Struggle and Hope for Pakistan's Women: Activists Challenge Gender Violence

Release Date: February 1, 2012 This content is archived.


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Pakistan has an active women's movement that is a key force in the struggle for women's rights in that country, says Filomena Critelli.

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 has concluded.

"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 Pakistan."

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 international headlines.

"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 work."

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 women.

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 domestic violence.

"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," she writes.

"They have broken the silence on taboo issues such as rape, divorce and women's right to control their sexuality and choice of partners."

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 says.

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