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[OPINION] A feminist’s plea: Why Pakistan needs feminism now more than ever

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by Uzma Yaqoob

The term ‘feminism’ is among the most contested and misunderstood terms in Pakistan. 

I personally believe that feminism is a way of life, where one exercises a set of values that promotes equality and dignity for all women and marginalised groups in any given context.  

It has been 78 years since Pakistan gained independence from British colonial rule. Post-independence, there were nearly 40 years of martial law. Today, Pakistan is reigned over by military-controlled democratic spells paired with religious fundamentalism, patriarchy, and political dynasties.

In Pakistan, it is not uncommon to meet people who unfairly view feminists as ‘bad women’ as if asserting autonomy over one’s body, life, relationships, and decisions is a ‘bad’ thing. Some people also associate feminists with being anti-religion, anti-state, and anti-tradition. First off, these assumptions are unfounded. Second, advocating for change in religious practices, state policies, or traditional norms is just as valid as supporting them–as long as it is done with the aim of promoting fairness and dignity for all.

Feminists are also blamed for Pakistan’s rising divorce rates. According to a recent Gallupp and Gillani survey (2021), the country’s divorce rate is at an all-time high at 58%. Instead of blaming feminism, why not look at the root causes of divorce such as violence against women and children, extramarital affairs, and a laundry list of many other reasons that both women and men are free to cite as grounds for separation? After all, marriage should be a choice, not an obligation

Feminism is what Pakistan needs right now.

Pakistan’s sexism must end

In Pakistan, gender-based violence remains rampant. 

Both private and public places can be quite unsafe for women and girls as evidenced by increasing cases of sexual harassment. In terms of gender gap, Pakistan ranked 142 out of 146 countries as of 2023, according to the World Economic Forum.

Anything associated with ‘human rights’ is somewhat contested in Pakistan. Hence the difficulty–if not silence–surrounding discussions on sexual and reproductive health and rights as well as sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression.

The country’s current political systems exhibit a tolerance for sexism, with gender-based stereotypes and everyday sexism dismissed as either harmless jokes or moral battlegrounds.

One example is the court’s recent ruling that Bushra Bibi’s marriage to former Prime Minister Imran Khan was ‘un-Islamic and illegal.’ Bibi was sentenced to a seven-year imprisonment and a fine of 1,773 USD. Under Muslim Family Law, women cannot immediately remarry following a divorce, hence the complaint filed by Bibi’s ex-husband. The said law aims to avoid any confusion regarding paternity shall the woman become pregnant around the time of the divorce or the new marriage. 

The court ruling serves as a stark reminder of the political weaponization of judicial processes in Pakistan. Aside from the case being politically-motivated–as a means to judicially harass Khan–it also attacks women’s autonomy over their own body, choices, and privacy. 

Pakistan’s sexism is also reflected in the issues surrounding the election of Pakistan’s first-ever female chief minister, Mariam Nawaz Sharif. Since coming into power, Sharif has been bullied for simply being a woman as well as for her age and physical appearance. 

This pattern of belittling women in power is not new. It echoes the experiences of opposition leader Fatima Jinnah whose accomplishments were overshadowed by personal attacks. Meanwhile, Benazir Bhutto Shaheed–the pioneering first female Prime Minister of Pakistan and of any Muslim-majority country–also faced harassment and defamation both during her tenure and posthumously.

This is a stark reminder of how women’s bodies and capabilities continue to be unfairly scrutinised and politicised, while their accomplishments go unnoticed.


Pushing people into the fringes

Gender minorities, especially transgender persons, in Pakistan face multiple layers of discrimination and abuse. They are forced to live along the fringes of society.

Pakistan needs to progress rather than regress. 

In 2018, Pakistan took a significant stride by passing a landmark legislation protecting the rights transgender persons. This progressive law, however, was contested in the Federal Shariat Court by right-wing policymakers. 

In 2023, the Federal Sharia Court struck down several provisions of the landmark law. A petition against the latter’s judgement has been filed in the Supreme Court, awaiting proceedings and judgement. The lives of transgender persons are hanging by a thread as they await the court’s decision.

Despite these challenges, the transgender community continues to strive for representation and change. In 2024, three transgender candidates ran for seats in the Provincial and National Assemblies. Their campaigns, however, have not been smooth, as they faced public backlash and bullying. 

Without intervention, the situation could worsen.

A call for resistance

To rid Pakistan of its discomfort with feminist ideology, there needs to be a major shift and reorganisation of gender roles and responsibilities both in private and public spheres. 

There is also a need for more women in key leadership roles.  

Perhaps the term ‘feminism’ carries a Western connotation for some people, hence the need for more avenues where Pakistani feminists can freely voice their own ideas and understanding of what it is to be feminist. There needs to be an alternative local term for feminism, one that the people of Pakistan can truly relate with. 

Despite Pakistan’s long-standing opposition against feminism and gender equality, there is hope. Women human rights defenders and feminist collectives, both young and old, are the torchbearers of such hope.

Pakistan has witnessed the transformative power of collective action, let us keep this fire burning for generations to come. 

Let us take inspiration from the courageous resistance of the Women’s Action Forum and Sindhiani Tehreek against discriminatory laws in the 1980s. 

Together, let us sustain the momentum of feminist collectives–such as Aurat March and Moorat March–by supporting the aspirations and amplifying the voices of Pakistan’s new generation of feminists.  

The Government of Pakistan ought to strengthen its national human rights institution, the National Commission on the Status of Women, and the Office of Ombudsperson, among others. We must urge all other government agencies to mainstream and integrate women’s rights issues into their work. 

Likewise, there is a need for more women’s participation in Pakistan’s policymaking. 

Both women and men can benefit from learning about feminism for it builds the foundation for an equal, inclusive, and just society. 



Uzma Yaqoob is a feminist and human rights activist. She has led the Forum for Dignity Initiatives (FDI) Pakistan since its establishment in 2013. Through FDI, Uzma has tirelessly worked to uphold the dignity of women in all diversity by advocating for their sexual and reproductive health and rights, climate justice, political participation, and leadership.

By creating safe and inclusive spaces, FDI supports women in all diversity to realise their full potential and take control of their lives and choices. This commitment underscores FDI’s ongoing efforts to foster a more equitable and just society for all women in Pakistan.