BUFFALO, N.Y. -- An active and forceful grass roots movement
committed to expanding democratic freedom for women is essential to
curbing the dramatic and widespread violation of women's rights in
Pakistan, a University at Buffalo School of Social Work researcher
"Despite the overwhelming media attention to the rise of
fundamentalism and Pakistan's geopolitical role in the 'war against
terror,' Pakistan has an often-unrevealed side, characterized by an
active women's movement that serves as a key democratic force
committed to expanding women's rights," Filomena Critelli writes in
her study, "Struggle and Hope: Challenging Gender Violence in
Forthcoming in the journal Critical Sociology, Critelli's
analysis is based on interviews with activists who founded a legal
aid practice to defend women's rights and a private shelter for
women fleeing from abuse.
People seldom hear about the activism of these women's groups,
Critelli says. But their work and resiliency, often in the face of
resistance, harassment and safety threats, should be recognized as
much as the elements of fundamentalism that have attracted
"Within civil society (in Pakistan), women activists are
advocating to implement strategies to limit gender violence as well
as provide care for survivors," she writes in the study. "The
women's movement continues to negotiate women's interests with the
state and society, and has become increasingly effective over time,
strengthened by regional and international recognition of its
The struggle against abuse against women in Pakistan -- which
often reaches graphic proportions such as "honor killings," forced
marriages, child marriages and other forms of gender violence -- is
seen through a "secular human rights framework" by these activists,
according to Critelli, assistant professor of social work at UB.
Critelli has authored several studies on gender-based violence and
women's rights activism in Pakistan. Her most recent research paper
was prepared with her former student, Jennifer Willett.
It's a movement that often surprises people who do not realize
the pluralistic Pakistani culture, she says, one that exists with
sometimes contradictory elements that include these strong
advocates of women's rights, changing political climates and
traditional patriarchal social orders that inhibit independence of
For example, this vibrant women's rights movement has been
active for over 30 years in Pakistan. Pakistan was the first Muslim
country to elect a women leader, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and
has adopted policies that set a quota of 30 percent of reserved
seats for women in Parliament. As a result, women's representation
in Pakistan's parliament is the highest in South Asia.
Although the women's rights movement is alive and well in
Pakistan, the country also is marked by a strongly patriarchal
society where male power manifests itself in a high incidence of
"Gender violence is estimated to take place in as many as 80 to
90 percent of the households in Pakistan," notes Critelli. "Gender
violence in Pakistan takes a variety of forms, some of which are
common across cultures such as marital violence, including verbal
abuse, hitting, kicking, slapping, rape and murder, and economic
and emotional abuse.
"Other forms of violence are rooted in traditional practices
that continue under the guise of social conformism, customs and
misinterpretations of religion, that also include exchange
marriage, death by burning (stove deaths, which are presented as
accidents), acid attacks and nose cutting (a form of humiliation
and degradation)," Critelli writes. "Women are also raped and
abused while in police custody, which further deters many women
from reporting crimes against them."
All these practices are contrary to Pakistani law, human rights
treaties ratified by Pakistan, as well as the tenets of Islam.
Pushing back at these abuses are women's rights groups,
non-government organizations or NGOs who exist independently of any
official funding and the government. They are selective about who
gives them money to avoid being forced to take on the agenda of
their donors, Critelli says.
"These women's organizations have been highly visible and active
in mobilizing, even through periods of repressive regimes, with
active protests, campaigns and strategic use of cultural resources
such as the media to amplify the debates and educate the public,"
"They have broken the silence on taboo issues such as rape,
divorce and women's right to control their sexuality and choice of
In addition to their legal aid, human rights education programs
and shelter services that promote women's independence and freedom
from violence, Pakistani women's organizations are strong advocates
for improved laws and policies for women and were instrumental in
passing a law banning honor crimes in 2002 and more recently a
comprehensive sexual harassment law.
"The courage and commitment of these women is striking,"
Critelli says. Challenging deeply entrenched norms offends some
sectors of society and exposes them up to severe criticism.
"Religious leaders, the public and the families of the women who
seek their services have often been hostile to them on the grounds
that they are encouraging loose morals and rebellious behavior of
women and intruding into the 'private' sphere of the family,"
according to Critelli.
"All of the women, especially the higher profile leaders who
take very public stances, engage in public acts of protest, have
been arrested, received death threats, and faced hostile propaganda
and intimidation as a result," she says.
The most subversive element of these organizations, according to
Critelli, may be the promotion of "a critical awareness among women
of rights and options, providing the laws and tools to help women
examine their own situations and life choices." Increasing numbers
of women are now coming forward to seek services and are "bolder"
and "more confident" about exercising their rights, according the
activists interviewed in the study.
"This is at the heart of much of the rage directed against them,
as women now also find new sources of support and safe spaces that
build their strength to question and challenge their families and
other institutions that contribute to their oppression."
Women's movement NGOs have been essential for the defense of
women's rights and human rights and have altered the power dynamics
within the political field to the benefit of women. These civil
society organizations play an indispensable role as voices of
opposition to injustice and as representatives of women's interests
in Pakistan and are to be commended for their courage, Critelli