Women's Action Forum came into being in Karachi in September 1981. The following year, the Lahore and then the Islamabad Chapters were formed. Some years later, the Peshawar chapter came into being. And in May this year (2008), a Chapter of WAF started in Hyderabad, in the Province of Sindh.
Women's Action Forum does active lobbying, advocacy on behalf of women in Pakistan. it holds demonstrations and public-awareness campaigns. It is committed to a just and peaceful society based on democracy. The issues picked up by WAF have included challenging discriminatory legislation against women, the invisibility of women in government plans and policies, the exclusion of women from media, sports and cultural activities, dress codes for women, violence against women and the seclusion of women. WAF's activism has led to the birth of many women's rights groups and resource centres thereby increasing its outreach. WAF considers all issues as "women's issues" and has taken positions on national and global developments. It allies itself with democratic and progressive forces in the country as well as linking its struggle with that of minorities and other oppressed peoples.
Launched by seventeen women in Karachi, WAF has grown into an amorphous, non-hierarchical umbrella body of national dimensions that brings together numerous organizations - at times over 20 in number - seeking justice for women.
Women's Action Forum (WAF) was formed in September 1981, a mass-based popular front of many women's organizations and concerned individuals. The catalyst of WAF was a Zina case, where a fifteen year old woman was sentenced to flogging because of marrying a man of a lower class background contrary to her parent's wishes. This sentence triggered a response among women. Action was necessary as this case followed various other attacks on women including professors being molested, women being tortured for their political beliefs and affiliations, restrictions instituted against their professional activities and the imposition of a dress code for female public employees. It was also recognized that help could not be expected from other quarters, either from the Movement for Restoration of Democracy (MRD) or the left since these groups were fighting for their survival, and had not taken an active part in fighting for women's rights in earlier periods.
Women recognized that this was a fight they must lead themselves, that the need was to educate each other and fight for their rights to overcome previous inequalities. Created initially by professional, middle class women, WAF received the endorsement of seven women's groups. These groups, while maintaining their independent existence, decided to rally under WAF's banner in a popular front dedicated to one common goal: the achievement of basic human rights for all Pakistani women. These rights include education, employment, physical security, choice of marital status, planned parenthood and non-discrimination. Recognizing the enormity of the task confronting them, the organizers proceeded cautiously. Initially they devoted their attention to fighting to preserve rights under attack from the military. Given their limited numbers at this point a lobbying cum-pressure group approach was used. The first action undertaken was a national signature campaign based on five issues affecting women. Over seven thousand signatures were collected between October and December 1981, and the document was presented to the Zia-ul-Haq.
Realizing that the state was likely to concede only token demands to them if they limited their activities to submitting petitions, WAF decided to broaden its base. Towards this end, in January 1982, the Karachi chapter of WAF organized a two day symposium on "Human Rights and Pakistani Women" while simultaneously running workshops on education, law, consciousness-raising and health. This was merely the first of a series of symposia and workshops held on a wide variety of topics of interest to women in English and Urdu as well as some of the regional languages.
WAF also began to reach out to minorities as well as to working class women. Their panels and workshops reflected their seriousness and included such topics as inflation, crimes against women, consumer consciousness, and the nationality question. More recently there has been considerable discussion in the organization regarding organizing, particularly in areas where working class women are concentrated.
On June 03, 1998, the Women's Action Forum, Lahore, issued a statement expressing deep distress by the explosion of nuclear devices in India and Pakistan. WAF condemned India for starting the nuclear race in South Asia, and were saddened that Pakistan responded in kind and lost its moral high ground in the process. In addition, WAF criticised the imposition of Emergency rule and found the suspension of fundamental rights in Pakistan following the explosions is extremely perturbing.
WAF also continues to work against superpower interference in Pakistan’s internal and regional affairs, the impunity with which Pakistan’s sovereignty and territory continues to be attacked, the government’s misplaced politico-economic alliances, and its acceptance of unfair terms of trade under the WTO.
In 1996 WAF apologized for the Pakistani military's War Crimes of 1971 and said that "the state and the people of Pakistan must reflect on the role played by the state and the Pakistani military in the unprecedented and exceptionally violent suppression of the political aspirations of the people of Bangladesh in 1971. Continued silence on our part makes a mockery not only of the principles of democracy, human rights, and self determinations which we lay claim to, but also makes a mockery of our own history."
Renowned lawyers Asma Jahangir and her sister, Hina Jilani, helped form the WAF. Khawar Mumtaz and Farida Shaheed were active in WAF. They have authored the book Mumtaz, Khawar and Farida Shaheed, Eds. Women of Pakistan. London: Zed Books, 1987. Anis Haroon is one of the founders of WAF, along with Madeeha Gauhar, Uzma Noorani, Ghazala Rahman Rafiq, Humaira Rahman, Tehmina Ahmed, Najma Sadiq, Nuzhat Amin to name a few are the WAF charter members and co-founders.
November 5 marks the 25th anniversary of the creation of the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) in Pakistan. According to a Dawn report about the WAF silver jubilee:
All three chapters of the WAF, Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, gathered in Lahore to celebrate 25 years of the founding of the forum, the women’s rights organisation working in close collaboration with other civil society and democratic forces to defend the rights of women and all oppressed and marginalised sections of society…. These and hundreds of other, anonymous, women pioneers representing the struggle by civil society against the forces of obscurantism broke the ice at a time when chilly winds blew across the country, freezing even the few men who dared to speak up in their tracks, as efforts were being made by the dictatorial regime of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq to further gag the women, the minorities and the democratic voices.
The defunct student and trade unions and the harassed political activists later joined the struggle led by the show of courage that these brave women put up against what they saw as distortion of the social order and dreams of an emancipated society that Pakistanis from all religious, ethnic and economic backgrounds had long cherished. The Women’s Action Forum emerged on the scene as a vanguard of a movement that defied General Zia’s martial law and its torturous tactics. On Feb 12, 1983, the WAF along with the Pakistan Women Lawyers’ Association took out a public rally against the Law of Evidence on The Mall, Lahore, which came under brutal police attack. The late poet Habib Jalib was prevailed upon to rally the women demonstrators with his rebel-rousing poetry before being beaten by the police. This was a turning point in the gathering of democratic forces against military dictatorship.
On Sepetmber 16, silver jubilee celebrations of WAF were held at the Karachi Press Club. It was a colourful affair of skits, song and dance.
WAF has reiterated its demand to repeal the Hudood Ordinances in their entirety and urges members of all political parties committed to the repeal of the ordinance to continue their efforts.
In a statement issued on November 18, 2006 the WAF said it hoped that the Women’s Protection Bill passed by the National Assembly on November 15 would help women by eliminating the possibility of rape victims being prosecuted for zina and the abolition of whipping and stoning to death. “This will only be confirmed when the text of the bill is made public,” the statement said, adding that the WAF viewed the political compromise made in approving the bill as “unwarranted and dangerous”.
“WAF is convinced that the new clauses relating to fornication will be used to victimise people in the same way that the clauses on zina were used under the Hudood Ordinances,” the statement said.
“The introduction of the Hudood Ordinances in 1979 resulted in tens of thousands of cases being registered against innocent women each year,” it said. “It enabled family members and others to use the Zina Enforcement Ordinance to imprison and persecute women (and men) who married of their own choice, and orally divorced women. It is unclear whether the bill has removed the previous contradictions between Muslim Family Law Ordinance (1961) and the Hudood Ordinance.” “WAF is committed to its long-standing position that the Hudood Ordinance violates all norms of decency, justice and human rights,” it said. “It is the poorest of the poor who are subjected to the worst of the punishments. Hundreds of women are imprisoned and many more are on trial for allegedly committing offences under other aspects of Hudood laws.