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Pakistan: Women peasants' heroic struggle coining new gender relations

Labour Party Pakistan - April 22, 2009

Bushra Khaliq The tenants' movement is heading towards its natural peak after making unprecedented records of sacrifices and bravery for the last 9 years. Over one million tenants are in peaceful but militant struggle against the large military owned companies (Military Farms, Army Welfare Trust and Punjab Seed Corporation) over the control of 68,000 acres of highly cultivable land which tenants are tilling for the last 100 years. Peasants of hundreds of villages in district Okara and 10 other districts of Punjab are in no mood to disappear in the face of the worst state oppression.

The on-going movement has regained momentum after the PPP and PML-N governments have shown lukewarm response to the demands of the peasants and avoided to fulfill the promises these two parties made with the tenants during their election campaigns. Though many peasants have bad feelings about both PPP and PML-N, but still many others smell success as they believe movement is inching towards victory.

Much has been written about the nature, potential and future of the movement. But perhaps not enough was said about the much crucial role of women in this movement where these rural women stood shoulder to shoulder with their men and sometime even one step ahead of them. The potential and degree of women participation in the on-going peasants' movement has immense importance from many aspects, especially the social one.

Like many other civil society activists though me too been witnessing and observing this movement as a classical struggle of the peasants but never felt the need to look at it from gender perspective until recently when I had the opportunity to speak at a series of peasant conventions couple of times. Women's huge and active presence in these conventions was clear indicator of their vitality in this movement.

The top leadership of Anjumn-Mazreen-Punjab, representative organization of peasants now fully acknowledges the importance of women participation accepting the fact that women through out the period remained a genuine, unbreakable and solid defense line of peasants struggle against Rangers and military farm authorities. Initially the community resisted to the idea of women participation in this movement but very soon the men realized the importance of women participation, especially when state oppression increased.

Recently I had the opportunity to speak at a peasant convention in Kulyana state in the last week of March. Over 1000 women peasants were present besides about 4000 men at the event. It was great to see hundreds of peasant women radicalized after 9-year constant struggle. They were looking like an organized force to defend themselves and their land. They were not at all hesitant to raise full throat slogans in favor of their demands. Many of them were raising slogans with both arms in the air. It was one of the rare impressive shows of women power.

After the convention dozens of women approached me and wanted to have more discussion on the issue of land, their participation and also the issue of permission from their men. They told the stories of women struggle against Rangers in different villages. These were so many that separate book is required to document all of them. For example they told about the thappa force of women who used to assemble in central place of the village whenever police and Rangers raided their villages in order to arrest the peasants.

"Many a times when all the men of the village were rounded up or arrested, it was we the women who stood up against the Rangers and military farms authorities. Equipped with Thapas (a cricket bat-shaped wooden stick used for washing clothes) we used to defend ourselves and our men in the face of the brutal state forces equipped with automatic weapons", many women shared their views.

The men in uniform never dared to attack in the presence of this women force. These women were impressed from speech as they told that my speech has inspired them but they did not know that it is their stories of struggle which inspired me and had made my belief in women struggle stronger.

Soon after in the first week of April three peasants were killed in this village of Kulyana state by a local feudal Roshan Shah on the behest of military farm authorities. Along with other friends and comrades I also went to condole with the bereaved family and express solidarity with the struggling peasants. The peasants and their women were determined despite the cool blooded murder of their three people. They were sad but not wailing and weeping like traditional women.

Munawar Bibi, the peasant woman who was severely injured in this incident of shooting told us that "we have no choice but to struggle and we will fight to the end. It is our land and we produce food and have the right to continue being peasants and family farmers. It is we women peasants who care for seeds, which is life, and the act of producing food is an act of love. Humanity depends on peasants, and we refuse to disappear", she told.

I had also the opportunity to speak at the grand gathering of peasants at Chack 4/L4 on 17 April where about 5000 women joined the 15000 strong crowd at All Punjab Peasants Convention. Despite peak of the harvesting season peasants including men, women, children and even elderly people had reached here on tractors troleys, carts, three-wheelers, motorcycles and cycles etc. The venue was all covered with red flags of tenants. None of us has ever seen so many red flags at any public gathering in Pakistan.

The country's mainstream media was also present which covered the event live. Among 15 speakers there were three women speakers including me. It was great experience. Not withstanding the fact that most of the peasantry is illiterate or less educated but many of them are becoming receptive to the idea of women participation in all sorts of activities. Perhaps this is the real attitudinal change the movement has brought about in the mind set of the men and communities here. Hope this change will lead to other positive social changes in favor of women to break the patriarchal shackles.

Badar un Nisa, a peasant woman from Kulyana state spoke very well in her mother tongue. She was direct and blunt when she said we do not need stables but land which is our. The pandal thundered with clapping. After the convention I bucked her up for her roaring speech. In response to my encouragement she said "this was my first ever speech and was able to deliver it only because of the inspiration you gave to me and hundreds other women of Kulyana state".

In my speech I highlighted the role of women in movement as they fully aware of their importance being major stake holders. From town to town and village to village they have taken up the struggle of land right with equal burden of socio-economic responsibilities. Like other historic movements of the world the peasant women too have created their own poetry to vet their struggle which is good addition to folk literature.

If we look at 9-year history of Anjumn-e-Mazarin Punjab, it is a beautiful panorama of an unmatched struggle. It is a story of resistance in front of the brutal state forces. It is an unstoppable narrative of sacrifices, arrests, tortures, restrictions. And still they are determined to carry on the struggle till their demands are not met. As we all know the women's equally participation has not only studded this movement but historically speaking also proved it once again that woman participation is a must for any movement to start, sustain and win.

Though tenants are sensitized but still they need further sensitization on women rights especially regarding patriarchal discriminations and domestic violence. All the forms of violence that women face in our societies among them physical, economic, social, cultural and macho violence, are also present in rural communities and obviously among the peasant communities of Okara. Special efforts are needed to sharpen the already started process of realignment of gender relation among peasant communities.

Therefore we have to recognize the central role of women not only in this movement but also in the over all socio-political spheres of life. We also must be clear that if we do not create new gender relations, we will not be able to build a new society.

Bushra Khaliq
General Secretary Women Workers Help Line
25/A Davis Road, Lahore, Pakistan.
Ph: 092-42-6363915 fax: 092-42-6363944

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