April Issue 2016
Women of Fire
To celebrate International Women’s Day, Tehrik-e-Niswan’s conference themed, ‘No More Violence – Women Rising,’ at the Karachi Arts Council on March 8 was attended by a 700-strong, mostly female audience. The women – teachers, students, nurses, midwives, politicians and social activists – came from various parts of the city, dressed in orange.
Hosted by Sheema Kirmani, the conference was divided into four sessions and each session was preceded by a thought-provoking skit, performed by Tehrik-e-Niswan’s theatre and dance group.
In the first session, ‘Violence and Health,’ the panelists discussed how the majority of women lived their lives through cycles of stress. Dr. Huma Ghaffar, a visiting faculty at the Aga Khan University School of Nursing, said previously physical violence was associated only with criminal acts, but now the psychological and sexual have also entered the sphere of violence. However, despite this, medical practitioners, even in major hospitals, ignore glaring cases of sexual and domestic violence, claiming that these were family matters.
Dr. Tazeen Syed, an assistant professor and researcher on women and reproductive health, narrated how discrimination begins from the time a couple discovers the foetus is a female – this begins a life of inequity from the womb to the grave.
Both panelists said recent data indicates that long-term stress in untenable situations of emotional, psychological and physical violence lead to chronic or life-threatening diseases, including coronary ailments and cancers in women and make them prone to depression and infertility.
In the ‘Social and Cultural Violence’ session, Indian journalist Laxmi Talwar, who is also a member of the All-India Women’s Conference, shared the problems faced by Indian women, many similar to those in Pakistan as both countries had male-fixated patriarchal societies. Her co-panelist, Sharmila Farooqui, Advisor to the CM Sindh on Culture and Tourism, encouraged women to speak up against every kind of harassment, abuse and injustice, and added, ‘No more silence’ to the theme of the conference.
In the ‘Domestic Violence’ segment, Heela Faryal, an Afghan activist with the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) described the situation of Afghan women under successive governments since the USSR occupation to the post-9/11 occupation of her country by the USA-led NATO-ISAF forces. She spoke about the founder member of her organisation, Meena Keshwar Kamal, who was assassinated in Quetta in 1987, aged just 30. She was among the three million refugees living in Pakistan during the 1979 Soviet invasion.
Marvi Sirmed, the vocal Islamabad-based activist for women’s rights, narrated instances of sexual harassment at the workplace, linking it to domestic violence, and the negative outbursts of the country’s clerics to the recently promulgated Punjab Women’s Protection Act 2016.
Advocate Maliha Zia presented a comparative review of the three provincial domestic violence laws enacted in Sindh (2013), Balochistan (2014) and Punjab (2016) respectively. She also explained that it is only in Sindh that the law actually criminalises domestic violence. She said that the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government had sent its draft Bill to the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) for approval, whereas the national Domestic Violence Bill has been tabled and lapsed several times in Parliament over the past decade-and-a-half.
In the concluding session on ‘Rape and Sexual Violence’ with Tahira Abdullah and Sarah Zaman, the former demanded that the federal and provincial governments abolish the illegal and unjust jirgas and panchayats, as ordered by the Sindh High Court and the Supreme Court of Pakistan in 2004.
Sarah Zaman recounted her personal experience of gender-based violence and described the pioneering work of War Against Rape (WAR). When she demanded that the CII immediately be abolished, the jam-packed hall broke into thunderous applause.
A dance tribute was paid to the two brave rape survivors, Mukhtaran Mai and Kainat Soomro – both received a standing ovation when they came onstage and their brief remarks moved many in the audience to tears.
The conference concluded with the unanimous endorsement of a 16-point Charter of Demands titled, ‘No More Violence,’ which states that “Violence against women is not just a crime, it is also an endemic health and social problem in Pakistan, which has not been appropriately addressed by the government, legislators, judiciary or by society and the media.”
This article was originally published in Newsline’s April 2016 issue.
The writer is a documentary filmmaker and activist. She is working with the Newsline as editorial assistant.