Toward the International Working Women’s Conference: Rubina Jamil and Christel Keiser Speak Out on Women’s Double Oppression
PRESENTATION: Contributions from France and Pakistan
The Open World Conference Against War and Exploitation, for a Workers’ International (Paris, October 2022) will open with the meeting of the International Working Women’s Conference, held in response to a joint call by Rubina Jamil, general secretary of the All Pakistan Trade Union Federation (APTUF), and Christel Keiser, national secretary of the Democratic Independent Workers Party (POID) of France and head of its working women’s commission.
For Marxists, women in the capitalist system are victims of “double oppression”: Exploited as workers – just like any other worker – women are also “the proletariat of man” (Engels). In this sense, women workers constitute one of the most oppressed strata of the working class, which is why one cannot seriously consider building a workers’ party without giving women workers their full place in it, nor taking their particular demands into account.
“The epoch of capitalist decline deals the hardest blows to women, both as wage earners and as housewives. The sections of the Fourth International must seek support in the most oppressed strata of the working class, and consequently among working women. There they will find inexhaustible sources of devotion, of abnegation and spirit of sacrifice“, the Transitional Programme of the Fourth International reminds us.
As an illustration of our point of view, we publish below two contributions: one by Rubina Jamil, general secretary of the All Pakistan Trade Union Federation, on the condition of women and the democratic and social struggles of the workers’ movement for their emancipation in Pakistan ; and the other a speech by Christel Keiser at the POID’s national rally on 22 January 2022, which brought together 1,500 workers, activists and young people and where, among other things, women workers and students spoke out, reporting on the class struggles in the factories, hospitals, and schools. — Editors of The Internationale, quarterly review of the OCRFI
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RUBINA JAMIL on Women in Pakistan
Women in Pakistan are disadvantaged from the moment they are born. The birth of a girl is frequently met with disappointment, even anger, and the blame is usually placed on the mother. As a rule, the girl child receives less food, less access to education and less health care. As a result, girls are more likely to die of childhood diseases. There are only 91 females to every 100 males in Pakistan. As one women’s organization put it:
“The girl is a liability; at an early age the girl child is made aware that she is only a temporary member of the family. Any skills she learns will benefit not her own family but her in-laws.”
School enrollment of girls is low: only 32 per cent of girls of primary-school age attend school, and only 27 per cent of older girls go to school, according to women’s groups. The drop-out rate is high. Girls are kept at home to do household chores or to look after younger children when required by the family, or whenever funds are low. Only some 24 per cent of females are literate, compared to 49 per cent of males, according to government statistics. Women’s groups estimate that only 12 to 15 per cent of females can read and write.
Girls generally marry young, at around 15 years of age. The birth rate is high, as women give birth to six children on average and both infant and maternal mortality rates are also high.
Twelve women are raped every day on average in Pakistan, according to 2019 estimates by the non-governmental Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). Only a small fraction of these rapes are committed by police officers. However, when law enforcement officials are seen to be able to rape women without fear of prosecution, this clearly signals to society at large that the authorities do not treat the crime seriously. Some 800 cases of rape were reported in the national press in 2017; half of them were gang-rapes and most of the victims were under-aged girls. Human rights groups estimate that only one third of cases are reported or registered with the police.
Women are usually married off by their families, in a transaction in which the “bride-price” is negotiated by the two families. The woman is then considered and treated as the property of her husband and may not defy him. Wives, it is assumed, have given permanent consent to sexual intercourse with their husbands. Marital rape – intercourse without the consent of the wife – is only an offence if serious injuries result. Sexual activity outside marriage is a criminal offence for which the law prescribes stringent punishments (see below).
Domestic violence against women is widespread and rarely brought to public notice or punished unless the woman dies or suffers gruesome injuries. Husbands have killed their wives and then claimed that they died when their cooking stove exploded. Some 240 cases of women dying in this way were reported in the press in 1994. Such incidents are reportedly rarely investigated thoroughly by police, and postmortem examinations are rarely performed.
Two hospitals in Rawalpindi – the Rawalpindi General Hospital and the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences – admitted 35 women with severe burn injuries between March and October 1994. Of the 35 women who appeared to be victims of domestic violence, 31 died. In 27 of these cases no complaint was lodged with the police; in one case, in which the victim survived, a compromise was found between victim and perpetrator and in another the husband was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment. In the remaining six cases police investigations were initiated!
Human rights groups report an increasing number of instances of public humiliation of women. Women have been stripped in public, paraded through the streets, dragged by their hair or publicly sexually humiliated. The HRCP recorded 48 such cases in 2018 and 92 cases in 2018.
Women who are bonded labourers  are completely at the mercy of their masters. They suffer rape and gross ill-treatment of every sort. These abuses have been extensively described by journalists and human rights organizations, yet no systematic action has been taken by the authorities to stop the abuses and prevent their recurrence. In the tribal areas of Pakistan, men or families whose honour is impugned have resorted to revenge attacks and killings, particularly against women. The rape of another man’s wife is reportedly an accepted form of revenge in some areas. Again, despite well-documented evidence, the authorities allow these practices to persist.
There is a well-established trade in women, even though slavery is prohibited under the Constitution. The victims are mostly poor village girls from Bangladesh who are abducted or lured with promises of employment and a better life. Once in Pakistan they are sold into prostitution or domestic servitude. According to a human rights lawyer in Karachi, some 120 to 150 Bangladesh women are sold every month. Many of these girls, some in their early teens, are arrested during raids on brothels. Most are charged with zina (extramarital sexual intercourse) or with illegal entry into Pakistan. Those who manage the slave trade and local pimps are rarely caught and charged. The cross-border trade in women is not possible without the connivance and active collaboration of police and border security forces.
A human rights organization estimated that in 2018 at least 2,500 girls and women were sold into prostitution within the country. A daily newspaper reported the names and addresses of traffickers in the North West Frontier Province but there have apparently been no official investigations into these detailed allegations of kidnapping.
There is considerable evidence that at least at the local level, the authorities know about and connive with the trade in women. However, the government has ignored it.
Political participation by women
Women in Pakistan have the right to vote but they exercise this right only rarely and not always freely.
Although the former Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, was a woman, women are under-represented at all levels of government. Women’s views and issues are largely ignored in law and policy making.
A constitutional provision guaranteeing 43 seats for women in the national and provincial assemblies (but not in the Senate) lapsed in 1990 after having been in force for 10 years. In local government, women’s representation is very low.
Discrimination in law: the Zina Ordinance
The Constitution of Pakistan proclaims the rights of women. Article 25(1) states unequivocally: “All citizens are equal before the law and are entitled to equal protection of law.” Article 25(2) goes on to say: “There shall be no discrimination on the basis of sex alone”.
Nevertheless, several Pakistan laws explicitly discriminate against women. In some cases they allow only the evidence of men to be heard, not of women. In particular, the Evidence Act and the Zina Ordinance, one of four Hudood Ordinances promulgated in 1979, have eroded women’s rights and denied them equal protection by the law.
Women are also disadvantaged generally in the criminal justice system because of their position in society.
Human rights violations
Women in Pakistan are subjected to widespread violations of their human rights. Some of these violations are suffered almost exclusively by women, such as rape in custody. Women also face laws which directly contribute to, facilitate or invite violations of their fundamental rights.
 For example, to repay a debt.
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CHRISTEL KEISER: “We are the party of working women and we are proud to say so!”
[Christel Keiser’s speech at the national rally of the POID (Independent and Democratic Workers’ Party) in Paris on 22 January 2022]
Since its constitution in 2015, the fight for a Workers’ International has been embedded in the POID’s DNA.
There is only one capitalist system on an international scale, exploiting, oppressing and unleashing wars and barbarism. And there is only one working class, which, throughout the world and in every country, seeks to take its own affairs into its own hands against the capitalist governments.
So we, the POID, together with activists of all tendencies of the workers’ movement in our country, are proud to be hosting the World Conference against War and Exploitation, for a Workers’ International, in Paris at the end of October 2022.
The conference will be opened by the International Conference of Working Women, because in France as well as on an international scale, it is the working class that will free women from the double oppression they suffer, just as the working class will put an end to all forms of oppression, racism and discrimination.
The call for this conference, launched by 601 activists from 57 countries – as you have read in La Tribune des Travailleurs – affirms that it is more than ever necessary to raise the fight for a Workers’ International, against the barbarism generated by the capitalist system.
Yes, barbarism exists; we see it in India, where the number of COVID victims is in the millions, due to the devastation of the public health systems.
Barbarism is evident with the presence of French troops in the Sahel, denying the right of peoples to self-determination.
It is present in the United States, where the largest military budget in history has been adopted by elected Democrats and Republicans, feeding the march to war in Ukraine and the march to war against China.
It exists where, in the same country that is the richest in the world, we learn that since the beginning of the pandemic the life expectancy of each American has decreased by an average of one and a half years, and by three years for Black Americans, the most oppressed layer of the working class.
Barbarism exists, from the beaches of the Mediterranean to the slums of Calais, where we see those fleeing wars and the IMF’s plans of destitution and poverty being repressed and sentenced to drowning.
But the past year has seen, in contradistinction, the class struggle rising up the same, in all countries, against the capitalist governments and their policies.
From this platform, I would like to salute the historic victory of the peasants in India, who by mobilising for more than a year, hand in hand with the workers, have pushed back the Indian government and its corporate “reforms”! We reported on this in La Tribune des Travailleurs, with our correspondents in India.
And as our correspondents have reported on the peoples’ uprisings which, from Colombia to Sudan, from Kazakhstan to Palestine, have shown that the working class is in the vanguard of the fight for democracy, that it has the capacity to shake and overthrow the bloodiest, most corrupt and most police-like regimes in the world.
I would like to salute the unprecedented wave of workers’ strikes that continues to sweep the United States, at Kellogg’s and in John Deere factories, in the warehouses of Amazon and among healthcare workers, and even in the Hollywood studios.
It is striking how similar the demands of these strikes are: for higher wages; for preservation of benefits; the refusal to lay off workers; for massive hiring in hospitals, schools and public services.
But there is nothing surprising about this, because it is one and the same working class that exists and struggles all over the world. A working class that seeks at all costs to preserve the independence of its organisations, to build independent organisations, to defend democratic freedoms, to reject war.
The workers of the world are, as in France, confronted with the obstacles raised by the leaders of the workers’ organisations who have accompanied the so-called stimulus packages, pouring trillions of dollars and euros into the pockets of the capitalists.
But it is precisely to help overcome these obstacles that we are committing all our forces to ensure the success of the World Conference Against War and Exploitation, for a Workers’ International, and the International Conference of Working Women.
The POID is a labour party. It is a party of workers. That is why it is also the party of working women. Because the fight against exploitation would be an empty phrase if it were not first and foremost the fight against the exploitation of the most oppressed and the most exploited. And women workers – as the comrades who preceded me explained very well – very often belong to these most exploited categories. So yes, we are the party of working women and we are proud to say so!
In a few weeks’ time, we will celebrate 8 March, the International Day for the Rights of Working Women.
The origin of 8 March, contrary to what is asserted by all those who want to make it an institutional day without a class character, is rooted in the labour movement – and more precisely, the second conference of the International of Women Socialists, meeting in Copenhagen in 1910, which decided to organise an annual International Women’s Day.
There are many women who have played a leading role in the labour movement. The German socialist activists Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxembourg are often mentioned. And in France, during the Paris Commune, the anarchist Louise Michel or the Marxist activist Elisabeth Dmitrieff.
I would like to pay tribute to a lesser-known workers’ activist, but one who deserves to be known, because her work and her struggle are, in my view, of burning relevance. I am talking about Louise Bodin.
Louise Bodin was born in 1877. Initially a socialist activist, in 1920 she was one of the founders of the Communist Party and wrote regularly in L’Humanité. She was also editor-in-chief of a small newspaper, La Voix des Femmes (“Women’s Voice”), created in 1917, which opposed the war.
The emancipation of women and the emancipation of the workers were closely intertwined in her life’s struggle.
In 1918, with regard to the female workers in the Rennes arsenal, she made this reproach to the bourgeoisie:
“The women workers of the arsenal leave every night in the rain, in the mud, in the cold, while you are still asleep (…). Can’t you hear the sound of the trams taking them to the far-off suburb, and the mournful call of the siren? You do not hear, you sleep. Your sleep, your happiness, your peace of mind are made from their daily toil; you owe the security of your verbal patriotism to their labour.”
Two years later, Louise Bodin engaged in a struggle that seemed extraordinarily avant-garde at the time, half a century before the adoption of the Veil law. The aim was to oppose the law that punished anyone who incited abortion or promoted contraception. Louise Bodin described this law as “the most wicked law in the world“.
And here again, while she demanded the right to abortion for all women, she gave this fight a class content:
“And it is indeed the worker’s wife, the woman of the people that is targeted (…).
“She will carry loads of laundry to the river to wash, faltering under the weight; she will carry buckets of water up to her sixth-floor flat: no matter, she will have children.
“They will die of tuberculosis, of hereditary syphilis, in their hovels and in infamous hospitals: no matter, she will have kids.
“They will be killed by the millions, for the sake of Law and Civilisation, they will be left to rot in jail if they revolt and if they become conscious: no matter, she will have kids.
“Even if she loses six, she’ll have twelve. She will die of it, but she will have kids.
“And that’s how (…) the social prison of women was provided with yet another lock.”
In 1917, the socialist Louise Bodin obviously sided with the Russian revolution.
Louise Bodin was not a bourgeois feminist. An activist for the emancipation of women, she fought for the proletarian revolution which would give women real political, economic and social equality, inseparable from the workers’ struggle: “Feminism can only be an instrument of human progress if it is revolutionary, if it leads to the class struggle in common with the communists, if it is integrated into communism.” She is obviously referring here to the young communist movement that was developing in the wake of the Russian revolution.
In 1927, she criticised bourgeois feminist groups: “What are all these associations, these groups, these feminist democracies and so on, with no guidelines, no programme, no solid ideology, no historical basis, no precise goal? What is all this verbal jargon for dodging the actual examination of the question?
“There is no such thing, ladies, as a female democracy. There are women and men, the exploited and the exploiters.
“Alliance with the exploited against the exploiters and their henchmen! War against the capitalist offensive, not collusion with the servants of capitalism.
“Whoever they are!”
And more generally, she speaks out in favour of (and I quote): “The sexual freedom of women, the free disposal and ownership of their bodies“, questions which, she says, “seem so immoral that they border on Bolshevism“.
This honest revolutionary activist did not capitulate to Stalinism. Shortly before her death in 1929, she broke with the CP and joined Trotsky’s fight against Stalinism, declaring: “I have freed my conscience, which remains faithful to the teachings of Lenin.”
We entirely embrace Louise Bodin’s fight, the fight for the emancipation of women, which is inseparable from the fight for the emancipation of the working class.
This is why we publish a page each month in La Tribune des Travailleurs in which women workers and activists express themselves on their situation and their battles.
This is why, through the campaign for the requisition of the 600 billion gifted to the capitalists since the beginning of the pandemic – thanks to the unanimous vote of all the MPs – we demand that these billions be allocated in particular:
- the creation of places in the crèches (public childcare), to enable women to work;
- the reopening of maternity wards to allow women to have their babies in the best possible conditions;
- the reopening of abortion centres with all the necessary staff;
- the means of protection that are essential to really combat domestic violence;
- the massive hiring of teachers in schools so that mothers are not constantly forced to find alternative arrangements for childcare.
Participants and actors in the struggle of working women, especially those who are the most exploited – AESH*, care assistants, home helpers, cleaning staff, workers – we are fighting for real equality between women and men, for equal pay, for legal equality.
Join the party of working women!
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*AESH are assistants hired in schools to accompany and aid disabled learners.