Pakistani socialist: 'We are fighting for women's liberation'

Sarah Eleazar.

Sarah Eleazar is a Pakistani journalist and member of the socialist Awami Workers Party (AWP). She co-edits Tajdeed, a left research journal in Urdu.

Eleazar will be a featured guest at the Socialist for the 21st Century conference in Sydney on May 13-15. She spoke with Green Left Radio on Melbourne community station 3CR in March about the fight for women's liberation and socialism in Pakistan. The first part of an abridged transcript is below.

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Sarah Eleazar is a Pakistani journalist and member of the socialist Awami Workers Party (AWP). She co-edits Tajdeed, a left research journal in Urdu.

Eleazar will be a featured guest at the Socialist for the 21st Century conference in Sydney on May 13-15. She spoke with Green Left Radio on Melbourne community station 3CR in March about the fight for women's liberation and socialism in Pakistan. The first part of an abridged transcript is below.

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You have been involved in a lot of political activity and activism, if you like, and organising. I just wonder if you want to give us a general idea of what's happening in Pakistan today, particularly for women, and an update on the AWP.

The AWP is the only far left political party in Pakistan. The left had been really active in Pakistan after partition [in 1947 when India won independence from Britain]. The Communist Party of India supported the formation of Pakistan, which was painted red for a while in terms of activism on the ground.

It was in the 1980s during General Zia-ul-Haq's draconian regime that the left actually became isolated and scattered. It is at that time that we also both a wave of women's activism and reactionary activism rise.

In the '80s, there was a huge crackdown on left political parties and trade unions. But at that time, the Women's Action Forum also rose up against the Hudood laws, which were extremely oppressive towards them.

Would that be the same as Sharia law?

Yes, the Hudood laws were drafted along the lines of Sharia laws. They were terrible laws. For example, if a woman was raped, she would have to produce four witnesses. If she couldn't, then she would be prosecuted for adultery. There were jails full of women who had gone to the police with rape cases only to be jailed for adultery.

That's why the Women's Action Forum rose in the '80s and spread across the country, challenging these laws. But after Zia died in 88, the Benazir Bhutto's government came in, with the left scattered and left parties not really working on the ground. The Women's Action Forum was also scattered, it no longer remain a solid united force working for women's rights.

It was not until the [pro-democracy] lawyers' movement in early 2000s and the Okara peasants' movement that brought together workers and women from their small political parties.

They got together and some students decided there needed to be a merger [of left groups], that all these political parties needed to set aside their obsolete debates on ideological purity — are we Trotskyites, are we Marxists, all of that.

So that is how the AWP party has come about. It was a result of various movements by peasants, lawyers, students, power loom workers in Faisalabad and women who have been fighting for their rights, for solid progressive laws.

What is the strategy now for the left?

There are various debates and movements we are engaged in. The next election will be next year or 2018. So far, we've gained a lot of seats in the local government elections in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which is the Pashtun province of Pakistan. It is the terrorists' province in Pakistan so to speak, but the left is actually really strong there and a lot of amazing movements have emerged.

One of the movements is around Baba Jan, who is an AWP member and activist who's been fighting against the ecological damage in the area that has displaced thousands of people. So there is a strong ecosocialist streak. Baba Jan and other activists were prosecuted under the Anti-Terrorism Act for their activities.

Baba Jan contested the election while in jail and got the second highest vote. The guy who actually won is from the majority far-right party currently in power and has the entire state apparatus behind him.

But the current debates within the left in Pakistan are over imperialist interventions.

China has been carrying out huge amounts of development work in Pakistan. There is the China-Pakistan economic corridor, through which China is funnelling billions of dollars.

In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the party is fighting against several development projects that the Chinese have started. They are polluting the place and have completely destroyed the ecology. China is emerging as a huge imperialist force that the left in Pakistan is obviously embroiled in debates over.

Given the fact it is China, led by the Communist Party of China because it's China and the Communist Party of China, you can imagine it is a contentious matter.

What is the role of the US in all this?

The “War on Terror” was the brainchild of the US, of course, and we are still dealing with it.

But what we have seen in recent years is a rollback. We see the US being replaced by China in Pakistan as the dominant imperialist force, but of course there is still huge anti-US sentiment.