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Left in Pakistan — II

How does the Left in Pakistan — address the woman — and the NGO-question? | Sarah Humayun

7 October 2013

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The News on Sunday - 6 October 2013

Sites of innovation

How does the Left in Pakistan — II address the woman — and the NGO-question?

by Sarah Humayun

Though ‘class struggle’ is made out to be the prime vector of progressivism in Marxist historiography, it has never been free of its own ‘contradictions’ (to use a choice Marxist term of art). To pick out one issue that is being articulated with increasing urgency: the ‘woman’ question. The problem is not new. “Working class resistance was constituted in the past by defending its own forms of oppressions (against women or apprentices) against the regulation of the state or of the capitalist market. The feminist movement is advancing resistance today by not fearing to “divide workers”,” writes Jacques Ranciére.

This remark finds an echo in the experience of women’s struggles who have not found an ally in the left or have felt the organised left to be an irrelevance if not a hindrance. This 2011 article from Guardian ( shows a woman Labour councillor reminding the anti-market and pro-community Blue Labour that “liberal rights and the role of the state has done a lot to help women — and many other groups for that matter — break out of community bonds that have often been oppressive, unaccountable and male dominated”. Many women in the UK might have a problem endorsing the romantic nostalgia for ‘working-class culture’, for the community-and-union dominated ‘traditional’ leftism that has been much in evidence in the UK, not least among academics.

‘The woman question’ is one of the sites of innovation for those interested in rethinking the left, of taking it beyond the era of base and superstructure, of progress on the back of the planned socialist economy and nationalist struggles for liberation. I found almost all of my interlocutors were thinking along these lines. “The woman is the most political being in Pakistan,” said one in an interesting if enigmatic formulation. Although all but one of the lefties I met were men, they are open, even keen, to acknowledge that the left had a woman problem, that this was not restricted to representation in the party but extended to social and personal relationships in evidence in left circles. In conversation, it seemed that there was a great desire to do something about the ‘woman question’ as well as some uncertainty as to what, specifically, an activism of the left might do here, whether they would go beyond or work with women’s rights advocates and feminist activists.

But were the women comrades comfortable working with the men; did class differences compounded by gender sometimes get in the way of comradely sociability? This question was met with some unease, a pause to weigh up words and thoughts. It is difficult, someone said. Another made a remark about choosing places carefully; another, about the need to maintain gender presentations in order to keep functioning working relationships.

The stories I was told about field activism were predominantly stories about men; men having arguments late into the night, hiding from the police, coming together to play cricket or to drink in what seemed to be cherished times of camaraderie. An office that I visited was a welcoming space, but it was full of men. Personally, the people I met were at ease with mixed-gender groups, counted many women as friends and a few women as colleagues. But the few that were mentioned in connection with party work seemed also to be upper-class academics.

Knowing all the reasons why women can be absent or less visible, often by choice, I’m not sure what weight to place on this. How is the difficult terrain of personal interaction affected by affiliating oneself with a school of thought explicitly committed to equality? Does this mean enfolding the question of gender in class, conceived as the rubric under which difference and elimination of difference is thought? Does taking account of class differences present in the party offer a way out? Or does the ‘woman question’ need another type of articulation, and what might that be, given the commitment to universalist thinking in the left?

Thinking about women and thinking about class may never be a seamless fit, nor will the designation of a class as the subject of emancipatory politics and capital as the object of resistance open out paths to taking account of the diverse ways in which the ‘woman question’ has been addressed. In the intellectual resources open to the left (as well as to other political tendencies) the ‘woman question’ will pose repeated threats of splits and divisions — of the vote, of a homosexual culture i.e. culture of one sex (as Luce Irigaray puts it), of the family and of society.

It will be interesting to see how the left addresses this question, if it ever does, under the sign of ‘merger’. But it should also be emphasised that the principles of justice and equality that left parties everywhere have subscribed to have given greater space for women historically to articulate their concerns (even if they’re labelled ‘marginal’) and to organise resistance. Small differences of political opportunity and intellectual space are important and should always remain firmly in view.

In Pakistan, the debate about women and the left has an added twist. It is sometimes pointed out that in recent history women have done better under the anti-politics, rhetorically liberal dictatorship of General Musharraf. The provision of 33 per cent seats in local bodies, the dilution of the Hudood ordinances, the promotion of education and media and culture (which arguably helps women to claim more public space) were all achieved under conditions when politics, or electoral politics, were in abeyance. This contention deserves detailed and nuanced debate.

But what is emphasised through this type of argument, I think, is that the promotion of socially progressive causes does not need a socially progressive politics that searches out new possibilities of thought and action. It can be done, for example, through personal enlightenment (presumably gained by buying an expensive education), through an investment in social stability and existing norms of citizenship. And by sticking to economic and social formulae that have been shown to work elsewhere.

This type of thinking informs much commentary in the nominally-liberal media. The point being made is that ‘causes’ do better without ‘politics’, do better in conditions where they succeed through an implicit social consensus and a firm government, the ‘writ of the state’. The onus is on citizens to reach consensus and abide by the norms of government and the laws of the state.

NGOs have been linked to projects of citizen empowerment that seek to circumvent political processes by working on projects that bring in both assumptions and funding form ‘elsewhere’ — this is commonly criticised by those on the political right. When it comes to the left, the criticisms are more complicated. Often in terms of field practice and the projected strategic effects of mobilising for this or that issue, they are virtually indistinguishable from the left. As some activists note, in the field they are often identified as NGO-people; and they often give support to NGOs and rights-based campaigns, who have more money to spend and bigger networks to tap for mobilising.

In addition, one would hazard to guess, not a few working in NGOs would self-identify as leftists. In spite of all this, I heard some strong criticisms of NGOs from one activist in particular: NGOs prevent leaders from emerging from within movements, ‘organically’, by creating and identifying key individuals through whom they choose to work and to channel funds. They make these leaders less accountable to movements. They dissolve relationships of solidarity that might otherwise exist, and inhibit internal democracy. They systematically discriminate against working-class knowledge.

Others were more cautious, putting down the antagonism between the left and NGOs to a struggle for identity and ‘intolerance of small differences’. A student activist was not dismissive of the service-delivery aspect of NGO work. He emphasised that ‘urban centres needs social services’ and the left should not overlook this in its work. He disagreed with some people who ‘confuse this with NGO work and refuse to see it as revolutionary’.

But he was still at pains to dispel suggestions that the left received NGO funding. The politics/issues distinction, however, was still in his mind: NGOs work on political issues but not on politics.

Has the effect of NGO-work been non- or anti-political; or is the anti-political a possibility present in any programme of politics? This, again, is a subject that needs a more-than-cursory treatment, and there must be many useful discussions on this subject that I haven’t read. But one can perhaps note that both the civil-society-before-politics argument and the politics of progressive-change-through-solidarity-and-antagonism argument are narrow enough in their own way. Both are tainted with purism and demand certain types of essentialised political subjects before they can get under way. Absence of ‘organic struggles of resistance’ do not necessarily indicate an absence of politics. Nor does the absence of ‘citizens’ as posited by liberal thought mean a dead end for projects that seek to mobilise civil society.

This may suggest a way of looking at another concern often voiced about the left, and no less about NGOs: that they are intellectuals and academics, remote from political reality. Probably many of them are what they are accused of being. But is not clear to me what kind of discomfort is signified by accusation of intellectual/academic: discomfort with smugness, purism, authoritarianism and policing of ideological deviance, which many intellectuals are prone to? Or a discomfort with the always-looking-elsewhere — to other thinkers, places, intellectual traditions and sources — which is a trait of any politics but particularly of left politics?

This ‘otherness’ and foreignness can also exist in what we claim as our own reality. It can appear to offer itself, for instance, as a ‘sufi’ or working-class tradition, or in a sub-nationalist movement that erupts with the promise of a different perception of political reality. But there is always a risk here that the ‘otherness’ is not pure, that a tradition or struggle that claims to be an alternative bears in it layers and possibilities of the status quo.

In my view, this risk can be dispelled neither through intellectual rigour nor through impeccable praxis.

To be continued

Sarah Humayun is a writer based in Lahore. She can be reached at sarah.humayun at


The above article from The News on Sunday is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use