Feminism in Pakistan: A Retrospective Look


The term “feminism”, although controversial, means equal opportunity for all genders in socio-cultural, political and economic spheres. “Feminist movements” refer to the practicality of feminist narratives in society to ensure an end to the oppression and marginalization of vulnerable segments. Pakistan is witnessing the fourth wave of feminism since 2018, which is moving further away from old macro-level demands for participation and delving into the “private sphere” of family and society. This article aims to examine the history of feminist movements in Pakistan and the prevailing dynamics.

History of Feminism in Pakistan:

General Zia’s dictatorial era, spanning from 1977 to 1988, marks the most difficult phase for women in the country with “state-sponsored Islamization”. Fornication was criminalized under the Hudood Ordinance and if a woman was found unable to present witnesses in case she was raped, it would lead to her wrongful conviction as adultery. A new “law of evidence” required the presentation of the testimony of two women which was equivalent to one man. Honor killers could be convicted if the victim’s family forgives them.

Women’s Action Forum (WAF), a women’s rights organization, was established in 1981 to refute the Islamization of Zia and began vocalizing her narrative of “progressive interpretations of Islam” against the “religion of ‘patriarchal state’. Their movement has garnered support from moderate and right-wing Islamic feminists on different issues except the Hudood Ordinance. The organization took on a “secular” turn almost a decade into its formation and initial narratives regarding feminism.

Women’s movements have gained more support for their policies and enterprises under the democratic rule of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Bhutto had a pro-women stance which played a vital role in linking women’s movements to government policies for women.

The situation reverted to conservative patterns under Nawaz Sharif’s regime from 1997 to 1999. Religious revivalism led to a poor situation for pro-women’s groups. This era was marked by an increase in cases of honor killings, criticism from NGOs, and the requirement for girls to wear the hijab, as recommended by the Council for Islamic Ideology in 1997.

Under the dictatorship of General Pervez Musharraf, from 1999 to 2008, the need and acts of empowerment of women were emphasized. Reserved seats have been set aside for women in parliament to ensure their political participation. A number of other measures have also been taken to “modernize” the state of Pakistan and improve the status of women; a milestone was the Women’s Protection Act 2007, which sought to reform the Zina Ordinance. However, this period was marked by certain disputes between the Islamists and the state.

Current debate:

A new dimension of feminism was introduced in Pakistan in 2018 with the start of the Aurat March on the 8th of the month when the whole world celebrates International Women’s Day. The basic demands of the protesters revolved around; empower women, end strict gender roles, give them equal opportunities in all spheres of life and end their marginalization.

The march received negative reactions from the wider society because the media tended to present only one side of the picture, which does not fit the socio-cultural fabric of our society. The women who participated in the march were arrested for breaking societal norms. One of the important reasons behind this type of reaction is that Women’s Day in Pakistan has been celebrated with certain ceremonies being maintained, throughout, and Aurat March marked a sea change with women coming out in the street and claimed their rights. Another factor is the strict patriarchal structure that associates the notion of “honor” with a woman and cannot bear that women question these age-old practices that enslave them because of their gender.

This march has launched a new debate in the country where some patronize it and others censor this practice. In addition, organizers must consider the government in order to make changes at the political level.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog belong solely to the author and do not reflect the official policy of Dunya News.

  • Beenish Fatima is a writer and a sociology student at Punjab University in Lahore. She is interested in social issues prevalent in Pakistan.

    Show all posts


Comments are closed.