Interview with the Working Women Organisation of Pakistan

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Merle Woo, Asian-American poet and member of Radical Women in San Francisco, once wrote a poem based on a news item from China. Qi Deying, a 77 year old grandmother living in Shaanxi Province, had been attacked by a leopard while working in a field. She “grabbed the leopard by the ears, wedged its jaw shut with her right shoulder and forced it to the ground. Their bodies locked in combat, the grandmother and the leopard rolled more than 120 feet down the mountainside, bouncing off rocks before coming to rest in a wheatfield.” Qi, who was only bruised, explained this amazing feat, saying: “whenever you’re cornered, the only way out is to fight.”

Qi exudes the spirit of the new millennium. When the global beast of prey — capitalism — bares its teeth and attacks working people everywhere, women are showing the same invincible strength as our Chinese heroine.

On International Women’s Day, RW met Qi’s Pakistani counterpart, the Working Women Organisation – Pakistan (WWO). In a greeting to our event, “Feminists Say SI to Cuba, NO to Capitalism’s War on Women,” the WWO said: “We are glad to know that Radical Women is celebrating International Women’s Day by paying tribute to the Cuban Revolution and its example for women throughout the world. We are one with you in the continuing struggle against capitalism…In this global, but unequal and exploitative economy, working people all round the world need to link up and support each other’s struggles.”

On March 8, WWO mobilised against one of the world’s most brutal régimes, the Islamic military dictatorship of General Pervez Musharraf. At its convention in Lahore, more than 700 women thrashed out strategies to bring an end to the repression. They resolved to organise for the abolition of discriminatory laws against women, legislation to protect workers in Pakistan’s unregulated rural and urban industries, the right to unionise, equal pay for women, childcare centres, a 50% quota for women in the country’s decision-making bodies and a national holiday for IWD. They then marched through the city, defying contingents of heavily armed police and shouting their demands for full equality.  

On May 1, WWO again organised hundreds of women who marched through police cordons to join unions and young people in massive May Day rallies.

Debbie Brennan, Melbourne Radical Women Organiser, recently spoke to Simy Gulzar, WWO’s General Secretary. Simy explains WWO’s purpose: The Working Women Organisation educates and mobilises women to fight for their rights as women and as workers. WWO’s mission is to build a powerful broad-based workers’ movement that can empower workers, particularly women, and eliminate the existing exploitative system.

Born from repression. WWO’s founders were women from factories and the service sector. Some came from a trade union background but had lost their jobs. Under the period of Martial Law from 1977 to 1989, unions were banned and activists were sent to jail, where they were tortured, executed or served life sentences. Radical trade unions went underground. Women workers realised they needed to organise independently to fight unemployment, severe exploitation and discrimination in every sphere of life. In 1987, WWO was formed.                

Making the link between sex and class. Never before in Pakistan had working class women been organised at the grassroots level and their issues taken seriously. The male-dominated trade unions were not concerned with women’s problems and demands. Women’s organisations were exclusively interested in such issues as the environment, community development and sanitation. They did not see workers’ struggle as important and did not dare to challenge the status quo.

Pakistan’s population is 139 million, and women make up 47%. The entire working class is deprived of  basic human needs, such as shelter, food, clean drinking water, education, medical treatment, employment, social and economic certainty. The condition of women is much worse. They are the poorest of the poor. Considered commodities rather than human beings, they are tortured, kidnapped and murdered — always in the name of religion. Last year in Lahore alone, 706 women were raped, 885 murdered, 828 kidnapped and 282 burned by their in-laws.

In Pakistan the informal sector, operating outside the labour laws, is massive. A super-exploited labour pool can be found practically anywhere — in private homes, in the agricultural and clothing industries, at brick kilns and construction sites.

The majority of women workers are illiterate: in urban areas, 12% can read or write and in rural areas, only 6%.  Five percent of all workers are unionised, but women in trade unions are less than 1%. Ninety percent of the population is deeply influenced by the religious teachings that God created the rich and the poor, women are on this earth to serve men and a good person accepts everything without complaining.

The majority of women workers, especially in the garment industry, are forced to work in the informal economy. They have no job security or social security. They work long hours and night shifts for very low wages. They face sexual harassment and other abuse. WWO is currently involved in a dispute in a garment factory. Women work there from morning to midnight, sometimes throughout the night to meet their quotas. Last month, six women workers were raped as they left the factory at midnight. But the employer denied that the victims were his workers. Due to WWO’s agitation, five of the culprits were arrested. But the boss still denies responsibility and won’t pay compensation. WWO is organising in the trade union movement and community to prosecute the factory management, assure the security of the women workers and enforce the labour laws.

Victims no more! Only women can be members of WWO. Men can join trade unions or youth organisations.  However, when a woman joins WWO, her family becomes part of our tribe. We work with male family members to get them to recognise women’s special problems and understand their own stake in fighting for women’s equality in this society.

WWO’s activities include political education and leadership training, building bridges between workers in the formal and informal sectors, solidarity with other struggles in Pakistan and internationally, asserting women’s issues and leadership in trade unions, running literacy centres and organising demonstrations.  

By organising around their rights, women get to know more generally about workers’ rights, the oppressive nature of the labour laws, the necessity to organise in trade unions and the roots of women’s low social and economic status. WWO believes that once women workers understand how the economic system oppresses them — as women and as workers — and see the power of united struggle, they are ready to fight capitalism.

Ending sexism means exterminating classes. Feudalism and imperialism, and their religious and patriarchal buttresses, are the basis of exploitation in Pakistan. Few hold power, while the majority are kept powerless. It is the same as the world’s seven economic masters forming the G7 to make decisions for the rest of the world. Their decisions, of course, protect the interests of the corporate cartels. WWO raises its voice against all forms of injustice — for women,  young people, farmers and minorities. We agitate for the equality of all oppressed groups. We link our struggle in Pakistan with struggles throughout the world.

WWO believes in a classless society. We distinguish ourselves from other groups by working with women workers both inside and outside the trade unions and also with peasant workers. We strongly believe that unions can organise and train workers for taking power. WWO believes that industrial and peasant workers can collectively crush imperialism.”  

Globalise workers’ solidarity. To build international solidarity is not an easy task. It requires a lot of time, equipment, access to the English language and determination. But WWO believes that workers’ organisations must accept this challenge. To confront capitalist globalisation we need to create workers’ globalisation. International solidarity is the source of encouragement for workers worldwide. It tells workers in one country that they are not alone — they have allies everywhere with whom they can share failures and successes — and collectively overthrow our common enemy.

Beware the women workers! On International Women’s Day, WWO got solidarity messages from around the world. Our members were so encouraged and proud that our friends far outnumber our opponent! Let the Capitalist Leopard tremble: Qi is everywhere!

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