Women’s rights activists often cite the repetition of military dictatorships in Pakistan as being responsible for arrested democratic development, worsening gender discrimination and increased theocratisation of state and society. This chapter argues that in fact, whether the nature of dictatorship was repressive and misogynistic (as under General Zia ul Haq, 1977-88) or purportedly liberal and ‘enlightened’ (General Musharraf, 1999-2008), women’s activism has been arguably the most energised and even incomparably influential, during such regimes. This is especially so in terms of mobilised political expression. In comparison, democratic interregnums have tended to mute women political actors, both in government and in civil society or sometimes through self-censorship.
This chapter analyses the political articulation for women’s rights under dictatorship as well as, democratic governments, with a view to understanding which political vehicles lend themselves to women’s equal rights and enable their voices to influence state and social discourse most effectively. The role of religious identities and donor funded development have been pivotal and often, controversial, in the matrix and direction of the progress of women’s rights in this context. Quoting experiences from the range of women’s activism under the different regimes, this chapter will argue that the new challenges for women’s rights may be emerging from entirely new sources than previously studied.