26th November 2021

R. Umaima Ahmed

For most students who come from non-political or somewhat conservative backgrounds, student politics is generally a ‘no go area.’ One of the reasons women in particular are asked to stay away is security concerns and ‘dirty politics’ even though as women they are more politically aware than they’re given credit for. This mindset doesn’t exist in a vacuum – over the years there has been systematic brainwashing against student unions. Student unions were once known as political nurseries where critical thinking, discourse, study circles and competitions took place; however, with the ban in 1984 we don’t find progressive women leaders in our political arenas.

When I decided to explore the role played by women in student politics during the 60s-80s, I did not know that there would be such a huge lack of information. It proved that we have erased or neglected the role of women from history. It spoke volumes on how women’s contribution to quite literally all walks of life has been sidelined.

The world social order is based on interdependence of genders; and if one is dominant over the other an imbalance is established which results in inequality. Patriarchy is one such imbalance and it has been successful in pushing women into the corner for centuries, even when it comes to documenting history, even though women have played a significant part in social movements like war and peace, and have suffered the most too.

Women of the Sub-Continent have been no different, and the role of feminist leaders in the Pakistan Movement is missing from our history books even when Quaid e Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah believed in women empowerment himself. In order to have a deeper understanding of the role of feminist leaders pre and post partition one must read  ‘Women in Pakistan, Two Steps Forward; One Step Back’ by Khawar Mumtaz and Fareeda Shaheed.

The History of Student Unions in Pakistan

After Partition in 1947, it was challenging to start life afresh, especially for students. Speaking to Dr Azeem, who is a professor at LUMS, we discussed the problems students faced in detail.

“Karachi was the Capital when Pakistan came into existence. Most Industries were already established there, and a large number of people had migrated there so the educated and intellectual class was mostly there. Initially students faced poor standards of education and facilities, which became the cause of protests and students of DOW Medical College played an active role in building momentum” he stated.

Post World War 2 and early 1950s when the USSR and US were vying for world supremacy and Pakistan was leaning towards the West progressive students in Pakistan were following Marxist politics and we saw an emergence of a pro-China group emerging.

Islami Jamiat-i-Talaba (IJT), a wing of the Jamaat-i-Islami came into existence right after partition but a group of progressive students, both male and female formed their own student union called the Democratic Students Federation (DSF) in early 1950s. On 7th January 1953, DSF drew up a Charter of Demands and met with the Education Minister, Fazl-ur-Rehman back then. However, this wasn’t fruitful and on the 8th of January 27 people, including students and passersby, were killed and many more were wounded when the police opened fire on them.

The National Students Federation (NSF) was formed in the mid-50s as an alternative for progressive students which was later infiltrated with Marxists ideologies from both genders. Over the period they gained electoral supremacy and ruled education campuses across Pakistan. They held protests against President General Ayub Khan’s educational policies. Later the NSF was divided into two groups, Rasheed Hasan Khan – the pro-China group and Kazmi – the pro-Moscow group.

Student wings of political parties also came into existence around the same time, however students who believed in real f student politics did not support this development. The environment on campuses was becoming hostile and being uneasy with the power of student unions President General Zia ul Haq banned these in 1984.

Women’s Roles in Student Unions

While reviewing the history of student unions one usually finds the names of male students who were in leadership positions, however women were also a part of these unions at both college and university levels. Women were not however comfortable with working with men  on campus which is why they made groups of their own and started their own student politics.

Husain Naqi, a journalist, a human rights activist and NSF member speaking to the scribe said, “Women played an integral role in mobilizing students, raising issues that concerned students, leading protests and in contesting elections. They held important positions in the unions and to know about the role of women in student unions one must read the book “Suraj pe Kamand” (Lassoing the Sun) by Hasan Javed & Mohsin Zulfiqar The book explores student activism, history, idiosyncrasies, achievements as well as shortcomings of the left leaning students of Karachi and Lahore which had 110 vignettes of people of DSF and NSF including women who were student activists and part of the struggle.

Suraj pe Kamand
Suraj pe Kamand mentions women activists and their struggles

A number of women who were part of the student unions were reached out to learn about their work and reminiscence about their participation in Student Unions.Many happily recalled incidents to the best of their memories and shared with the scribe:

Anis (Tafazul) Haroon did her graduation from Hyderabad and later MA & LLB from Karachi University. In 1964 she was Vice President of the Government College for Women in Hyderabad. During her stay in Karachi University she was actively involved in student unions along with other women, which was not approved by theIslami Jamiat-i-Talaba  (IJT). “Our active participation in student unions forced them to make their female members contest elections too. Male members of IJT would refuse to talk to girls, so whenever we found any member of IJT in the corridors we would call out to them and try talking to them only to tease them.” She completed her studies in 1969 and joined PPP. Currently she is a member of the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) Karachi.

Mehnaz (Quraishi) Rehman, Resident Director Aurat Foundation Sindh and a veteran journalist talking to the scribe said that although she was never into student unions during college days, however Sahir Ludhianvi’s poetry made her change her mind  and move towards, socialism and human rights. From a silent progressive minded girl in Zubaida College in Hyderabad, she emerged as a leader in Karachi University with the help of Ruksana Afridi the niece of Mairaj Mohammad Khan, a progressive leader of the Student Unions, who became the first female to contest the student body elections in 1968-1969.

Mehnaz Rahman
Mehnaz Rahman

Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) had just been established with the slogan Roti, Kapra, Makan (Food, Cloth, House) which resonated with NSF even though it was divided into Rasheed Hasan Khan – the pro-China group and Kazm i- the pro-Moscow group. When the elections were being held in Karachi University, the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) leadership was afraid that if leftist’s wins in Karachi University, the message will go out that PPP will also win in the future.

JI was known for not allowing women in leadership roles, however when Mahnaz decided to contest the elections they fielded Shaheen Kazmi, a female candidate. “IJT had never made a girl contest the elections but when I stood for Vice President that made them field a female candidate. The whole IJT leadership tried their best to get votes for her but I came out victorious in the end,” said Mahnaz.

Like now, IJT used to police boys and girls on campus even then, “They made sure that there was a safe distance between the boys and girls while interacting,” she said with a laugh. In the next instant her tone changed as she reminisced over the period when educational institutes were learning grounds for students with poetry competitions, debates, political grooming and sports.

Once political influence started making inroads and political parties formed their student wings, things started changing resulting in President Gen Zia ul Haq placing a ban on Unions causing great damage not only to student activities, but also to the political future of Pakistan.

Women campaigning ahead of the elections
Women campaigning ahead of the elections

Irshad Arshi from the Government College for Girls, 6th Road Rawalpindi, was an energetic debater and took part in intercollege debates and poetry competitions. She became the Vice President in 1969 and in 1970 the President of the student union however surprisingly she was not interested in politics. Looking back she said, “I wasn’t involved in politics but took part in protests as my friends used to go, Ghazala Shabnam was one of them. Coming from a simple family background I was not groomed to be in politics.”

Arshi had the opportunity to meet Zulfikar Ali Bhutto twice in her student life, and while not motivated by politics his charisma “pulled me always,” she said with a little excitement.


One of the adventures she remembers well was when she along with two of her friends, who were good in political speeches, borrowed burqas to attend a public meeting in Liaqat Bagh in Rawalpindi. “We were so excited that we requested the management to allow us to say a few words. Both my friends gave powerful speeches and I recited a poem; however later shots were fired at the meeting and we ran away, took off the burqa’s and took a taxi back home.” Women were interested in politics and wanted to fully understand why it was important which is why Arshi said another women member of the student Union used to go to work in factories to understand the exploitation people faced as laborers.Over time without any political influence  one woman from the student union started writing  poetry focusing on revolution, freedom of journalism, laborers and resistance against dictatorship. When she joined That women when she joined the University of Punjab Journalism Department in the New Campus she was known as Kazi Nazrul Islam (a well known Bengali poet and intellectual).

Nabahat Ali
Nabahat Ali

Nabahat Ali lives in England and works with differently-abled people there. She was the President of student unions in Government College Satellite Town for Girls 6th Road Rawalpindi from 1977 to 1979. This was the period when student unions were extremely active as Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto had been hanged and students were being pushed against the wall. While male dominated student unions had links with political parties, she had only one aim, “When I contested the elections, my aim was to focus only on students’ issues, rights and needs. Political parties approached me through their student wings but I clearly refused as I did not want to carry their baggage with me. I believe student unions can never flourish if they play in the hands of political parties.”

Nabahat shared that in college there was a tradition to write daily quotes on the black board to motivate students. One day amongst other quotes it was written, “Sher ki ek din ki zindagi geedar ki so sala zindagi sae behtar hoti hai” (One day in the life of a lion is better than the hundred days of a jackal’s life), which triggered protests from women from the ring wing which soon got out of control. Nabahat added that because of our progressive politics, they thought we were siding with the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and protesting against Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s hanging, even though it was not so. Soon men from other colleges started joining the protest and it continued for days. The Police were called in, and the Commissioner of Rawalpindi misbehaved,pushed and abused women however later he was forced to apologize for his behavior to the protesters. Nabahat and a few other girls were arrested however due to pressure from families and teachers they were let off on the same day.

When Nabahat joined The University of Punjab at Lahore she stayed in the hostel. After contesting the hostel elections she became the Secretary. Islami Jamiat Tulaba (IJT) started spreading rumors and ran campaigns against Nabahat and other progressive women on campus. Nabahat recalled how men used to sit outside girl’s hostels along with their women members and stalk the women who came in and out of the hostel.  “Even though I was very progressive I covered my head and offered prayers which misled them and they offered me to join their ranks, which I refused respectfully.”  Due to her focused vision, women leaders like Asma Jahangir and others working on women rights issues aligned with PPP and contacted her to join them however she refused on grounds of principle.

In 1981, Nabahar joined the Journalism Department and formed a student alliance and contested elections. The alliance faced resistance and violence from opposition groups that ‘how dare we stand against them’ recalled Nabahat.  “This was the only election that was fought without taking any funds from anyone, posters and other materials were made out of our very own pocket money; Naheeda Mehmood Elahi, Yasmeen Aftab and some other girls were very dedicated to the cause. However we lost the election due to political parties’ influence on campus”said Nabahat.

Ismat Shahjahan
Ismat Shahjahan

Ismat Raza Shahjahan is a socialist-feminist political leader, who grew up in a Khudai Khidmatgar family with leftist political tradition. Ismat’s father’s uncle (Shahadat Khan) was killed in 1930 by colonial forces after Bacha Khan’s rally in their village in district Karak.  In her adolescence during 1970’s, she was a pupil of her father’s close comrade (late) Sarfraz Mahmood from Kohat, a revolutionary Marxist and leader of the National Awami Party (NAP) and later of Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP). Her two elder sisters also took part in student’s politics and contested elections of the Peshawar University during 1979, and 1983 from the Pakhtun Students Federation (PSF) platform.

Ismat Shahjahan joined active politics in 1983 in Jinnah College (a women’s college in Peshawar University). Prior to the banning of student unions in 1984 by General Zia, she contested elections in the Peshawar University union in 1983, and won a Councilor seat.

Recalling her rustication from college she said, “While election campaigns were in full swing male students were not allowed to enter the girls’ college to canvas. Being against this gender biased policy, I opened the gates for PSF campaigners and even though I won the election, I was rusticated for allowing men inside hostel premises.I completed my Bachelors program privately whileon the other hand, female supporters of Islami Jamiat Talaba (IJT) regularly tore our campaign posters and banners inside hostels and colleges, under patronage of the university and college administration.”

After joining a university, she joined Democratic Students Federation (DSF) and the  Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP) in 1986. About the students suffering due to General Zia’s ban on student unions, she said that, “During that time, military dictatorship, projected jihad, radicalization of youth in state patronage, bomb blasts and suicide attacks, crackdown on progressive forces and left politics was on its peak. Dress code of white shalwar and duppatta was enforced, footpaths were segregated along with gendered lines on campus. Violent attacks by Islami Jamiyat Talaba (IJT) on Peoples’ Students Federation (PSF), and the Democratic Students Federation (DSF) were an everyday occurrence. We faced violent threats and attacks on DSF conventions, and various armed conflicts took place between IJT and other students’ federations in the boys’ hostel along political and cultural lines. Students would fight just for playing music and holding cultural shows on campus. DSF’s magazine “Pukar” (Call) was published and circulated underground. This was the kind of political environment we faced and grew up in.”

Reflecting on the role of women in students’ politics, she said that “Whatever my struggle is it is because of students’ politics; student federations and unions working as a nursery for alternative leadership development.” Ismat Shahjahan founded the Democratic Women Association (DeWA) Pakhtunwa in 1987, an autonomous socialist-feminist organization, supported by the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP(. She joined the Mutahida Labour Federation (MLF) in 1987 and also established a progressive Pashtu political and literary magazine “Leekwal” in 1992 together with her husband Professor Shahjahan, Rehmat Shah Sail and Bashar Naweed as its editor. After dissolution of the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP) in 1989, she joined the Qaumi Inquilabi Party (QIP) formed by ex-CPP members and after its breakup she joined the National Workers Party in 2006, which was later merged with four other left parties into Awami Workers Party (AWP). She is currently the central Deputy Secretary of the AWP, the largest mainstream left Party in Pakistan. She is the founder and President of the Women Democratic Front (WDF) since 2018, which is an autonomous socialist-feminist political organization.

About mobilizing students and public campaigning, Ismat was of the view that things were a lot simpler and effective back then and personal contacts and physical visits worked well. There was no internet or social media onslaught to make things complex as it is today.

In ‘Revisiting Student Politics in Pakistan’ by Iqbal Haider Butt, we learn about Anisa Zeb Tahirkheli MPA of Qoumi Wattan Party (QAU). She belongs to a village in Khalo Tehsil Ghazi in District Haripur. After Matriculation in 1976 from the Viqar-un-Nisa School Rawalpindi, she got admitted to the Federal Government College For Women in Islamabad and stayed at its boarding house.

After Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s hanging students were very upset of the events that transpired and women student activists from the Quaid-i-Azam University (QAU) would visit Anisa’s college to discuss the current political climate. They took out a procession at Moti Mahal Chowk, where they were beaten and charged, he was later part of a group of students who offered a Namaz e Janaza in absentia for Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

Anisa was a BSc Honors student of Geology in Peshawar University, when she was elected to her departmental union. Later in 1981, she was elected as Vice President of the university. The political atmosphere of the country was changing very fast in this period and students from IJT were being radicalized. Terror and fear was lurking on campus, which pushed Anisa to keep a weapon. In a student meeting, she let off many rounds in the air to give a message to the opponents that they were not afraid.

These accounts are an important insight on how women were actively taking part in student politics and union activities during that era. If the ban had not been placed we would not be facing a vacuum of progressive female politicians. In 1993 the ban was briefly lifted by Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, however the Supreme Court overturned the order and since then there has been no progress. In the last few years, progressive students have made efforts to revive student unions in Pakistan and a large number of female students are taking part in the movement to take charge.


This article was initially published in the e-magazine The Digital 50.50


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