LAHORE – More than 125 women activists from across Pakistan gathered in Lahore to attend the national conference of Shirkat Gah – Women’s Resource Centre’s Women’s Empowerment and Leadership Development for Democratization (WELDD) programme. WELDD is a transnational programme developed in partnership with the international solidarity network Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML) and the Asia-based Institute for Women’s Empowerment (IWE) which has been run in some 18 countries.

The WELDD programme was started in Pakistan in 2012 to advance women’s participation in public and political arenas, build resistance to culturally justified violence against women, assist women in peace-building initiatives, and promote sustainable livelihood options for women to strengthen the democratization processes. In four years of work across seven districts of Pakistan in the four provinces, more than 1,200 women have benefited from this programme. These WELDD-empowered activists have united to form a collective under the banner of “Purple Women”, signifying the purple chaddars (scarves) they wear as they work within their communities. Together with the empowered “Purple Women Leaders”, WELDD has also engaged men and youth, both boys and girls, within the same communities for result-oriented grassroots activism, which has brought about change in mindsets, social interactions, economic empowerment and even the provision of utility and civic services by local government bodies.

The women activists were joined by seasoned Pakistani feminist activists, Rubina Saigol, Bushra Aitazaz, Rukhshanda Naz, Tanveer Jahan, Bushra Gohar, Khawar Mumtaz, Neelam Hussain, Mehnaz Rafi, Tahira Abdullah, Rubina Jamil, Amina Durrani, Veeru Kohli, Humaira Bachal, Kauser Khan, Nasreen Azhar and Asma Zia among other at the conference. Farida Shaheed, Executive Director of Shirkat Gah presided over the conference. The programme was organized by Gulnar Tabassum (Director Communication & Leadership) and Humaira Shaikh (Director Peace & Pluralism). The discussions revolved around the need for transformative feminist leadership in Pakistan that can sustain a women’s rights and social justice movement that represents all Pakistani women irrespective of their religion, cast, creed and social status, as well as effective strategies on the way forward. The difficult challenges that women and youth face due to discriminatory practices and attitudes that promote class based differences and exclude women from accessing emerging opportunities were also discussed.

Speaking at the conference, Ms. Farida Shaheed said, “A feminist women’s movement started during political and social upheaval. The struggle made women aware that nobody is going to just give them their rights; they will have to fight for them and even snatch them.” She praised the grassroots struggles of the “Purple Women” and commended their resolve in sustaining a united feminist movement in their respective communities.

Many senior feminist activists gave fiery speeches and recited poetry by Faiz and Habib Jalib, inspiring and encouraging the women activists, most of whom are from rural areas. Khawar Mumtaz, founding member of WAF and Chairperson of National Commission on the Status of Women, said, “The objective of a women’s commission for us was to address violence against women, open and fair opportunities for women’s political participation and economic empowerment of women. But this is not enough. We must empower institutions and strengthen organizations working for women’s empowerment to see change happen.”

Senior human rights activist Tahira Abdullah talked about the language used for women both within and outside women’s rights movement. She said some words do not need translation, so we shouldn’t acquiesce and politely refer to rape as “ismat dari”, “bey-hurmati”, “zinna bil-jabr”. She stressed that rape is rape and that the only one who loses honour when a rape is committed is the rapist, not the one who is raped. She brought attention to the fact that now, apart from patriarchy, there is a vehement campaign of hate against women and young girls. She said too many good people have become targets of this campaign of hate like Parween Rehman, Sabeen Mahmud, Rashed Rehman and many more who spoke up against oppression.

Bushra Gohar, stateswoman, politician and women’s rights activist said that when she protested against women;s subjugation and fought for her rights she was threatened with murder and acid attacks but she kept going strong.

Rakhshanda Naz of Women’s Action Forum in Peshawar reminded the younger activists that they should use their purple chaddars as battle standards against misogyny and oppression. The session with mentors and senior feminists ended with a poem by Rehana Taufeeq contesting the claim made by the Hudood laws that women’s testimony is only half as compared to a man’s testimony.

Activists from Muzaffargarh, Bhakkar, Khanewal, Okara, Nankana, Sheikhupura, (Punjab), Usta Muhammad (Balochistan) , Shahdad Kot, Thatta, Hyderabad, Karachi (Sindh), Swat, Mardan, Charsadda, and Peshawar (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) shared success stories and framework to take the work forward without the programme in place. Chief of these were Veeru Kohli, who reported freeing 6000 bonded labourers in Sindh, and Humaira Bachal, who reminded her fellow activists that they started scared and alone at the first WELDD trainings and now they were making concrete changes happen in their communities. Many women reported that because of their rights not being upheld they feel like they are not the citizens of this State but slowly they are uniting to exercise their political agency by holding local government officials accountable for their duties and interacting with them to have their voices heard. The Okara Anjuman Muzaraeen protests were cited as examples.

Later in the evening, a Shirkat Gah documentary film called “Purple: The Colour of Change” chronicling the lives and struggles of the activists was also launched and screened. The impactful film earned the appreciation of audience members and will be used as an advocacy tool across the country to start a dialogue on women’s empowerment in Pakistan.