CHARTING THE WOMEN’S MOVEMENT IN SINDH
By Zulfiqar Shah
The contemporary movement for the rights and liberation of women in Sindh is deeply connected to the emancipation movement of women during the pre-partition era. In the last one-and-a-half century, the women rights movement has been shaped by the influence of political and socio-economic development of Sindh, and it becomes imperative to analyse the historical patchworks between pre- and post-partition Sindh history to understand contemporary Sindh.
The Sindhi middle class, which started emerging after the British occupation of Sindh in 1843, gradually started focusing women rights vis-à-vis socioeconomic evolution of Sindhi society. The first ever character in this process was Dayaram Gidumal (1857 - 1927), an intellectual and reformer, who helped set up the Nari Shala (women protected house) in the late 1880s, where widows could spend their time reading Guru Granth Saheb, the holy book of Sikhs, and doing social work.
Gidumal is credited for establishing the Sindh Sabha in 1870s, a political-cum-reformist movement, through which he campaigned against the various violations of women's rights in Sindh and the rest of united India. A Hindu by birth, Gidumal had a multi-religious outlook, and could read Bhagwat Gita in Sanskrit, the Holy Koran in Arabic, and the Bible in Hebrew.
As it was, Sindh had a strange secular outlook at that time, but oppression against women remained a concern. In his treatise "Seven Sins against Women," Gidumal detailed the practices of body piercing for tattoo marks, barring women education and sports opportunities, traditionalising ivory bangles, childhood marriage, mothers-in-law's harassment, child-motherhood and death during delivery.
Gidumal also struggled against the dowry system, and managed to convince the Hindu Panchayat in Sindh to fix 500 rupees as the maximum ceiling for dowry. He also played a major role in the historic petition that demanded the tradition of Satti in India to be banned.
All these measures caught the public's imagination in Sindh and various parts of United India, especially some parts of United Punjab, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Bombay. In early 1900s, the female membership of Sindh Sabha had exceeded 5,000.
In 1878, a strange event gathered moss in Sindh. According to K. R. Malkani, "Tharoo, a Hindu young man with wife and children fell in love with a Muslim girl and embraced Islam to marry her. When 'Sheikh Tharoo' lost his Muslim wife, he wished to return to his family and became a Hindu."
The introduction of English education, especially in Bombay and Calcutta, and the increasing number of British-educated Sindhis returning home started changing the complexion of Sindhi urban society into one with Anglo influences.
It was during this period that Navalrai, a Sindhi Amil from Hirabad, Hyderabad and belonging to a bureaucrat family during the Talpur rule, merged his Sikh Sabha into the Sindh Sabha. Navalrai was the founder of Brahmo Samaj in Sindh, while he is also considered to be the father of education in the Sindh of that era. He built a Brahmo Mandir in Hyderabad, and sent his younger brother Hiranand (1863-93) to Calcutta, who later on became a role model for Sindhi young man and girls, where he lived much of the time with Keshub Chandra Sen, a much revered Bengali reformer of that time.
Both Sadhu Amil brothers started the N.H. Academy in Hyderabad. According to K. R. Malkani, Hiranand took his two daughters to Bankipore in Bihar for their education under Shrimati Aghor Kamini Prakash Roy, the mother of Dr B.C. Roy, who rose to become chief minister of West Bengal. After the demise of the Sadhu Brothers, Brahmo movement activists converted the Nav Vidyalaya High School and Brahmo Kundanmal into the Kundanmal Girls High School in Hyderabad.
In the late 1930s, Om Mandali, or popularly known as the Brahma Kumaris, became famous in India. It was a socio-religious organisation started by Dada Lekhraj Kripalani (1876 - 1969), who had been a Sindhi jeweller in Calcutta. The Om Mandali mostly attracted women, especially of the business community of Hyderabad, Sindh. "The unmarried among them refused to marry; and the married ones gave it in writing to their husbands that the latter were free to re-marry."
After political and religious organisations such as the Indian National Congress and the Arya Samaj denounced the Om Mandali as a "disturber of family peace," the Sindh government banned the organisation. However, Om Mandali approached the court, and had the ban order quashed. It was the time when Sadhu Vaswani, a Sufi saint, initiated a movement for women which is popularly known as the Mira Movement.
This was the period of the First World War. Sindh had a strange time in united India. At a time when M. K. Gandhi was addressing "War Recruitment Festivals," Dr Tuljaram Khilnani of Nawabshah publicly campaigned against the War Loan Bonds. Consequently, when Gandhi sought election to the All India Congress Committee from Bombay provincial committee, delegates from Sindh opposed his election in view of his support to the British war effort.
It was for the first time in Sindh that women publically came out on the streets to support another Indian political icon, Tilak ji. During his visit of Sindh in 1920, "women for the first time came out of their seclusion and offered Arati to him." In British Sindh, there is no other example of women coming out of the confines of their homes to join processions.
The role of women further came to the fore during the 1942 movement for independence from British rule. According to K R Malkani, many women leaders of that time, including Ganga, wife of Acharya Gidwani; Kiki, sister of Kripalani; Ambi Khilnani, daughter-in- law of Kauromal; and Kumari Jethi Sipahimalani, deputy speaker of the Sindh legislative Assembly, played a significant role in Sindhi public life.
On the other hand, the role of women warriors and espionage during the Hur War II for the liberation of Sindh was remarkable. One of the warriors, Fatima, was held for killing 50 British soldiers during that war.
According to the research of Dr Dur Mohammad Pathan during the period April 1937 to August 1940, the Congress MLAs in Sindh Legislative Assembly tabled the following issues concerning women rights in Sindh:
a) Bill No.XV1 0f 1939 (to amend the Hindu law governing women's right to property in Sindh); the Bill was introduced by Jethi Sipahimalani.
b) On August 17, 1937, Ghanshyam Jethanand moved an adjournment motion that was later “disallowed". The subject of the motion was "Police torture and outrage at Mithi, Tharparkar district over stripping sweeper girls, and committing rape on them."
c) On March 23, 1939, Muhammad Amin Khoso moved an adjournment motion with the subject: "Barbarous behaviour of Sub-Inspector of Police of Tando Jam shown to Haris and their womenfolk of Unar Village of Taluka Hyderabad". The motion was "talked out".
This is no doubt about the fact that pre-partition women rights movement was led and joined by the urbanised and literate Hindu middle and lower class. The Muslim women mostly remained uneducated, and were kept at a distance from political movements. The only exceptions were that of the Hur Guerrila movement, and the Sindh Hari Committee movement for land rights under the leadership of Comrade Hyder Bux Jatoi, in which Mai Bakhtawar was killed by settler landlords in Mirpurkhas and became an icon of the peasants' rights movement in Sindh. Inspired by this character, Benazir Bhutto named her daughter after her.
The post-partition women rights movement in Sindh has witnessed various stages of evolutions. The social crises of Sindhi society after the migration of Hindus - the sole Sindhi middle class to India, ultimately adversely affected the women rights movement in the province. The first post-partition resurgence of women's rights came through literature, especially poetry and fiction, in 1960s.
In the 1970s, this revival further strengthened with the emergence of the Sindhi salaried middle class. At this time, many a left-leaning, nationalist and even centrist parties and political groups started organising women fronts of their organisations. The most popular fronts were of Sindhi Awami Tehreek's Sindhyani Tahreek under the ideological influence of Rasool Bux Palejo. Naari Tahreek, the women's front of the Jeay Sindh movement, also has its roots in Sindhi society of that time. Many activists, writers, teachers and poetesses of Sindh are inspired or influenced by these two movements.
The role of Sindhi women in the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) is also remarkable. In one of the protests in 1983 against martial law staged in Moro city, around 5,000 women took to the streets on a call issued by the mother of Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi. A clash occurred between the police and protesters, and many policemen and security personnel were murdered in the Moro during the protest.
During and in the post-MRD scene, women's rights and emancipation movement was deeply connected with the national, democratic and class question of Sindh. The finest Sindhi women writers of our time emerged in that time.
Today the rights movement of Sindhi women is restructuring itself with the combined efforts of political activists, women writers, feminists and civil society. They are developing a new movement by combining issues with the ideology of women emancipation and led by the emerging women's middle class of Sindh.
(The writer is the Executive Director of The Institute for Social Movements, Pakistan.)