Women's Empowerment and Leadership Development for Democratisation

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The Anjuman Muzareen Punjab Movement: Women’s Role in the Struggle for Land and Economic Rights

By Sahera Bano and Mehek Ghaffar

The peasant community under the rustic feudal culture of Pakistan has historically been, and remains to this day, an underclass of people suffering in one form or another from serfdom.  Throughout the subcontinent’s history peasants have been exploited by the powerful elite and by the state. In Pakistan, examples of unfair and unjust treatments of peasant communities can still be seen in abundance.

Pakistan hides under a smokescreen of democracy. The citizens supposedly live in a just system under which their rights are protected, the government is chosen by the people, and the military is assembled on the side as a protective force against international attacks or as a force which helps the citizens in times of hazards such as floods or earthquakes. However, in reality our country is running very differently; since its inception the military has carried a lot of clout in the country and has strayed from its real purpose.

This blog tells the story of a movement by the peasants of Okara, members of the lower class stratum of society. Through their movement the “Anjuman Muzareen Punjab (AMP)” or Tenants Association of Pakistan, they have risen in defiance of the military in order to attain justice.

It began when the British created land irrigation canals in the 20th century. They asked many peasants from East Punjab to migrate to the barren lands of West Punjab and promised them a share of the produce and later ownership for cultivating the land; which the peasants continued to labor on in the hope of attaining land rights and a 50 percent share of the produce. In the two decades after the partition of the sub-continent, the land became waterlogged and could not be cultivated; leaving the peasants to move around in search of earning a living.

In 2000, the Pakistan Defense ministry enforced a new piece-rate and a yearly lease agreement on the farmers of this land. This made the peasants revolt against the unjust system. The military forcefully possessed the land with the idea of using it as a military training camp ground. The tenants resisted this possession but military forcefully ejected them. In the end, the military didn’t use the land for training grounds; instead they utilized it for agricultural purposes.

PML(N), the mainstream political party in power before military dictator General Pervez Musharraf took power in a coup in 1999, was deliberating giving ownership to the tenants, but like recurrent episodes in Pakistan’s history, the army reigned supreme during General Musharraf’s regime. And though this was a time of the most unqualified forms of state subjugation for the AMP, Musharraf, albeit unintentionally helped spur this movement further by on the one hand, turning a blind eye to the atrocities in Okara during his rule, and on the other making repeated announcements that state land would be allotted to the landless.  On August 20, 2000, inaugurating his government’s land distribution scheme as part of a poverty alleviation program, General Musharraf announced that, in fact, “all state land would be allotted to landless farmers” and he had directed “all four provinces to give ownership rights to all such people who had been living on state land for a long time.”  Such statements energized the farmers’ movement, principally in Okara, but to a lesser extent also in other districts and consequently changed the very character of the Anjuman Muzareen, by encouraging the tenants to articulate a unified vision instead of just reacting to a threat.

According to a documentary named “Two Steps Forward” directed by Gulnar Tabassum of Shirkat Gah-Women’s Resource Center, 80 percent of the tenants hardly ever managed two meals a day so it was difficult for them to pay rent for the land in money which previously they gave in produce. The military administration made the farmers subject to exorbitant loans that would be impossible to pay off; the cuts taken from produce to pay back these loans left farmers with nothing to take home. The tenants were threatened with prison if they did not leave the village. This wasn’t just an intimidation tactic; the villagers were later surrounded and, with oscillating assaults from rangers, the police and other military units, 18 peasants have since lost their lives. Many more have been injured, and tear gas was used many times. While male peasants were imprisoned, the women were threatened.  However, the women did not step back and instead unfailingly confronted the army head on. It was during that time that the peasant women appeared and took the lead in this movement.

Pioneering the women’s chapter of Anjuman Muzareen were women like Akeela Naz who dropped out from her schooling to be the first woman in the struggle and who soon became the face of the movement; and Munawar Bibi who is president of AMP, along with countless others. The movement is unparalleled in the history of Pakistan in terms of women’s leadership, especially as the women come from the lower strata of society, where women are rarely allowed outside their homes let alone take part in an organized movement. These women stood against the full force of the army rangers equipped with just their Thappa (a wooden dowel which is used to wash clothes).  The Thappa became a symbolic emblem as its function was to beat the dirt away from clothes when washing; in the same fashion the peasant women implied that they would use their dowel to drive the malevolent forces away. The organized women thus got their name as the “Thappa Force”.

The Peasant women moreover played a significant role in negotiations with the government. Munawar Bibi became voice of AMP and had negotiations with the rangers and the police and also met with government officials. But later it was decided that they would not hold parleys with rangers and that talks would be held only after the withdrawal of paramilitary forces from Okara.

This movement was a great example of how people from the most underprivileged classes can withstand the most powerful of forces in a country; of how women opt in on the frontlines alongside men in any movement against a shared threat in the face of injustice.

However, this movement was did more than play out the story of David and Goliath, it has also brought about transformations at the social level. Years of low-level disputes, discrimination, and interfaith tensions ended in the face of a collectively felt menace. The communities now reside in interfaith harmony and many of the Christian women like Akeela are the champions of the movement.

Another great effect of the movement has been the increased education of girls. The peasants realized how important education is for standing up for ones rights and how significant a role women play in this; thus they began sending their daughters to school. Now women have more agency and decision making power in society and the family. Unlike elsewhere in Pakistan, women in Okara are no longer looked down upon but are given recognition and respect by men. As a result women are way more liberated than ever before and in comparison to almost anywhere else in Pakistan.

Peasant women from the Anjuman Muzareen movement have subsequently become very active and sensitized on socio political issues, and are now involved in various forums and working groups. They are now stressing the need for women’s direct ownership of land. Since 2012 under WELDD Project of Shirkat Gah these women are engaged with leadership enhancement program and technical skills development. Their participation has been admirable; they have now developed effective linkages with government departments with whom they maintain contact and call upon for meetings on social issues and in terms of support when in need of coordination and cooperation.

One must wonder, when the protectors of the state have become so powerful that they are now danger to us, how much we are prepared to deal with.  Militarism, whether it is played out by state or non-state actors must be challenged doubly by women in order to liberate themselves from not just the clear and present threat of militarism to security but the long stretch of gender based violence which finds its roots in militarism, armed or otherwise.

 

Sahera Bano is a Lahore based activist & Senior Program Officer of Leadership and Technical Skills with Shirkat Gah a leading women rights organization in Pakistan. 

Mehek Ghaffar is a graduate from Beaconhouse National University and majored in cultural studies. She is currently interning at Shirkat Gah in the WELDD programme. 

This is the 13th entry in our #16Days 2014 blogging series.  We are bringing you an entry from one of our inspiring activists on each day during the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence.

Issue: 
Peace and Security
Political and Public Participation
Land and Economic Rights