International Women’s Day Seminar: Women Empowerment

So I attended a seminar today at Aga Khan University celebrating International Women’s Day. It was called Women Empowerment: Connecting Women : Inspiring Futures.  Like previous seminars that I have attended and enjoyed, I took notes and will be summarising the speakers’ speeches (or my impressions of what they said – not quite the same thing) in this post.  It was overall a wonderful experience, as inspiring or more than it was intended to be, and I am super glad I attended it.

Starting off with the AKU theme music, which is a beautiful piece of music in itself, and whose composer and conductor I met at a previous lecture on music during the apartheid.

Dr Anita Allana began the seminar with a welcome address and a brief tilawat, after which Ms Kausar Khan took the floor and began a wonderful little talk on the history and significance of 8th March as International Women’s day. Starting off with a video that had a backdrop of Yeh Haunsla Kaisay Jhukay and photographs of women, both ordinary and extraordinary.  She then spoke about how the first two lines of the song really embodied the spirit of women – ye hosla kaisay jhukay, ye aarzoo kaisay rukay.  Despite all the hurdles they faced women were still defying, speaking up about their rights and fighting for equality.

She then went on to describe the history of International Women’s day and its ties to the socialist movement, how it was first celebrated in the US and then later on in Russia and european countries, then China, and then finally coming to us through the UN. She spoke about how the trajectory was important because oftentimes concepts like IWD are disregarded as western ideas, and how that really isn’t so – IWD represents women, not western ideals.  She also talked about IWD becoming less political over the years, and how we need to bring the political aspect of activism for women’s rights back.

Next speaker up was Ms Nazish Brohi, and since she was one of the two speakers that I took notes in detail about, and because  this segment was the most relevant to society I will be doing this bit in detail.  The rest of the speakers Iwill only touch upon lightly – Ms Sindhu’s speech I will invoke in a whole new post, because it merits one.

Ms Brohi started off by saying that if she had to pick up a song to illuminate her experiences with women, it would be the one with the lyrics “Aaj phir jeenay ki tamanna hai, aaj phir marnay ka irada hai” because it really signifies how once you set out on the struggle to realise your dreams then you must also be ready, not only for discouragement and failure but also even for death.

She talked about how there was a conventional view that society in general was against women’s rights and was hostile to her advancement, but how in her experience things were actually a bit more paradoxical – how in some cases there was a lot of hostility and in some cases outright support shown by communities. In her speech she talked about the reasons for support and the reasons for opposition to women’s rights. For example she talked about how honour killings happened every day, but how in the Kasthuri rape case the whole community supported the woman, and how in a case in which a woman named Farzana was assaulted by a vadera for gaining an education, everyone turned out to support her and she was able to gain her case.

Continuing the idea, she talked about how a lot of women and feminists tend to see women’s rights as necessary for social justice, but how communities in general may view women’s rights as sometimes actually being in conflict with social justice and thus will oppose rights. In land cases, women faced opposition in gaining legal rights to land if she and her family were being supported by her inlaws. But if she wasn’t being supported, her rights to the land were seen as a source of social justice and she was thus more likely to receive community support. She said this was strongly linked to the idea of social legitimacy, and how its important to have that social legitimacy because without it you can be as right as you want yet you will not receive community support.

She talked about how women were members of a community as well as citizens of the state, yet often it was seen that if a woman chose to use the tools of the state to gain justice she would forego her membership in the community – for example if she went to court, or to the police, she would be socially shunned. How women often have to make that choice, and how it was not fair.

She went on to speak about marriage as a tool of governance, where the riyasat or state is weak, women’s bodies were used to maintain control and peace and keep things in order.  For us, a girl running away and marrying someone (a kari, as they are called), is someone exerting autonomy on their own body, but in the context of society when a woman does that it in effect takes away another person’s right to govern, using her body as mediator. By exerting autonomy she robs another’s autonomy. That is why karo-kari is such a huge issue.

Ms Brohi also talked about social approval, and how the economic system is in rural areas, it is difficult to function and work without community support, so issues of honour and dishonour become much more significant. Social condemnation not only means isolation and anathema but also often economic deprivation.  Also, an element of fear comes in, because if one does not support the condemnation of stray women then tomorrow one’s own daughters could stray and there would be no one to stop them.

Finally she talked about nation-states, and how it is the state’s responsibility to protect the nation and the nation’s responsibility to support the state, etc. but how in a place like pakistan, the distance between nation and state is pretty uge and widening, and the state no longer has the legitimacy that it would have in ideal conditions. So because it lacks the nation’s support that would give it legitimacy, it loses the ability to affect the private sphere. And that the tradeoff, for example for violence or governance, is that the state would be reserved for public issues and could not interefere in private ones. In effect women’s bodies and what to do with them became a private matter which the government was unconcerned with. This was a tragedy.

The next speaker was Ms Mehnaz Rehman a member of the National Commission for the Status of Women…she talked about her experiences, and a little bit about what the commission was responsible for (examine policies for gender problems, review laws and programs made for women by the government, begin projects and give recommendations).  She talked about two current issues they were insisting the sindh government in particular to give support to – the domestic violence laws and policies regarding home-based workers. She also talked about how in the past few years over 7 laws that were friendl to women had been passed, and this was something to be proud of.

There was a question and answer session after this, which was interesting, and a lunch break in which I enthusiastically petitioned Ms Brohi for advice on how I could do more for the women in the country.  She was very encouraging and guided me  towards Ms Kausar and the Women Action Forum, which she thought was a good place to start from.

After the break there were two speakers, the first being Ms Zaheda Hina, an urdu author of some reknown, who gave a brief history of the empowered woman in Urdu literature, beginning with pre-1857 literature and the birth of the strong woman, how under british rule women slowly gained more and more rights and at the same time emerged a heroine that was both confident and worldly, good and yet not restrcited. She talked about how that continued well into the 60s but how recently the trend had been reversing, and how especially of late male authors would talk about women’s plight with sympathy but no longer created the same empowered characters. Urdu literature had literally given women wings and inspiration but that was largely changing.

The last speaker was Ms Amar Sindhu. She talked about empowered women in Sindhi literature, and she, apart from Ms Brohi, was the only speaker whose lectures I took such fervent notes in. Since she gave a very detailed talk I am unable to include even a synopsis here, but I shall devote a whole blog post to her talk soon. Suffice it to say that she divided sindhi literature into 3 periods of time, classical, second stage and then modern, and dealt with the empowered women described in each stage. It was a very inspiring, coherent and beautifully passionate talk, evidently by a woman who was both enthusiastic and proficient in her subject, and I enjoyed it immensely.

Final words were given by Dr Kausar Waqar, and the seminar on IWD came to a close. All in all it was a great experience, in which not only did I learn a lot but was also inspired to do so much more. One of the better decisions I took this week, was my decision to participate 🙂

See you guys soon.

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