Pakistan is an extremely patriarchal society … it’s not surprising that the women have never had the kind of visibility that men in their communities have had
“Many of the ‘people’ I have worked with have always been women, whether you look within the student community, the peasants, or the slum dwellers. But they’ve always been invisible in terms of not having a political voice” says Alia Amirali, an academic, left-wing political activist from Pakistan, a country she considers is an extremely patriarchal society. In an interview with Francis Li from the InterDev, a student-run society at the London School of Economics and Political Science, Alia talks about women’s political organising, neoliberal capitalism, and the development sector. Currently a PhD candidate in the LSE Gender Studies Department, Alia says it’s not surprising that the women within each of these social groups have never had the kind of visibility that men in their communities have had.
“But it’s not like men in these instances are simply ‘powerful’ or ‘perpetrators’; there are also powerless men in the world, which I think we tend to forget when we hear the word ‘men’! But this should not obscure the fact that relative to women within these communities, men certainly have forms of privilege that women do not.
FL: How did you become a political worker?
AA: I grew up in Islamabad, Pakistan and I was politicised before I became a political worker as such, in large part because my parents were politically conscious. As I became older, there were movements happening around me; there were slum dwellers’ movements to resist forced evictions from their homes; there were movements by peasant-farmers in the centre of Punjab – the most populated province of the country and Pakistan’s political heartland.
The Okara peasant’s movement in 2002 that I am referring to was a completely unprecedented event for someone of my generation– tens of thousands of farmers were getting up and opposing the biggest political force in the country- the military. These farmers were being evicted from their lands and trying to be brought onto a contract system which was not acceptable to them. That movement was my big, you could say, political ‘awakening’.
After that, I actively started to organise when I became a student at a university in Islamabad. Since then, I’ve been organising students, slum dwellers, and various sections of the working classes and labour groups. I was initially associated with a political group that was called the Peoples’ Rights Movement which then decided to merge with other Left parties. This spurred a series of mergers that took place subsequently, culminating in the creation of a new political party in Pakistan which is called the Awami Workers Party, of which I am a member and have also served as an office-bearer.
FL: Can you talk more about the role of women within your political work?
AA: Many of the ‘people’ I have worked with have always been women, whether you look within the student community, the peasants, or the slum dwellers. But they’ve always been invisible in terms of not having a political voice. Pakistan is an extremely patriarchal society, so it’s not surprising that the women within each of these social groups have never had the kind of visibility that men in their communities have had. But it’s not like men in these instances are simply ‘powerful’ or ‘perpetrators’; there are also powerless men in the world, which I think we tend to forget when we hear the word ‘men’! But this should not obscure the fact that relative to women within these communities, men certainly have forms of privilege that women do not.
Being a political worker seriously complicates, in a good way, these hard categories or images that we have when we’re on the outside and we think – oh, these groups are privileged, those groups are victims. It changes that a lot. And it’s very clear that women in these communities have been very active in all of these movements, for example in the movements against the forced evictions of slums in urban cities across Pakistan. They’ve not been the leaders; they haven’t had the visibility so nobody really knows that in these movements if women had not come out, whatever victories have been won would never have been possible. That’s also true of the Okara peasant’s movement. Women across a number of villages actually formed a force called the Thapa force. The thapa is a wooden log that Punjabi villagers use to wash clothes. These women basically used their thapa as a weapon to beat back the military which was coming into their homes to pick up the men and to spread fear amongst the community. It was these ‘oppressed’ rural women who were at the forefront of physical confrontations with the military during the Okara movement– so much for the docile, passive, victim image of the ‘poor, oppressed Third World woman’!
FL: And what do you think perpetuates this image of the ‘passive’ or ‘docile’ woman?
AA: I think some of that has to do with the need for a ‘saviour.’ Every saviour needs a victim to help, right? All such institutions which include the state, the military and the development sector (on the global, national and local levels) need ‘victims’ which are straightforwardly projected as passive beings who need to be helped and liberated by the ‘saviour(s)’.
The invasion of Afghanistan by the US was underpinned very strongly by this image of Afghan women supposedly ‘asking’ to be liberated from these terrible, oppressive, patriarchal Muslim men and the US being the enlightened, civilised saviour of Afghan women. We’ve seen these tropes in many forms for many years and I think the reason they continue to persist despite the fact that they certainly don’t depict ground realities is precisely because if those images go away, then the entire justification for intervention then also falls apart.
And that doesn’t mean that all of these people: women, students and the working class in much of the third world, are not oppressed. They are victims of the system and they have to deal with the consequences of global capitalism, imperialism and patriarchy every day in a way that you and I don’t. But their oppressions are used and manipulated and then presented in a particular way by the development sector, by the media, states, and militaries to pin the problem elsewhere; away from where it really lies.
Distorting the problem itself by painting a picture of helpless, passive Third World women whose primary ‘problem’ is their own patriarchal men (with religion often thrown into the mix) basically positions white, rich countries (and men in particular) as the saviours of these people. It hides the complicity of the rich and the powerful, of capitalism, corporations and of the development sector – which refuses to acknowledge that at the root of all of these problems is actually global capitalism and imperialism.
FL: In light of this, how should the development sector be working to achieve the aim of empowering women?
AA: First of all, the development sector looks at problems in a very sectoral and compartmentalised way; for instance, ‘women’ is a category, ‘poverty’ is a category, ‘education’ is a category. This way of categorising different sorts of victims or problems is a problem, because all of these problems are connected.
Many of the programs that I’ve come across in Pakistan and which are probably similar all over the global South have to do with ‘skills training’, micro-credit schemes and things like that. If you look at the logic that is underpinning these schemes and initiatives, you just have to read their descriptions to know that they’re legitimised by being proven to be good for economic growth. There needs to be a recognition that when we talk about ‘development,’ we are talking about the development of a particular economic system which has a name: it is called capitalism.
And anyone who is educated enough to be employed in the development sector knows that capitalism is a system which functions around the needs, interests, and logic of capital, not of people. By trying to solve people’s problems through expanding and further entrenching a system that is inherently anti-people; it’s just an oxymoron. So, first of all, the development sector would have to seriously change its relationship to global capital and rethink which system it’s trying to develop.
Second, we live in the real world where a lot of the money for the development sector comes precisely from capitalist states, capitalist individuals and organisations. So, if what I just said earlier is considered to be absolutely utopian then okay, something that might be more ‘realistic’ could be to demand that the development sector at least try and counter the effects of neoliberal capitalism in particular, which is forcing massive cutbacks on ‘development spending’ and public funds across the globe.
We live in a period now where nation states are pulling back from providing all kinds of social services which citizens need in order to be healthy, or at least functional human beings. The state has, over the last few decades in particular, through what we call neoliberalism, very rapidly stepped away from the provision of these services, thanks to economic policies peddled by institutions like the IMF and World Bank and enforced through international ‘agreements’. If the development sector really wants to help people, it cannot avoid taking a stand against some of the very institutions that comprise the ‘development sector’ itself, like the World Bank and the IMF. The UN, for instance, if it is to become a meaningful and respectable institution in my eyes, cannot continue to be a toothless bystander which goes in and puts band-aids on bullet wounds of people that are being shot right under its nose (both in a literal and figurative sense) and refuses to acknowledge and challenge the realities of capitalist-patriarchy, imperialism, racism, and the systemic production of the very ‘problems’ it seeks to solve.
FL: On an individual level, what advice would you give to LSE students thinking of working in the development sector?
AA: The first thing I would say is that because you are a student at LSE, this means that you are privileged now and you are going to be in a position of privilege later as well. You will have decision-making power, you will have resources at your disposal, you will be influential. And if you go into the development sector, do not assume like everyone around you, that you know what the problem is. So, whatever your project may be, whatever association you may be working with, you must first step back and learn about the context in which you are working rather than assume that you already know what kind of interventions need to be made.
I’m not casting doubt on anyone’s intentions here but more often than not, people with good intentions end up doing really bad things that they didn’t even know were bad and will never really know the consequences of because they don’t have to live with those consequences, unlike the recipients of their ‘benevolent’ interventions.
So, do what you can, understand your limitations in whatever institutions you will be employed in, but remember that a job is always going to be a job. It will not be your politics. Make sure you keep time and space and energy to be able to invest in political work because ultimately that is what’s going to change the world – not your job and not the development sector. This interview first appeared in InterDev magazine of the LSE Student Union’s International Development Society.
Frances Li is Chairperson of the LSESU International Development Society.