Women have a vital role in the progress of human society. Yet, women’s contributions to progress aren’t always acknowledged by or even included in history books. In her 1998 book, “You Can’t Kill the Spirit: Women and Nonviolent Action,” writer Pam McAllister spotlights stories, struggles and contributions of women all over the world – stories that are often hidden in plain sight. The latest story comes from Pakistan, where local women are actively working toward social and political change at this very moment.
Pakistan has been in political turmoil for the past three weeks due to ongoing anti-government direct actions by two opposition parties. Supporters of Pakistan Tehreek Insaaf (PTI) and Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) initiated their separate marches on August 14, 2014, the day Pakistan’s independence is celebrated.
There are two main reasons for this movement: the PTI and PTA are calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif over allegations of election rigging and the brutal killing of 14 unarmed workers of PAT by police in Lahore, the capital of Punjab province, on June 17, 2014. Sharif has refused, so far, to step down and the Pakistan Parliament has rejected demands for his resignation.
Tens of thousands of people marched toward Islamabad and staged sit-ins outside of Pakistan’s parliament building, now underway for the fourteenth day, demanding Sharif’s resignation. A large number of women and children are taking part in these sit-ins. According to law enforcement agency reports, more than 30 percent of the participants are women. This is first occasion in the history of Pakistan that women have participated in a major anti-government movement in such large numbers. A new era has emerged in Pakistan as men and women have joined hands in this growing social movement for political change – and women’s inclusion has proven increasingly effective.
As an on-the-ground observer, I have learned first-hand how important women’s participation is to the success of this social and political change movement. The presence of women and children offers a buffer against state repression in Pakistan. Although tens of thousands of security forces have been deployed to contain the protests, the government has been reluctant to crack down on the protestors due to the presence of a large number of women and their children. They know if they use force against women and children the consequential backlash will be worse.
Spending their days and nights at Constitution Avenue, the women participating in this movement have garnered sympathy across Pakistan and increased pressure on the government to expedite the resolution of this dispute by addressing the concerns of protesters.
The resilience and courage of women bringing their children as young as six months old to demonstrations and sit-ins without any basic facilities available is impressive. These demonstrations are not easy for women with children –consistent food or water is lacking, and it is hard to imagine how they are managing infant care without milk and other baby foods – but they press on.
Two elderly women from a nearby slum expressed optimism that the weeks-long standoff would bring good tidings. One of the women told me that they have been living without electricity and gas and now the government is going to snatch their homes, as well. Power outages have occurred daily and after a suicide bomber attack in Islamabad, the government has vowed to demolish 18 settlements housing more than 80,000 people – some of which are internally displaced persons and Afghan refugees. The elderly woman argued revolution was direly needed in her country. Many other women of varying backgrounds roaming around Islamabad’s Red Zone (high security area around Parliament) displayed similar levels of exhilaration and resolve.
Participation of women in Pakistan’s anti-government movement shows how important their role is in nonviolent social and political change. The same may be said for movements around the world – whether the demands are large or small. We cannot afford to keep women’s contributions in Pakistan or any other nation hidden any longer – we need their help if we want to see the world progress.
Rizwan Zulfiqar Bhutta (@rizbhutta), writing for PeaceVoice, is an International broadcast journalist and regional affairs expert for South Asia, and works for peace and stability in the region.