They were brought up to be quiet. But they insist upon raising their voice. At a gathering in Lahore of women grassroots activists from different parts of rural and small town Pakistan, they meet to discuss what they have been doing to challenge the worst inequalities and hold government to account in their communities. To learn from each other they take it in turns to share their stories.
“I am a school teacher, and my school didn’t have a boundary wall, or a toilet. So I met with the local government official and said that it needed to be fixed. He said there were no funds. I said that I would find that out using the Right to Information Act. He organised for the wall and the toilet.”
“When a man murdered some young girls the police did nothing to arrest him. So I went to see the police to complain. The murderer’s family went to visit my brother to put pressure on me to stop pushing. But my brother supported me. I stood firm. Then six days later the police arrested the killer.”
“I organised for the women in my village to get ID cards – we could not get them because our marriages were not being recognised as Hindus. It can be difficult to be a Hindu, even harder to be low caste Hindu. We are called untouchable. But I don’t care what they say. I am not afraid.”
“That’s right. If the authorities think we are weak and innocent they ignore us. But if they see that we know our rights, that we are strong, then they act.”
“In my village there is a piece of land on which some very poor families have been farming for many years. But the government wanted to sell the land from under them. We organised a protest and the local media came. The families were weeping. I went inside to meet the official and urged him to stop the land sale. He asked why. I told him he was a public servant and his salary was paid for by these families’ taxes. He laughed and said they pay no taxes, they are too poor. I said every time they buy something they are paying taxes. Even when they buy a match box they must pay tax on it. He told me that even if he wanted to stop the sale he could not. But I knew the rules and I told him he could postpone the sale and write to the higher ups recommending that the families be allowed to stay. We went outside together and he announced to the media that the sale had been postponed. The families still live on that land.”
So much is being written about what is wrong in Pakistan. And much more could be written. From feudal land ownership, to underinvestment in health and education, to tax dodging by the rich, to endemic violence against women. And now a war. But that is not the only story.
“These small-small things we are changing,” explains one of the women. They are an unlikely grouping: they speak different languages, have different religions, come from different backgrounds. “You see this lady,” says one of her friend as she holds her hand, “she is a landlord’s daughter, not like the rest of us who are poor, but she is one of us now.” Her friend smiles: “And we are getting stronger, because we have learnt. And because we have each other.”
The great 18th century British anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce was once asked why he kept on fighting for what seemed to so many to be an unwinnable cause. “We are too young to realize that certain things are impossible,” he replied, “so we will do them anyway.”