Women's Empowerment and Leadership Development for Democratisation

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The Purple Women’s Movement

By Naasha Ali Shah and Mehek Ghaffar

Naasha Ali Shah currently works as programme officer with Shirkat Gah- Women's Resource Centre as part of the WELDD programme.  She aspires to one day be a socialist feminist scholar.  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 blog is an expanded piece adapted from Naasha Ali Shah’s original report on the Purple Women’s Movement's humble beginnings.

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Despite huge leaps in the laws pertaining to women’s rights in the last decade, Pakistani women are still facing increased risk of violence and oppression in their daily lives. This is especially true for regions such as the Swat valley, where the growing threat from religious militancy, supplemented by the Taliban and poor governance, has given rise to heightened insecurity and increased violence against women.

It has recently been recognized internationally that not only do women inordinately face the devastating consequences of war, but they play a pivotal role in post-conflict management, rebuilding of the community and the overall transition to sustainable peace.

In 2012, Shirkat Gah  conducted training and awareness sessions in the Swat valley, pertaining to the impacts of war on women and their part in reconstruction efforts as recognized in the United Nations Resolution 1325. Shirkat Gah witnessed the rise of women leaders as they realized their potential for social change and called  for the formation of a women’s group to work for the reestablishment of peace in the region. Thus, the group Khwendo Tolona, meaning “sister collective” was formed. The objective of the group was to work towards peace building through the empowerment of women. In the words of Tabassum, a woman leader from the group, “Whatever happened happened, now we have to put the past aside and move forward. Women were the ones who helped the Taliban come into power; if we were responsible for making the situation worse we can make it better”.

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As word of the group spread, abetted by Shirkat Gah and its Women Friendly Spaces across Pakistan; women leaders in all four provinces began work on forming their own versions of Sister Collectives. They founded Sujhal Sawera from Punjab, Navein Subha from Sindh and Noki Subh from Balochistan; all of them connoting “new dawn” in their regional languages. Working towards peace in their respective regions, these women leaders worked tirelessly without any financial support from the outside. These were rural women of the community, working for the community.

But their work did not end with their own communities; discontented over the instability that plagues the entire country, the women sought cumulative efforts for the promotion of peace at a grander level. They conceived the notion of establishing at the national level an alliance between the peace groups. In September of 2013, with the support of Shirkat Gah, the sister collectives of all four regions journeyed together to the Swat Valley and launched what they named The Purple Women’s Movement. (see also)

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Leaders they surely were, but coming from the community level, most of them had never stepped outside their village, much less travelled to another province. This was the first time many of them had met women from other provinces and so they initially discussed their various cultures, the social hardships and oppression in their communities and their struggles in the face of such difficulties. Predictably, they were unable to understand each other without the aid of interpreters who assisted them in their communication, but it was clearly proven that language was never a barrier in any peace building process. Not only were there no snags when bridging these expanses due to the language gap, but it was also unequivocally established that the major concerns in all four provinces, justified in the name of culture were all the same. Having reached that conclusion the leaders had a dialogue on possible peaceful solutions to these issues.

Each province painted sheets of cloth with messages of peace and then they sewed them together as a gesture of solidarity between the regions. Women leaders made speeches that roused hope and inspiration. Humaira Bachal of Sindh, for example, spoke of her tireless efforts for the struggle for women’s education. They were introduced to state laws such as the domestic violence bill recently passed in Sindh assembly. They also released caged doves which were to the women, not only a symbol of peace but also of freedom from the confined lives that they had left, or hoped to leave behind.

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One year on and the impact of forming a national movement was felt when Shirkat Gah’s efforts for women empowerment and leadership enhancement raised the spirits of the women from the movement in September  of 2014 in Lahore.  The Purple Women participated in Shirkat Gah’s National Youth Convention on Peace, Pluralism and Democratic norms. The event, which highlighted the need to advance women’s participation in public and political arenas for strengthening democratizing processes, channelled women’s leadership, especially amongst youth, to resist the undermining of societal pluralism, advocate for women’s inclusion in all public forums, and promote the accountability of duty-bearers.

The convention was attended by youth from all provinces and key duty bearers of the country representing all major political parties of the country, this included legislative and executive parliamentarians (MNA’s, MPA’s  and Senator’s) .The Purple Women presented at the juncture a charter of demands which pressed for the redress of  issues such as discrimination against women, laws to be passed in all provinces for the protection of women,  opportunities for and representation of women in all private and public spheres  of the country etc. (see also)

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This movement, which shows a collective effort and consciousness to fight, where women are joined together in solidarity to protect each other from all the forces of oppression which they face every day is remarkable in a country like Pakistan. Where ordinarily women are only ever beleaguered victims of the deeply patriarchal system, here one sees an overwhelmingly defiant and responsive struggle to fight social injustice and subjugation from the post-conflict region of Swat and spreading like a wildfire throughout the country. It is noteworthy that women who have never had an anti-oppressive schooling or have never had a formal education in feminism (such as “women/gender studies”), have started a movement at such a grand scale, bringing about a remarkable change, not only in their immediate surroundings but also in the approach to the self. They have cut through  centuries of internalized oppression and created in its stead a wider awarenessof self-respect and the need to right the wrong being done to them. This movement began from the grass roots level and is evidence of how women from non-urban rustic backgrounds can shake the underpinnings of the system.

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A unified stand  underpins   this movement and therefore establishes the fact that provincial, lingual and religious barriers are of no importance when a goal is collectively sought for. There is conviction that a collective struggle is what is wanted, in order to effectively advance the movement and contest the system in which disparity grows. The campaign to highlight culturally justified violence doesn’t just delineate the torment these women have faced at the hands of their families and/or communities. It also exposes the limited  implementation  of the otherwise appreciably positive legal amendments made for the elimination of discrimination and violence against women. Another thing to admire about the women of this movement is that even after such hardships inflicted upon them by the male members of their society, they deeply admire and appreciate the  men who are working alongside with them to bring about a substantive and systematic change in the social order.

This critically necessary drive for peace by women, the first of many perhaps, may just help us break free from the chains of oppression that are now deeply rooted in the regional ethos. It  has the potential to finally end the spate of volatility, giving rise to amity between all the various expanses of the country, divided not so much by culture, nor by language, but by illusory prejudices and nefarious intentions.

This is the 15th 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.

Peace and Security
Political and Public Participation