Agents of Change

By Taha Kehar | December 2020


Fouzia Saeed’s On Their Own Terms deviates from orientalist notions that view women in developing countries as “passive victims” who are unable to alter the course of their lives. By escaping these ideological trappings and stereotypical narratives of victimhood, this book demonstrates how women’s social movements in Pakistan emerge, evolve and reach fruition through the active participation of members. Through detailed case studies of four social movements in the country, Saeed’s narrative ponders the role of collective agency in transforming the lives of both rural and urban women. The underlying purpose of On Their Own Terms is to educate policymakers and budding activists about the collective endeavours made by Pakistani women. The book also ventures into territory that is seldom explored through conventional history-writing processes, which ignore the contribution of women in the fabric of social life. Therefore, it provides a people’s history that documents the strategies used by women to combat an exploitative system.

With her expansive oeuvre as an activist, scholar and development practitioner, Saeed is well-placed to comment on these matters with candour and rare insight. Her analysis does not pre-suppose that Pakistani women are a “homogeneous collective”. To the contrary, On Their Own Terms builds on the awareness that women are influenced by a whole spectrum of experiences. The author’s emphasis on the interplay of class, age, ethnicity and culture that shape women’s lives suggests the use of an intersectional lens to great effect. Saeed’s analysis is fuelled by a strong theoretical and methodological framework. She draws on the insights of Nobel laureate and economist Friedrich Hayek, who challenged the expertise of international development organizations in inspiring social change and instead highlighted the importance of “individual human decisions”. The narrative uses the case-study method to depict the extent to which women have been the architects of their own destiny. The case studies have been meticulously selected and present a diverse range of issues that have mobilized women to demand justice.

While the author has used a broad definition of ‘social movement’ to choose her case studies, she has only included those twenty-first century campaigns that have accomplished their goals and moulded social policy. The case studies are neither threadbare nor poorly researched. Readers are provided engaging accounts about the historical and sociopolitical context of each social movement and a critical assessment of its achievements.

A deftly braided chapter spotlights the role of women in a landless peasants movement in Punjab during Musharraf’s regime. This section deals with the confrontations between government-run corporations and the peasants after war-like tactics that were used by the ruling elite to suppress the movement. According to Saeed, the movement was successful because peasants now “keep the entire crop instead of sharing it in an unjust, abusive and humiliating manner”. While the author recognizes that the gains of the movement weren’t evenly distributed, she commends the negotiation skills and persistence shown by women in resisting oppressive elements.

A similar approach is used to highlight the gains of a movement spearheaded by the indigenous fishing community that lives along the coast of Sindh and Balochistan and the inland freshwater lakes of Sindh. The author shows how the presence of women at fishermen rallies was a major catalyst in a full-fledged movement against crippling inequalities. Even so, she draws attention to the internal challenges faced by women to put an end to the abusive contract system that curtailed the rights of the fishing community.

The nationwide initiatives of lady health workers to ensure salary increments and job security have been analyzed in depth. The triumphs and pitfalls of An Alliance Against Sexual Harassment (AASHA) - an entity that Saeed led for many years - have also been examined in vivid detail. Despite the fact that the author was actively involved in ensuring the smooth functioning of the body, she manages to present its achievements and drawbacks with objectivity and a keen eye for detail.

On Their Own Terms aligns closely with Pakistan’s ongoing struggle for women’s empowerment. With its incisive commentary on the initiatives taken by women to shape their destiny, Saeed’s latest book reveals that social change emerges from the grassroots rather than the air-conditioned offices of international development practitioners.