Women and Protest Politics in Pakistan
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This article draws on qualitative research on five different gendered contentions in Pakistan: a feminist mobilisation, a protest against child sexual abuse, a workers’ mobilisation for greater employment benefits, an ethno-religious minority community’s demand for protection from sectarian attacks, and an ethno-nationalist mobilisation for post-conflict security and greater rights. All our cases of contention are based on claims the state has repeatedly failed to address. The article asks how fragility and conflict shape contentious politics and create opportunities for women’s social and political action. Why do women act collectively and engage in protests and what are their leadership strategies? What do these strategies tell us about the goals of these contentions and the women who lead them? We argue protests function as part of a broader repertoire of strategies to maximise women’s voice and impact in a constrained context. Protest strategies are complemented by advocacy with government, court petitions, engagement with formal politics, and alliance with feminist leaders. Some women leaders strategically traverse the divide between contentious and formal politics, and use their feminist voices to amplifying protest claims and mobilise support. Leaders generate support for each other’s contentions, believing their goals are linked. The positive impacts include the enhanced effectiveness of some protest leaders, improvements in state accountability, widening of feminist discourse, and activists’ empowerment as actors in the public domain. Gains remain uncertain in the long term due to shrinking civic spaces, gendered barriers to political inclusion, and increasing backlash.