In Urdu, ‘Baithak’ (بیٹھک) is the word for the ‘front room’ or ‘sitting room’ – the space in the home where guests are entertained, outdoor shoes are not allowed (in Pakistani households at least), and conversations are had. ‘Baithaks’ are also ‘sittings’ – acts which are ongoing and receptive, yet which simultaneously denote a stillness in listening and a humbleness in being physically closer to the ground. Baithak is a grassroots organisation based in Sindh, Pakistan, which through sittings, initiates conversations with women in local communities about sexual and reproductive health. ‘Period’, in English, implies the end to something – scientifically, it’s the end of a natural bodily cycle – but in Pakistan it also signals the end of the conversation. Menstruation is a taboo subject that carries the damaging weight of shame and ostracisation in Pakistan – it bleeds into every aspect of a woman’s life, from determining her school attendance, her perceived entry into adulthood and thus marriage, her capacity for childbirth, her physical and mental health, to her social interactions with those in her community. Period poverty is not solely a financial poverty – the inability to access female hygiene products and management facilities – but is also a social one, where female health education may be lacking and cultural beliefs can be equally inhibiting.
The advancement of women in Pakistani society is, in many ways, still weighed down by patriarchal dogma; archaic, often theologically justified, cultural practices; and a disparate and decentralised judicial system: most notably, Zia-Ul-Haq-era fundamentalist Federal Shariat Courts and persistent feudal governance, where rural matters are handled by a jirga (a council of male tribal elders). The stigma around menstruation and the belief that it makes a woman ‘impure’ and dirty are not specific to just Pakistan. Nor are they specific to just the Global South – the Pakistani diaspora is entrenched in these same cultural taboos that have made it across the UK border (although in the future may not make it through Priti Patel’s ruthless points-based immigration system).
There is a delicacy, conscientiousness and painstaking perseverance that is required at a grassroots level to shift social tides in such a dramatic way, particularly when it concerns the female experience in Pakistan. I spoke to Ayesha Amin, the founder of Baithak, who notes, “Our job as an organisation is not to go and tell [women] that they’re wrong, but to make them understand the consequences of treating [menstruation] as a taboo topic…we always approach [women] through lady health workers. They might not be very responsive to us, but these lady health workers are from within their communities, they have an immediate trust. People know them. They have their own terms. They have their own words in their own local language.”
The act of translation is an integral process within social progress, and denoting self-ownership to these women is paramount in their empowerment. When women lack ownership of knowledge, their bodies and their agency, they need ownership of their language, as a tool of understanding. There’s a danger, particularly amongst Oxford students, where neoliberal feminism and a Western-centric lens on human rights converges into a moral superiority and disengagement from meaningful and realistic social change. An academic perspective of the South Asian female experience has the potential to hyper-intellectualise and sanitise period poverty, which really necessitates pointedly non-academic, humanised responses; the Nepali practice of Chhaupadi (the physical isolation of menstruating girls) has often been used to homogenise all other practices of period isolation as equally damaging. A simple conversation with a Kalasha woman from North Pakistan would highlight integral differences in social attitudes surrounding their practice of Bashali (or period isolation) – notably, attitudes not grounded in disgust. The conflict between social progress and inhibiting cultural attitudes is not a new phenomenon or concept for us, but for a woman in Jamshoro, specific cultural attitudes pervade her experience as an individual and so cannot always instantly extrapolate them as inhibiting nor neatly dismiss them by a removed notion of social progress. That’s not to say community based social change should be disengaged from the process of codifying rights into laws and policy: rather, the two should be married up in a more considered and formative way.
“I truly believe in the power that community based organisations, or people on the ground, have in influencing social change processes or the policy environment,” says Ayesha, who holds a Masters in Social Policy from the University of Pennsylvania. “Unfortunately, the policy environment in Pakistan is so difficult to penetrate, especially when it comes to policies that affect women’s lives. One thing in Pakistan, is that it’s so difficult to understand where the power lies. A person may hold power on paper, but the real power may be in [the] background. The laws and policies that have been there for women have been a result of the female representation that we have in parliament. And that’s one way to change things; if we get more women in politics, then we can perhaps have more gender-centred policymaking or more gender sensitive policies. Unfortunately, if you see women in politics, most of them come from patriarchal structures, and by patriarchal structures, I mean most of them belong to political families. And that’s the problem. But you’ll also see some women who do not come from political families and these are the women who really initiate the change. The problem [with political families] is that they advocate for causes that have already been advocated for – they come with the same mindset that was already there.”
The late Prime Minister and Oxford alumnus, Benazir Bhutto (also of Sindhi origin), perhaps best epitomises the female Pakistani politician entering the stage from an elite political family. Being half-Sindhi myself, I know how deep the Sindhi pride runs for Bhutto (or for the infamously baritone Qawwali singer, Abida Parveen) who are both female and both identity-anchoring individuals for a province which, paradoxically, is so lagging in female agency. The fact is that very little changed practically or legislatively for women during Bhutto’s time in office; her efforts to instigate all-female police stations were ineffective and met with underfunding and little follow through. Although this initiative was (and is) necessary in itself, rather it demonstrates performative action on Bhutto’s part and, as Ayesha mentions, political family women not truly advocating for women’s causes, particularly considering Bhutto’s complete non-treatment of the fundamentalist Sharia laws that restrict women’s rights. What this highlights is the historic lack of will that meets singular progressive moves when not reinforced with significant efforts to shift local social attitudes. This is not necessarily a condemnation of Bhutto, but a recognition that simply having a female figurehead is not enough for women.
Ayesha emphasised that community-based organisations in Pakistan often lack of resources, subsequently affecting their potential for major impact – they lack “a general understanding of how the process works, how to form coalitions, how to reach out to government representatives, how to influence policy…one way people can really contribute is by sharing their expertise.” It’s becoming more apparent that Pakistanis have a great amount of agency and momentum when they mutually engage across borders. Baithak has already partnered with two Manchester-based Pakistani groups, The Period Poverty Project and, sustainable fashion-brand, Electric Bazaar – both have collaborated in Baithak’s advocacy and fundraising efforts for period poverty operations and in their protection of vulnerable women from domestic violence, as well as generating integral cross-border discussions. South Asian diaspora identity politics often tends to agonise over the feeling of being stretched between two cultures – this sentiment is valid, but perhaps really only useful if it is reinterpreted to activate mobility and access between resources and experiences – both shared and different. It’s fine to harbour discourse with Pakistani thinkers, politicians and the educated elite when debating what a ‘Naya (New) Pakistan’ looks like, especially one which envisions greater diaspora involvement. However, this is all worthless if we do not sit, talk, and listen to Pakistan’s women.