New project sheds light on Pakistan’s lesser known feminist history

The New York Times/Women in the World: July 14, 2015

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It had been there for decades  — a red, blue and white flag unfurling in the wind, an unwanted blot in the sky for many who walked under it. And then, in the blink of an eye, it was gone, removed by a woman who heard the calls for the flag’s removal and decided to do it herself.

This is not the story of Bree Newsome, but instead, of Fatima Sughra. In 1947, Fatima, then a 14-year-old girl living in Lahore (in undivided India) pulled down the Union Jack from the Punjab Civil Secretariat Building and replaced it with the emblem of the Muslim League, the political party fighting for the creation of Pakistan and freedom from British rulers in the Indian subcontinent at the time.

But while Bree Newsome’s name may be familiar to many young women in Pakistan, Fatima Sughra’s is known to a handful, relegated to a time when hashtags did not commemorate heroes. Sana Saleem and Ghausia Rashid Salam, two Karachi-based women, are hoping to change that. HERstory, an online record of Pakistan’s feminist legacy, is a collection of oral histories the two women have been collecting for eight months, since an intern they worked with elsewhere mentioned she had no clue about Pakistan’s feminist movement.

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Paper work

2014-01-27 20.20.40The Herald: August 2011

Paper work

The challenges in documenting and accessing historical records in Pakistan

“How much has India paid you to get this information?” asked a librarian at a government archive when a private archivist Ahmed Saleem attempted to access documents for his research into Sikh history. Saleem laughs as he recalls his (mis)adventures in Pakistan’s provincial and national archives. “Staff members at the archives would have a number of excuses for my request to access files,” he says.

During the course of his research into Partition, Saleem was often told that the material he was seeking was classified as it posed a potential threat to ‘Pakistan’s integrity’. He believes “the chief secretary of the Punjab Archives keeps all records of Bhagat Singh’s trial in a drawer in his desk and if you ask for these files, he questions whether you are working for India.”

Saleem’s assertions echo what researchers in Pakistan have been saying for years: government archives are rich repositories of information for those researchers who manage to whisper the right words to open these veritable Solomon’s mines of historical records. With provincial archives slowly transferring data from outdated microfilms into computerised systems, these records are largely well preserved, though poorly organised. As one former archive director says, “There is no shortage of funds — that is a myth.” The problem, he believes, lies within the administration, failing to employ professional, well-trained archivists who are able to handle the material in their charge.

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