women are now holding important positions in the country. Perhaps one of the greatest victories for us was when the Pakistani public overwhelmingly voted for a female as the Prime minister. After 11 years of indoctrination and absurd laws against women, this was a slap for those who thought they confine women to their homes.

It’s true that we have been unable to construct an ideal society, but that’s true for almost all societies in the world. Besides, the women’s movement is not the only movement that has so far been unable to achieve its radical agenda. The labour movements, the peasant movement, the student movement and other struggles have also so far failed to achieve their aim of radically transforming our society.

TNS: Since the war on terror began, the issue of female emancipation has again become a contested territory. Do you feel feminists like yourself can benefit from the US presence in the region for furthering the cause of women rights?

NSK: I don’t think we should fool ourselves into believing that the US is here to advance the rights of women, or to strengthen democracy in the region. This is an extremely important geo-strategic location, and different powers are trying to position themselves for a hegemonic role in this part of the world. I recently met a senior official of the State Department in Washington and I categorically told him that I will completely believe your rhetoric of liberty and freedom if you today impose sanctions on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Of course, they will not do it because the Saudi regime, despite the terrible treatment meted out to women, is a trusted ally of the US in the Middle East. So instead of attempting to dislodge the monstrous regime in Riyadh, thousands of American soldiers have been placed inside the country to protect the decadent Royal family. We also remember that when we were protesting the policies of the Zia regime, it was the US that was pumping in billions of dollars to keep that government afloat. So all talk of achieving female emancipation with the aid of the Empire, which has almost always intervened in the Third World to advance its own goals at the expense of the indigenous population, is a futile exercise.

On the other hand, I am alarmed by the fact that progressive elements in the country have been unable to formulate a response that is different from the discourse of the religious right. The inability to do so has led to some bizarre alliances between the two. It is important that we critique the US for its imperialist character, i.e. the inherent tendency to exploit the resources and labour of weaker nations as part of its own capitalist development and we should articulate our response based on that premise. On the other hand, the religious right has a reactionary cultural critique of the US with emphasis on the liberal, modern ethos of the West. The right is incapable of presenting an emancipatory alternative, which is why it is imperative for the left to clarify the difference between the two positions.

TNS: How do you view the performance of the current government in addressing the concerns of women?

NSK: The current coalition, with the exception of the JUI, has an essential openness towards women. I would especially like to mention the positive impact of the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP). The government’s decision to give the money to women will have the result of empowering these women within their households. Also, this has already prompted many households to obtain Identity Cards for women so that they are eligible for the BISP. This automatically provides citizenship rights to these women who had thus far been denied even this basic right. So, in the ideological sphere, this has the potential of opening up new avenues for marginalized women.

We must acknowledge, however, that the current bourgeois-feudal set-up has certain limitations and we should not expect a radical transformation of society from them. It is also essential to realise that there exists no substitute for popular movements, which require patient and focused work, if we are to ever achieve the goal of equality for women.