Many young Pakistanis today are passionate and inspired, determined to do their part in helping a country burdened with increasing problems. Below, Zohra Ahmed, a graduate student at Cambridge, shares her experience working with the Women’s Action Forum [WAF], the first law firm established by women in Pakistan. Not only does she provide significant behind-the-scenes insight, she also delves into the issues she faced and how these can be a larger issue for the rising generation of young Pakistanis:
When I left Pakistan after six months, it felt like the last time I’d be there. The media panic as well as the moral panic of the upper middle class had finally set in. I spent a lot of time in Pakistan predicting what was going to happen to the country. Would this follow the Algerian model, Sri Lankan model, or the Afghan model of insurgency, counter-insurgency and social disintegration?
There was such a noticeable gap in the predictions across classes, those living outside the country and those living inside. But the small circle of Lahori activists and social workers were not accepting defeat, or the pessimist’s conjectures. Their dedication and persistence to their work a testament to the capacity for human adaptation and the power of optimism. In this circle, Asma Jahangir and Hina Jilani are the lionized heroes, with good reason. However, despite their elevated gaze, lofty aims, and considerable socio-legal gains, the ills of Pakistani society nonetheless poke through.
Having founded their legal clinic nearly thirty years ago, the successes of these two lawyers and their associates require little clarification for many Pakistanis and their foreign friends. I worked most closely with the family lawyers, who have nailed down maintenance laws, divorce proceedings, custody battles to fine, and effortless art. The justice system, at least in the lower courts, is a byzantine chaotic maze, the intricacies and loop holes the female family lawyers know well. The lawyers have their methods of ensuring success, and setting new precedents- such as negotiating maintenance for the wife beyond what was previously agreed upon, and covering not only daily expenditures, but the education of children after the age of 18, in certain cases.
Naturally, these lawyers need to be more than lawyers, but also counselors, both of the psychological and the social sort. Legal emancipation may not always bring solace to these women depending on their circumstances, and divorce may not be the solution for all women who find themselves in a matrimonial crisis.
The office’s landscape is carved out by strong personalities and internal politics, particularly in the strong female cohort of coordinators who train women across the city to be community paralegals, lawyers, and the hustling multitasking crisis center manager who takes in women in need of shelter. But with the exception of the bosses and two other employees, all the women who work there are single or widowed.
Asma and Hina’s office is a beacon of interfaith collaboration and harmony in Pakistan, the best of what Lahore has to offer. Some of the firm’s longest employees are Christians, and Asma’s trusted field researcher as well. The relations between janitor and boss are perhaps as equal as they can be for a society which grows more unequal by the day, and the rich and poor occupy completely different and diverging daily realities. Everyone is served lunch at the office, and the men of the office eat together in the library. For the male cohort in particular, Express news, common distaste for politicians, and cigarettes temper class differences and provide breaks in the day. Certain people’s work days revolve around the news, regardless of the content, but on certain days, everyone stops in the library to check in.
One of the main issues is that the bosses are overworked. Not only are Hina and Asma dealing with more and more complex cases but their legal expertise is being contracted across the country and internationally. As a result, even in such a rarefied circles of NGO’s and activism, there is a sore lack of leadership, and mentorship. What could be the training ground for Pakistan’s next generation of activist lawyers becomes a resting point, a way to pass time, or something to put on paper.
Interns come and go in the office, and are taken as burdens. Not because of their imposition, but because there is no guidance on how to make them useful. I found a lot of people in my situation at the office, and in the civil society internship realm as a whole. A few of us felt quite burdened by our opportunism- Pakistan makes a wonder sociological subject for the Western audiences many of us would return to. Upon return to our country of emigration, we would all become pseudo-experts, without ever having received the training or having been able to fully participate. What has inspired some of the most prominent and successful activists in the country to keep on going? Such insight was inaccessible to me, but interactions were transactional between those who could pass down such knowledge, and little confidence was inspired in my cohort.
For my first time in the workplace in Pakistan, and hoping certainly that it wouldn’t be my last, it required more self-direction that one would have expected. I was an untapped resource for months. I made myself useful, but wasn’t ever made use of. I do not believe in the perfect challenge to privilege and systemic inequality, and I am slightly cynical of any talk of revolution. No approach is perfect, no political leader infallible, and no movement created in a righteous bubble, all are incipiently reactionary. But when the opportunity is reform is handed to you on a platter and it goes ignored, it is hard not to call a spade a spade.
This is an issue which exists across the board in Pakistan. We poorly allocate human resources and our human capital. We as Pakistanis are very good at running one-person shows. The issue is that without proper guidance, and leadership even at the micro level, my generation will become pseudo experts, relying too heavily on external analysis, and will never gain from the past generation’s lesson learnt. The torch of the movement is not being passed down, only further fragmenting an already disparate and often uncoordinated nonprofit, non governmental sector.
Hamza Alavi, in one of his essays on the modes of power in Pakistan, identified that resistance to the strong military- bureaucratic oligarchy of Pakistan has always been narrowly legalistic, persistently unable to organize a strong enough opposition. The lawyers’ movement surely represented a point of departure, but the media darlings no longer make headlines, and seem to have delegated their demands to the restored Chief Justice, suggesting in turn that the “countervailing power” Alavi describes has not yet emerged. The issue is that mentorship and inclusion are not highly ranked values, which perhaps makes even more believable to buy into the grim predictions. Moreover, this countervailing force can only be built over generations. Most youth who are dedicated to the cause of Pakistan have to find ways to circumvent close ears, and closed circles. Without the necessary mentorship in the activists circles, mistakes will be re-repeated, analysis incomplete, and the lawyers’ movement, or any other movement challenging the feudal apparatus reigning our country self defeating.
But I fear that my concerns have fallen on deaf ears.
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