The sole voice: Women’s rights activist, Nighat Said Khan

Many, who know her well, call her Bunny. To those who don’t, Nighat Said Khan is the director and founder of the Applied Socio-Economic Research (ASR) Resource Centre — a non-profit organisation that has been one of the pioneers in feminist and social activism, and in combining activism with research and theory. She has also helped establish the Institute of Women’s Studies Lahore (IWSL), aiming to close the gap between theory and practice in political and social movements.

Her journey began long before she permanently moved to Pakistan, long before she attended Columbia University in the 1960s in New York. We can go even further back, to when she was a mere 14-year-old, defying her father’s position in the army.

Always on the go, always controversial, always direct and forthcoming. Khan has long been involved in the women’s rights movement and peoples’ movements in Pakistan as one of their most prominent faces. But not very many know of her personal life and her fierce resistance to personal problems and challenges. Excerpts from a recent interview with the Herald follow.

Tanveer Jahan. Tell me about the journey of Nighat Said Khan as a women’s rights activist?

Nighat Said Khan. In many ways, my life has been very different from what is the norm in Pakistan. My father was posted to the United States in the 1950s where I started elementary school. We returned then to Pakistan so I completed my O levels from here. I then went for my A levels to London. During this period my father resigned from the army and the family moved to the United States. I followed soon after and went to college there. However, I was determined to return to Pakistan and in 1974 I came back, giving up my British and American residency. Other than the time I spent in England later for my post graduate studies, I have been here since.

While waiting to go to London for my A levels, I became involved in a student’s movement against Ayub Khan even though my father was a martial law administrator. I was on the streets against my own father. I became a communist when I was 14-years-old, influenced by an incident at school, and also by Tahira Mazhar Ali and Mazhar Ali Khan.

Nighat Said Khan while studying at Columbia University, 1965

There is no single point in my life where something happened that made me take the decision to become a feminist. I come from a liberal family that did not prefer sons over daughters. And there was no extended family – no aunts or uncles – to say that women are less or more equal than men. But I was always aware that girls around me did not have the freedoms that I had and that those from other class backgrounds were particularly controlled.

When I was at Columbia University in the 1960s, I had to work to pay for my education and often this was in grocery stores and in factories. This experience led me to become involved in unionised labour. I was also involved in the civil rights movement as well as the anti-Vietnam war movement and, of course, the women’s rights movement. When I came back to Pakistan in 1971, I wanted to work with a Maoist group but Maoists were supporting or were silent on the military action in East Pakistan while I was adamantly against it. They also did not have a position on the ‘women’s question’ and tended not to take women seriously. The women in the group were often the wives of party leaders and were active because of their husbands. Disillusioned, I got involved with the Pro-Moscow Democratic Women’s Association and its struggle against the military’s suppression of the peoples aspirations in East Pakistan.

I became involved in a student’s movement against Ayub Khan even though my father was a martial law administrator.

I was in Pakistan for a whole year in 1971 and then I went back to the United States and England to pay off my student loans. I was again working in factories to pay the loans off. After I came back to Lahore, I started looking for a job and, because of my leftist orientation, started working with Professor Eric Cyprian at Shah Hussain College [which had been set up in Lahore by leftist intellectuals]. Later, I joined the Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, but in less than a year was ‘thrown out’ since they did not want me to teach. They did not mind me being there as a researcher, but the administration did not want me to influence the students so they took away the coursework from me. I moved from one department to another. At the economics department, I was involved in a project looking at rural poverty. We decided to go and live in villages like the villagers live. The idea was to experience poverty — eat what the villagers ate and sleep where they slept; nothing was to be procured from the cities. People know me as a women’s rights activist but actually all my academic work is on Marxism, peasant struggles and on peace and conflict. Often when I am invited abroad, I am invited as a socialist, as an expert on peasant movements or on issues of conflict and peace. But I have always done this with a feminist lens. Within Pakistan, I have aligned myself with many political movements such as those going on in Balochistan and Kashmir.

In 1979, I went to England for my post-graduation, studying Marxism and peasantry under the supervision of Hamza Alavi. I returned for my field work in 1981 and immediately became active in the recently formed Women’s Action Forum (WAF). I felt we needed to combine the work on women’s rights with academics. That resulted in the setting up of the ASR Resource Centre. But ASR was not registered till 1988 even though it started in 1983. This was because we said we were socialists so the government considered us a political organisation.

Nighat Said Khan in the front row (centre) with members of South Asian Women Unite, Bangladesh, 1986 | Courtesy Nighat Said Khan
Nighat Said Khan in the front row (centre) with members of South Asian Women Unite, Bangladesh, 1986

Jahan. What is your critique on the women’s rights movement in Pakistan? What has it achieved since the setting up of the WAF?

Khan. I think we have to go back a bit. We have to acknowledge the movements that came before us. There was a movement (basically of aristocratic women) before the partition. The first Asian women’s conference was held in 1931 in Lahore. Its demands were quite similar to ours — right to inheritance, right to vote and right to stand in elections. In 1948, the women who were married to or were close to people in power – such as Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan – issued a charter of demands for women’s rights. They were basically saying, ‘Okay, now that we have a new state, what is going to be the status of women in it?’ They were talking about changes in the Islamic laws; they were talking about inheritance rights; they were talking about women’s representation in the legislature. They were anti-dowry and they stood against second marriage. And they did what they said. They would protest whenever dowry was given. And when Prime Minister Mohammad Ali Bogra got married for the second time, they boycotted him.

The Democratic Women Association was, too, founded in 1948. We also had women’s organisations like the All Pakistan Women’s Association (Apwa) that successfully worked for the passage of family laws during Ayub Khan’s regime. This movement was led by women from the upper-class unlike the pre-partition movement which tended to be more aristocratic. The women who formed the WAF in 1981 were mainly women who came from professional backgrounds. While the class background of the leadership changed over these phases, had the earlier generations not played their role we would not have been in the position to challenge Ziaul Haq as we did in the 1980s.

Our struggle as members of the WAF was not so much a fight for our personal freedoms, it was actually for the women who did not have agency. None of the women’s rights activists went to jail for adultery. No one received lashes. Women activists took a position on sports not for personal reasons as they themselves had access to private spaces which they could use.

Within the WAF, we have to make a distinction between its chapters. In Islamabad, which is the seat of the government, many of the WAF activists were either government servants or otherwise in vulnerable positions and, for them, taking on Ziaul Haq was very risky. Several of the members of the Karachi chapter came from a different political background while in Lahore the founders were dominated by women who were from the left, were members of political parties or were part of politically active families. The Lahore members, therefore, were more experienced in mobilising support.

In the initial period, there was also this big debate within the WAF on whether the activists could use Islam strategically while criticising the Islamic state and Islamism. I was one of those who did not support the idea. What I like about the WAF is that decisions are taken with consensus. Except in some cases, the members stay in the organisation and try to convince others over a period of time. Although there are instances of this, very few members leave and challenge the WAF from the outside. The requirement of all chapters arriving at a consensus position meant that, working within to change positions, took 10 years for the WAF to state that it was a ‘secular’ organisation.

Apart from holding regular informal and formal meetings, the WAF Lahore organised two large public meetings in 1982, one at the YMCA and the other at Apwa. In the first, we mobilised about 300 women and in the second approximately 400 or more. Our strategy of going from individual to individual, holding regular meetings in closed spaces, visiting factories and neighbourhoods was a successful tactic. When 14 months later the call came to protest on The Mall road against the Law of Evidence on February 12, 1983, over 250 women risked their lives and came out against Ziaul Haq. Nobody ran away. Many were beaten, many arrested and this defiance changed the whole nature of the movement. It broke the silence against Ziaul Haq. This day is widely celebrated as Pakistan Women’s Day.

Suddenly everyone was interested in joining the WAF. The disadvantage of that was that the camaraderie that existed among the founding members was not shared by the new members. We were initially working with the feminist principle that the personal is political. There was an enormous space for sharing of the personal with your fellow activists. What we have lost is that element. I now often no longer know the woman sitting next to me even in WAF and have no idea what she is experiencing at a personal level.

Speaking in Bangkok at the preparatory meeting for the UN Women’s Conference in Nairobi, 1985
Speaking in Bangkok at the preparatory meeting for the UN Women’s Conference in Nairobi, 1985

The other thing was that there is little internalisation of the political and public positions that we take. I’ll give you two examples. I have asked many women’s rights activists how many of them would take their brother to court for their share in inheritance. I have not gotten a positive reply from many of them. Yet they are expecting some woman from some village to take this stand and be beaten up and have nowhere to go. I ask a similar question about domestic violence: if your son hits your daughter or the maid, will you file a case against him. There was not a single activist who said that she would use the law.

There is still a lot of energy in the WAF especially in the new chapter in Hyderabad and it continues to play a major role in the women’s movement. So many women identify with it. You meet someone you have never met before and they say they are a member of the WAF. There is a running joke among us that any woman over the age of 50 will say she is a founder member. In that sense the organisation has thousands of members. This is the WAF’s strength.

The WAF has no funding, no office, no hierarchy. It is there but it is not there. This gives it an enormous advantage. Unlike a donor-funded project that lasts [for a specific time], it is not bound by any time frame. It is also not constrained to taking positions in accordance with funding requirements or within the parameters of any particular government. And it will continue to exist as the government cannot do anything against it since it is not registered.

Where the WAF has possibly failed is its indecision on how to transform itself for the future. It cannot remain the way it is. The class background of its members is changing from mostly English-speaking professionals to non-English speaking professionals. In Hyderabad, it has become Sindhi-speaking. Its members there tend to live in smaller neighbourhoods, travel by public transport and have different living standards. The organisation also has not addressed how new chapters can be formed, with the result that there are instances of women setting up organisations using the name WAF like a brand name.

People and women are active everywhere. They want to fight. This is where I think the women’s movement’s future lies.

From being an autonomous movement, women’s rights activism has also changed with a plethora of NGOs [non-government organisations]. The work [NGOs do] tends to be project- and donor-driven bound by time frames. The focus is also on quantity rather than quality with expectations that projects can reach out to and change people’s understanding by just participating in one or two events. Increasingly these large NGOs arrange meetings and activities for thousands of people who are supposedly to be trained within those few hours. When these NGOs say they have trained 10,000 to 20,000 people, I don’t take them seriously. In my experience, if I can get five committed activists during the course of a programme who will take the process further on their own accord, I would consider myself lucky. If these NGOs are managing to convince thousands of people to join the campaign for women’s rights, then we would have a very large movement by now.

My experience with NGOs is that once they exit a project, I don’t think people carry on with it on their own. This is the disadvantage of anything that has a time frame. At ASR, we have tried to do it differently with projects in which we never leave an area, a programme or a process after a project may be completed but it is very difficult to keep doing that.

There is a need for a new movement for women’s rights. There is also a need to redefine this area since it has become dominated by the NGOs and the United Nations (UN). The involvement of the NGOs and the UN in some way is damaging the [prospects of] organic movements. The moment some woman or some people become active in a village, an NGO goes there and makes them a part of a project. Earlier, they were doing their activism on their own but then they become our mazaras (tenants) and we fight not only for the ‘ownership’ of ‘our’ mazaras, we even fight over which districts we are working in. We act like landlords and chaudharis.

A rally organised by the Women’s Action Forum in 2013 in celebration of the February 12, 1983 demonstration against Ziaul Haq | Courtesy Nighat Said Khan
A rally organised by the Women’s Action Forum in 2013 in celebration of the February 12, 1983 demonstration against Ziaul Haq

The other change that has happened is the competition for funds. The donors have turned us into enemies of each other. Twenty years ago, when we formed the Joint Action Committee (JAC) for People’s Rights and Democracy in Lahore, we were very close to each other. Earlier, we were not bound to attach names or logos to the projects so it did not matter whether you were doing it or I was doing it. Now the donors insist on attaching their names to the projects essentially marketing themselves. Donors have tied us to capitalism and jet-setting is a part of the package. Over the last few years, I have spent months in over 50 districts, essentially trying to assess the impact of the 30 years of ASR. People and women are active everywhere. They want to fight. This is where I think the women’s movement’s future lies. While these struggles need support and even informed direction, the movement cannot be determined by those who stay within their comfort zones. Women who have to fight to go to school, who risk their lives to get married to the men of their choice, are the women who substantively challenge patriarchy.

Pakistan also does not have what several other countries and continents have, and what I have been trying to [work towards] for many years — a conference or something like that which happens every two years or so which will bring together women working on all kinds of issues. When we go to such conferences abroad, we see 40 workshops, each done by a different organisation, giving us a chance to meet different women, open ourselves up to other ideas and initiatives, to have a more holistic understanding of feminism and the women’s movement. I have had many meetings and have written on the subject. At one point, a couple of us even got funds from the UN for an annual event but somehow it just fell apart. A holistic multidimensional inclusive conference would give us the opportunity to connect the dots and to move forward as a collective movement.

Other countries also have women’s studies. We don’t have those either. A lot may be going on in Pakistan in these fields but that too tends to be scattered.

We, especially in the metropolitan cities, however, are living in cocoons and bubbles. In Lahore, for instance, there is a bubble that is the M M Alam Road; there is a bubble that is the Defence Housing Authority (DHA); there is a bubble that is Bahria Town. I have no idea what those bubbles are looking for but if you talk to people living in those bubbles, they do not even know what anyone else is doing in Lahore. They have never gone to Anarkali. Some have never even seen the fort. They are the ones who say Allah Hafiz [instead of Khuda Hafiz]. They are the ones who get influenced by Dubai and Abu Dhabi. They are the ones who want personal liberties within a closed space. They are not interested in the [lower] classes at all. Yet they are the ones who define aspirations and ideologies with their control over consumer spending, the media, advertising, education and even health care.

Jahan. The civil society in Pakistan is facing many challenging issues such as sexuality and the treatment of religious minorities. Working on these issues creates backlash and involves risks in a traditional society like ours. How do you feel about that?

Khan. As far as sexuality is concerned, ASR took the position that sexual expression is a personal decision. In 1997-1998, a story started doing the rounds that ASR is a lesbian organisation and that there are lesbians working here. This rumour, plus other activities that ASR was involved in, propelled a minister in the Punjab government to accuse ASR of being anti-state, anti-government, anti-religion, anti-military and “leading women astray”. He said he knew what was happening behind the “closed doors” of ASR. Other women’s groups were charged for other illegal activities including corruption. The then chief minister, Shahbaz Sharif, invited us to his office where the ‘charges’ were read out to the NGO representatives.

I responded by saying that if we were anti-state, there was a law that could be used to take us to court. As for being anti-government, I thought it was our constitutional right to be anti-government if a government is doing something that we disagree with. On being anti-religion, I said to Shahbaz Sharif that I never called him an infidel and I did not give him the permission to call me one. I said I did not have to answer to him on religion.

Then he began talking about the military. He kept going on about how they were building houses, roads and bridges. I said, yes, I opposed the military getting involved in any way in civilian affairs. I grew up in this house, I said, when my father was a martial law administrator. I was then 14 years old. If my own father could not convince me that I should be pro-army, you are not going to convince me when I am 54. But the minister kept accusing me of “enticing” women. I said that was just our job and there was nothing I could say to him about that. If two women like each other and are in a relationship that has nothing to do with ASR or the IWSL as long as it does not infringe on the rights of others.

As I age, I struggle to keep on top of my specificity. I increasingly wonder what I have achieved by coming back to Pakistan. I am lost.

I have kept bringing up the issue of sexuality and the sexual control of women with other women rights organisations. Whether it is women’s mobility or their marriages, it is women’s sexuality and agency that is controlled. Women’s bodies personify the symbols and markers of identity. Women carry and are meant to perpetuate religions, culture, tradition and, most importantly, lineage. Their sexual ‘purity’ ensures continuity of the bloodline of the family and the community. Only a woman knows if a child is the father’s. This purity, therefore, must be controlled at all levels.

My own understanding, based on Marxism, is that it is the sexual control of women and the control of women’s labour that is the seat of patriarchy. Women produce children but they also produce labour: outside the home and within where she fulfils multiple roles of wife and mother, teacher, cook, cleaner, washerwoman. We all say that we are against honour killing and that we need laws to prevent this but the notion of honour itself is seldom problematised.

In 1993 when WAF was preparing its position for the UN World Conference on Human Rights, it decided to change the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) through a feminist lens. On the question of the family, the WAF took the position that the UDHR should state that it supports “all forms of the family” implying that the heterosexual family is not the only form. However, while the WAF took what was a radical public position, it did not pursue this in terms of its own internalisation or activism. In 2006, the WAF included a discussion on sexualities in its national convention. I felt strongly that the issue of Lesbians Gays Bisexuals and Transsexuals (LGBTs) needed to be discussed, especially the silencing of lesbians. We needed to discuss this because there is a hierarchy even within the LGBT community. The most privileged ones are khawaja saras because people think of them as hermaphrodites who are what they are because they are born like that. Their presence has been acceptable in our culture since they guarded the harem of the kings and their courts. They are considered special people who can bless and curse others. Bisexual men have some legitimacy since while expressing their sexuality with men they also have relationships including wives and children; further down are male homosexuals since men have sexual desire and sexual expression; while at the bottom of the pile, we have lesbians.

Women are not meant to have sexual desire or sexual expression outside the heterosexual marriage. A woman in a relationship with another woman or lesbians as such challenge the very basic structure of marriage as a heterosexual union, and thus the family, society and the state. The WAF, however, tends to shy away from discussing this and tends to take marriage and the family as a given. Some members even argue that this is an upper-class conceptual understanding and has no reality on the ground or in other classes.

Shortly afterwards, in 2007 there was the case of Shamail (a female to male transsexual) and Shahzina who got married despite family pressure. Both of them are from Faisalabad and from a lower-middle-class family. By taking this enormous step, while also challenging the very foundation of heterosexual marriage, quite apart from challenging patriarchy, religion and law. Their case went to the Lahore High Court (LHC). Interestingly, feminist lawyers did not offer legal support and, although some individual members gave some moral and financial support, the WAF did not support them as an organisation. The issue, they argued, was too ‘controversial’.

On the other hand, no maulvi raised his voice [against Shahzina and Shamail]. The court also did not bring in religion throughout the hearings because there is no mention in the Quran of the relationship between two women. And the law, too, does not refer to women. It is also not illegal to get a hysterectomy or mastectomy (as Shamail had done). The Chief Justice of the LHC, however, of his own volition levelled a charge of perjury and convicted them to three years each in jail. ASR supported them though the process and moved appeal in the Supreme Court, which gave them bail immediately and last year gave a judgement that the case should never have come to the court and that it should be wiped off the records.

We were initially working with the feminist principle that the personal is political. There was an enormous space for sharing of the personal with your fellow activists.

Subsequently, the Supreme Court gave a verdict that khawaja saras as a community are equal citizens before the law and need to be facilitated by the state. Several NGOs now have projects working with khawaja saras but, despite the fact that the court also gave a good judgement in Shazina and Shamail case, no organisation has focused on the oppression and silencing of women’s sexual or gender agency. Women are still silenced — even by activists of human and women’s rights.

Jahan. Do you ever feel threatened while working in the field?

Khan. No, not really. For example, I was in Chilas after the Shia killings at Karakoram. I was at the Shangrila Hotel where I was expecting a small group of people at a meeting. In the event about a hundred men showed up. Many of them had received money as compensation for the land taken away from them for building the Bhasha Dam, so they came driving their new SUVs. Since we were discussing the killing of Shias, the issue of Islam came up immediately. I told them I would only talk about Islam with Muslims. They were appalled; whereupon I asked them if they had given due share to their women from the compensation money because their wives, daughters and sisters had the right to have a share in accordance with Islamic tenets. They just listened in silence and no one said that I could not visit Chilas again. We started discussing the Shia killings and I wondered: if I had the same conversations with a maulvi in a city, he would have had me killed.

I did not feel that they would harm me or attack me. In Lahore, I would feel threatened because here the maulvis have so much control. One speech against me and anyone can come kill me. In that sense, I feel more vulnerable in the city.

Nighat Said Khan speaks at the Asia Pacfic NGO Forum in 2009
Nighat Said Khan speaks at the Asia Pacfic NGO Forum in 2009

Jahan. You must have faced a lot of challenges during your work. What were those challenges? Khan. In many ways, it has been a very lonely struggle. I have never been normal. My parents were both the only children of their parents so we have no aunts, uncles, cousins. None of my brothers and sisters or nieces or nephews are Pakistani citizen, with the exception of one who is a dual national. This is a very unusual situation to deal with. It was difficult for me even to get my identity card renewed because the officials asked who the head of my family was. I told them my parents left before the identity cards were introduced. I am not married, have no children, or any uncles, aunts or cousins. Then I realised that my legal status is in question. If I fall ill, no one can access my account, no one can pay my bills, no one has any legal authority to make decisions on my behalf. Now that I am getting older and illness is staring me in the face, all these aspects are beginning to matter. It has always been a problem for me to constantly assert my legitimacy in Pakistan since this society is so family-centric, but I had not understood the legal implications of this until [the identity card issue] alerted me to it. Additionally, there is a lot in me and ASR that is influenced by America — in that there are no class differences and everyone does everything for themselves and for others. So, in a lot of ways I have been out of the mainstream and it has been extremely lonely. Now it has become even lonelier because my friends have increasingly turned inward, or become conservative, or they move in social circles in which I am out of place.

I have epilepsy and I live alone so it can become dangerous. I am also bipolar and I take medicine for it. Fighting this to live a normal life has taken its toll. However, there is no one in my life who can understand what I have been going through. I mean, I have a lot of friends who take it for granted that I can handle things myself. I also have younger friends from different backgrounds but I am more of a mentor for them. As I age, I struggle to keep on top of my specificity, unusual circumstances are becoming even more difficult and now I increasingly wonder what I have achieved by coming back to Pakistan. I am lost.

Nighat Said Khan sits at the women peasants struggle in Dera Saigol farms | Courtesy Nighat Said Khan
Nighat Said Khan sits at the women peasants struggle in Dera Saigol farms

Jahan. Yes, one can understand that because you have given every single minute of your life to a struggle.

Khan. I am the 24/7 type. I never stop in my personal life. I also believe that ASR is a space to do everything that I do in my personal life. If you can come to my house and drink then you can come to ASR and do the same. In that sense, I cannot separate the personal from the professional, or the private from the public.

Jahan. If you could do this all over again, what is it that you would do the same way and what is it that you would want to do differently?

Khan. If I was not kicked out of the Quaid-e-Azam University, I would have stayed in public-sector education. What I would do differently is to maintain my friendships better at a personal level. I am a critic, politically and personally, and of myself; I feel if I can say something about myself, I can say it about others, too. But that is not something that the others appreciate.

A friend once asked me if I had not returned from the United States, where would I be. This [made me think of] Pakistanis who work at American universities and write about Pakistan. They visit Pakistan for two weeks during the summer or winter breaks; meet a few friends, family, talk a bit to others, and/or even do a bit of research. I find many of them are highly opinionated as far as Pakistan is concerned.

They do not live the nuances, the contradictions. Had I not returned to Pakistan, I would have become like them, which is scary.

My father was very keen that I join the UN because I was in America. There was an opening at the time for an Asian woman educated in England and America. Had I taken that up, today I might have been a UN bureaucrat with a big pension. But I don’t think I would have lasted in that position because I am not a bureaucrat. I would have probably not managed many promotions. It is not a life that I want for myself. I cannot think of any life other than the one I have now.

I am in parts a New Yorker. There is a part of me that belongs to London. A lot in me is very Delhi-like. But the place which tears open my heart is where I am. I don’t know where else I can locate myself. This place makes me extremely angry but I have the greatest passion for it. It is, however, not so much a sense of belonging but more a feeling that Pakistan is where I wish a revolution to happen the most.

This was originally published in Herald’s February 2016 issue.

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