ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Collision amid Collusion and Cooperation

Women’s Activism across the Wings of Pakistan

This paper examines the history of largely understudied women’s rights activists in the early years of East Pakistan. While they collided with West Pakistani activists—and the central state—on matters of culture, identity, and political and economic issues, they actively cooperated with West Pakistani counterparts to fight gender discrimination and to demand reform in women’s rights from the state.


On 26 March 1948, just months after the independence and partition of India and Pakistan (and, coincidentally, 23 years to the day before East Pakistan would declare its own independence from Pakistan as the new sovereign nation of Bangladesh), over 6,000 women from all districts of the eastern wing of Pakistan descended on the northern town of Mymensingh. They were there to attend the East Pakistan Muslim Women’s Conference. Beneath the new green and white national flag of Pakistan, the proceedings ­began with all the participants singing Pakistan Azaad (the official national anthem of the new Pakistani state, Pak Sar Zameen, was yet to be written). An 18 April article in the ­Bengali-language magazine Begum (then still based in Kolkata, it would move to Dhaka in 1950) described how, over the course of three days, the conference participants addressed a variety of issues, ranging from the need for women to have a voice in formal politics, especially in the preparation of the country’s new constitution, to demands for better and more educational and vocational institutions for girls and women, to the urgency of addressing the improper interpretation of Islamic doctrine that prevented women from praying in mosques and ­imposed on them a strict seclusion rather than merely the modesty called for in the Quran. Finally, they called on educated Muslims to eradicate misguided social practices, develop a blueprint for an egalitarian society in accordance with Islamic rules, and keep at bay the “impure climate of communism” (Begum 2006: 648–50).

While this articulation of demands by organised Bengali women is certainly a significant milestone in the history of women’s rights activism in the new nation, what is striking about its timing is that the gathering occurred within a week of a controversial speech in Dhaka by Muhammad Ali Jinnah. On 21 March 1948, Jinnah had informed a crowd of some half a million people in Dhaka that “the state language of Pakistan [was] going to be Urdu and no other language.” Bengalis had protested vociferously, energising the bhasha andolan or language movement that had been simmering already for several months (Jinnah 1948; Umar 2004: 14–35). And yet, as we saw, just six days after Jinnah’s speech, thousands of Bengali women—of whom only a small number would have belonged to Bengal’s small Urdu-speaking elite—sang the Urdu national song of ­Pakistan in unison at the Mymensingh conference.

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Updated On : 30th Oct, 2021
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