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Women in political struggle

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Pakistan formed part of the Mughal Empire, and more recently, together with India and Bangladesh, was part of the British Empire. On independence in 1947 the state of Pakistan was formed with two wings, West and East. In 1971, after a war, East Pakistan seceded and became the separate country of Bangladesh. Pakistan has five main ethnic groups of its 147 million population, they speak seven main languages and 97% of them are Muslim.

Note to images: where not attributed, the pre-1975 pictures are taken from ‘Women of Pakistan’, a book produced by the Government of Pakistan for International Women’s Year, 1975.

women in political struggle
Women in political struggle
  • Prior to independence from British rule and the creation of Pakistan in 1947 a number of women were involved in the struggles for female emancipation and independence from colonial rule. Women’s dress depended, then as now, on region, class and occasion. The sheer variety of dress has dwindled over the years with a move towards shalwar kurtas (baggy trousers and tunics) becoming the standard.
Mohtarma Miss Fatima Jinnah, sister of Pakistan’s founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, was prominent in all public arenas and the first Muslim woman to contest the presidency in 1965.
  • Raana Liaqat Ali, wife of Pakistan’s first Prime Minister, and founder of the All Pakistan Women’s Association was the first woman ambassador and provincial governor.
Fatima Jinnah and Raana Liaqat Ali both wore the ghararas, a loose divided skirt. Ghararas are now only worn in weddings.
The two women members of the first
  • Constituent Assembly (1946-54) are both in saris.
  • Saris were commonly worn by urban professional women in West Pakistan (now Pakistan) until the late 1970s.

Demonstration in front of Women’s Jail, Lahore, which had in it many Muslim women arrested by the British Government.

  • A pro-independence procession of Muslim women in pre-independence days.
  • “The national struggle threw many women into the limelight as determined freedom fighters. Hundreds of them filled British jails. The story of the young girl who, defying the Police, scaled the walls to hoist the Muslim League flag atop the Punjab Assembly building in Lahore, has now become a legend.”
Begum Nusrat Bhutto, 1975, wife of the Prime Minister on the frontispiece of ‘Women of Pakistan’ wearing a sari. So called ‘Islamization’ under General Zia ul Haq’s dictatorship (1977-1988) branded the sari as an ‘unIslamic’ form of dress. The sari is now making a comeback in fashionable circles but sarong-like lungis and laachas as well as other traditional dresses considered ‘peasant’ wear are steadily disappearing.

“The dream of an egalitarian social order based on a just and democratic economic system will never come true if the female half of the population continues to be the subservient sex.”

Begum Nusrat Bhutto, wife of PrimeMinister Zulfikhar Ali Bhutto, March 1975. Pakistan took an active part in the 1975 International Women’s Year and Nusrat led the delegation to the UN’s first women’s conference in 1975.

women s action forum protests the rape and murder of the masoom sisters lahore 1987 azhar jafri
Women’s Action Forum protests the rape and murder of the Masoom sisters.Lahore, 1987. Azhar Jafri
Women in Karachi protesting against water shortages in 2001.
  • Note that the photographer has chosen to show the women with covered faces, and perhaps they have chosen to cover for reasons of anonymity.
  • AFP, The Nation, March 2001
Women activists of Pakistan Peoples Party (one of two major political parties) protest against Maulana Niazi’s fatwa against Benazir Bhutto.
  • Ishaq Chaudhry – The Muslim 12 August 1992

Women from one of the mainstream politico-religious parties Jamaat-e-Islami protesting outside the Supreme Court against Qazi Hussain Ahmed’s imprisonment – one of the leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami. They have filed a petition against his arrest and are therefore making the ‘Peace’/’Victory’ sign.

The Daily – Pakistan – Lahore, January 2002

Women protesting against the closure of a polling station at its regulatory time arguing that they were already waiting inside the station to vote. T-shirts, Iranian style chador and scarf mingle with local fashion.
  • AFP. Women voters, 1988 General Elections

Women at Work

These women’s class, backgrounds and status show through their dress as clearly as through the work they do…

Working class fast food outlet, Lahore.

K M Chaudry, The Muslim, March 1990


Karachi Stock Exchange workers.

AFP, The Nation, September 1999

Harvesting wheat in Punjab (2000)


Women crossing the dried up Indus river in search of water, Sindh Province.

AFP, The Nation, March 2001


Drama artists rehearsing in Radio Pakistan’s studio in Rawalpindi.

In the 1960s kameez (tunics) were short and the shalwar wide. None of the women has covered her head with the dupatta.

  • Pakistan has always had a strong sporting tradition. In 1975 the Government was very proud and supportive of women’s sports:
  • “Until recently the concept of young girls sprinting across athletic tracks or dashing around sports arenas was anathema to a social order which had decreed that women’s place was the home. The few bold and the brave who managed to defy social dictates of the times could, however, move no farther than badminton and table tennis courts. Whatever talents were, they remained undiscovered and underdeveloped in the absence of training facilities and competitions.”
  • Women of Pakistan, Government of Pakistan, 1975

Group of National athletes at the National Training and Coaching Centre, Karachi.

Note the variety of covering which would not nowadays be possible – all would be in track-suit bottoms and baggy long-sleeved shirts to cover the body shape.


Punjab University Inter-Collegiate Women’s Cricket Championship at Lahore College.

Dawn, January 2000

Hockey in Lahore

Iqbal Ch, The News, April 2001

Lahore College for Women sports day

Dawn, February 2000

Under the 1977-1985 martial law regime when dress codes tightened, women continued to play sports but under more difficult conditions. The participation of all Pakistani women in sporting events abroad or in public (in front of an audience that could include males) stopped. In the early 1980s Pakistan’s highly successful women’s hockey team was turned back from the airport while on its way to an international event. After the return of democracy, women were able to compete internationally although there is still a reluctance to open women’s sports events to the public.
outside influences
Outside Influences
  • The 1977-1985 martial law regime emphasised Pakistan’s connections with the Middle East and downplayed its Asian history, and promoted the veil. Forms of purdah never before seen in Pakistan are now widespread in urban areas, including the Iranian-style veils and Middle Eastern headscarves, which are replacing the traditional Pakistani chaddar and traditional burqas stylised in the cartoon. But dresses vary as seen in the shopping scenes:

Moment II, 1999

Aisha Khalid

Pakistan: Another Vision, Fifty years of painting and sculpture from Pakistan, 2000

Shirkat Gah


Urban shopping 2.

Lahore, Camerapix, Pakistan, 1994

  • Urban shopping 1.
  • (2004) anon. wluml
women on the move
Women on the move
  • The freedom of women has ebbed and flowed with successive political regimes. This has not only shown itself in dress but also in women’s daily activities and individual mobility.
“A woman driving a taxi, even today, would make an unusual sight. Mrs Waheeda Baig started operating a driving school for women in the fifties. After the war of 1965, she became a full-time cab driver, astonishing many and annoying some.” No women taxi drivers are to be seen nowadays.
  • UKS Diary 1998

She is one of the very few women riding a motorcycle one can see on the streets of Lahore.

  • The Sun, January 2nd 2000

A young woman getting from A to B on Lake Manchar.

  • Pakistan – from mountains to sea, 1994
  • A horse drawn tonga in Lahore – a cheap and popular form of transport in Lahore and other cities.
  • Pakistan – from mountains to sea, 1994
modes and codes traditional dress to ethnic chic

Gujar women and girls in the main street of Madyan, Hindu Kush.

Linden-Museum, Stuttgart, Arts and Crafts of the Swat Valley, Johannes Katter, 1989

Pathan women of Peshawar, c 1910.


Modes and Codes:traditional dress to ethnic chic
  • Rural and nomadic women retain their traditional dress more than urban and better-off women...

Stylized variations of the shalwar-kameez traditional to most parts of Pakistan are now commonly seen at specially staged ‘cultural events’ and sell in shops around the world to better-off women who know little or nothing of the culture the dress comes from or the weight of meaning it once carried.

We should know about the women in Swat that, “ … from the age of puberty a women is literally shut up in the house and can leave it only with the permission of her father or her husband, and only on special occasions and under special conditions.”
  • The Life of the Women in the Zenana, Viola Forster-Luhe, 1989
  • “Swati traditional dress, baggy Shalwar and Kameez with a Chaddar resting on both the shoulders.”
  • Women of Pakistan, 1975
Ministers, baboos asked to wear national dress
  • By Ansar Abbasi
  • ISLAMABAD: National dress should be worn on formal occasions, this is not a demand of the newly emerged Islamic political force - Muttahida Majlis-e-Aamal - but a direction of the military regime to all its key members and top bureaucrats.
  • Through an "immediate" circular issued to all the federal ministers, advisers and key bureaucrats including federal secretaries, the cabinet secretary Javed Masud directs that on all formal occasions the national dress should be worn.
  • The ministers, secretaries, advisers most of whom have been seen wearing western attire during the last three years of the military regime are now told to wear national dress ie "white or black sherwani/achkan or a buttoned up black waist-coat (V shaped in summer and closed collar in winter), kurta/kamees and shalwar/pyjama, black shoes and matching socks, preferably with Jinnah Krakuli cap."
  • … A conspicuous change is now expected in Pakistan television where the lady newscasters and announcers have stopped wearing headscarf, models and television artists are shown in western dresses in entertainment programmes and commercials and Azzan (call for prayers) has been stopped.
  • The News International, Pakistan. October 16th, 2002