Empowering Change: Aurat Foundation's Activism and Agency in Enhancing Women's Political Engagement

April 8, 2024 Afomia Selemon
April 1, 2024 Afomia Selemon

The case study primarily focuses on a local organization called the Aurat Foundation, which is establishing initiatives to increase women's participation in Pakistan's political sphere. Pakistan has a long history of excluding women and women's issues from the political agenda.

Problems and Purpose

Throughout Pakistan's history, women have encountered formidable obstacles to political engagement, consistently finding themselves marginalized from governance at all levels. Despite the presence of women's wings within political parties, their membership remains disproportionately small, relegating women to peripheral roles devoid of decision-making authority (Jafar, 2011, p. 78). Parties often utilize women's groups within the party for electoral mobilization rather than empowering them as genuine political stakeholders, reflecting a broader dichotomy wherein the state is seen as both a potential ally and a patriarchal force opposed to women's interests (Jafar, 2011, p. 78). Consequently, Pakistani women confront the dilemma of embracing mainstream politics, motivated by the need for increased representation amidst the erosion of democratic processes and governmental failure to address their concerns adequately (Jafar, 2011, p. 79). NGOs like the Aurat Foundation, a non-profit organization, act as catalysts to enable critical groups to influence policy, legislation, and programmes for greater economic and political power for women in society (Aurat Foundation, 2020). The Aurat Foundation has campaigned to increase women’s political participation. Many have concluded that women must become part of the government structure to bring about any change (Jafar, 2011, p. 79). Despite challenges, concerted efforts have led to a rise in women candidates in local elections, supported by organizations providing essential training and logistical aid. For instance, NGOs in Pakistan have demanded that the state reserve 33% of the seats for women at the local, provincial, and federal levels, and the Aurat Foundation is leading this movement (Jafar, 2011, p. 80). The Aurat Foundation has provided basic training to women on several issues, such as how the election process works, how to run a campaign, fill out nomination forms, and more (Jafar, 2011, p. 80). These initiatives also tackle fundamental issues like access to national identity cards, highlighting women's multifaceted hurdles in political participation endeavours (Jafar, 2011, p. 80).

Background History and Context

Pakistan has witnessed significant milestones in women's empowerment, including Benazir Bhutto's historic appointment as the first female prime minister of a Muslim country in 1988 and Dr. Fehmida Mirza's election as the first female speaker of the National Assembly in 2008 (Khattak & Higdon, 2020, p. 6). In 2013, over 100 women were elected to parliamentary positions (Khattak & Higdon, 2020, p. 6). However, these advancements are compared with instances of violence and discrimination against women, such as the murder of activist Zubaida Begum in 2005 (Khattak & Higdon, 2020, p. 6). Despite ranking low on the global gender gap index (151st of 153 countries), Pakistan has seen recent efforts to address gender inequality and poverty through legislative measures and increased political participation by women (Khattak & Higdon, 2020, p. 6). The country has celebrated significant achievements, including appointing its first female UN representative, foreign minister, prime minister, and national assembly speaker (Khattak & Higdon, 2020, p. 7). Pakistan has made recent efforts to promote women’s empowerment by including women in governmental leadership roles and in legislative measures that would increase women's political participation, regardless of Pakistan's ranking low on the global gender gap. 

Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities

Founded in 1986, the Aurat Foundation is an independent non-governmental organization dedicated to raising awareness about gender inequality in Pakistan (Cubberley, 2020, p. 34). Initiated during the final years of Zia ul-Haq’s regime, it was established by economist Nigar Ahmad and lawyer Shehli Zia, advocating for women's rights with the slogan "Women’s Rights are Human Rights(Weiss, 2014, p. 84). Operating as an advocacy NGO, it focuses on women’s economic and political empowerment, ending violence against women, democracy, governance, social mobilization, access to justice, and human rights compliance (Cubberley, 2020, p. 34). With a mission to empower women through knowledge, attitude change, and active citizenship, the foundation has expanded nationally and is currently led by Dr. Masuma Hasan (Cubberley, 2020, p. 35). Its leadership comprises 20 women and 11 men, reflecting collaboration across genders. Initially an information resource centre, it evolved to promote social activism through information sharing, organizing mixed-gender Citizen Action Committees, and advocating against discriminatory laws (Jafar, 2011, p. 76). Engaging in donor-funded projects with international organizations like USAID, Oxfam, UN Women, and DFID and collaborating with governmental departments, the Aurat Foundation remains a pivotal force in advancing gender equality in Pakistan. International aid agencies committed to gender development provided vital funding, which increased as the decade progressed. Three significant international conferences in the 1990s added momentum to their efforts, serving as benchmarks for civil society, government, and donor organizations to draw attention to Pakistan’s progress on many women’s rights issues (Weiss, 2014, p. 80). These were the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights, the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, and the 1995 World Conference on Women in Beijing (Weiss, 2014, p. 80).

Participant Recruitment and Selection

The Aurat Foundation (AF) took the lead, supported by other organizations. The Aurat Foundation worked in all 102 nationwide districts to increase women’s presence as elected representatives and voters. It mobilized volunteers to assist with registering women to vote and mobilizing them to stand for election to union councils (Aurat Foundation, 2013). Building upon leadership training initiatives by the Aurat Foundation for other projects, they developed a cadre of women who became community resources—knowledgeable about how to exercise their rights and access state resources (Aurat Foundation, 2013).

Methods and Tools Used

Aurat Foundations would bring initiatives, programmes, and projects into their districts or local communities so that local women could attend training sessions, workshops, or seminars to gain membership. Through the Aurat Foundation's pioneering programmes and initiatives like the Political Education programme for women, the Advocacy and Action Programme for women, and the Legislative Watch Programme for Women’s Empowerment, it imparted information and knowledge, developed skills, and raised the confidence of women and men belonging to different walks of life, particularly women in decision-making bodies and political parties (USAID, 2011, p. 4). Aurat Foundation’s local-level citizen's action committees (CACs) mobilized local women through CACs to confront their local politicians and demand representation for the first time (Jafar, 2011, p. 76).  Another way that local women were recruited in the campaign was through direct local elections, where the Aurat Foundation would set up temporary camps that raised awareness and education about the election process (Jafar, 2011, p. 80). They also went door to door in the remote areas to gain membership in the campaign (Jafar, 2011, p. 81).

What Went On Process, Interaction, and Participation

Aurat Foundation's work to increase women’s political participation campaign is their ultimate goal, and they achieved that through launching programmes,  projects, ceremonies, training sessions, and workshops around the country. There are a few initiatives that Aurat foundations have worked on that speak to their overall goal of increasing women’s political participation and highlighting women’s issues/concerns in the political agenda. It also explained women's voting and the challenges and strategies that the Aurat Foundation has used. 

Advocacy, Awareness-Raising and Lobbying

Sharing Progress for Women’s Empowerment and Launching Ceremony of Punjab Women’s Parliamentary Caucus

The Aurat Foundation orchestrated a comprehensive meeting for women parliamentarians on December 13, 2019, hosted at the Avari Hotel in Lahore (Aurat Foundation, 2020, p.36). With an impressive turnout of over 73 attendees from diverse backgrounds, including 30 women MPs, the session was expertly presided over by Ms. Ashifa Riaz Fatayana, Minister for Women Development, Government of Punjab (Aurat Foundation, 2020, p.36). The primary objectives of the gathering were manifold: to critically assess the achievements, challenges, and strategic pathways for fortifying Women Parliamentary Caucuses (WPCs); to foster a unified vision and delineate broader objectives ensuring the seamless transition for newly elected members; to forge consensus on short-term, strategic measures for the institutionalization of WPCs post-elections; and to delve into pressing gender issues, offering innovative solutions to propel gender equality within parliamentary proceedings and sustainable development frameworks (Aurat Foundation, 2020, p.37). 

During the proceedings, parliamentarians lauded the pivotal role of women in driving legislative reforms, highlighting significant strides in passing women-friendly laws across provincial and national assemblies (Aurat Foundation, 2020, p.37). Among these legislative achievements were seven landmark enactments safeguarding women's rights, from amendments facilitating financial and legal assistance to incarcerated women to legislation combating domestic violence and workplace harassment (Aurat Foundation, 2020, p.37). Additionally, the event underscored the importance of advocating for women's issues within parliamentary discourse (Aurat Foundation, 2020, p.37). Justice Nasira Iqbal conveyed optimism regarding the collective vision shared by women parliamentarians, emphasizing its potential to shape the future trajectory of caucuses (Aurat Foundation, 2020, p.37). Furthermore, the Punjab Women Parliamentary Caucus launch was heralded as a milestone in challenging societal norms and advancing gender equality objectives encapsulated within the Sustainable Development Goals (Aurat Foundation, 2020, p.37). The event's culmination witnessed the presentation of shields to women MPs by Justice (r) Nasira Iqbal and the Minister for Women Development Department, symbolizing appreciation for their unwavering dedication to women's empowerment initiatives (Aurat Foundation, 2020, p.38).

Capacity Building and Consultative Processes

Women Leaders Trained on Effective Local Accountability. 

The Aurat Foundation meticulously organized a training workshop titled "Effective Local Accountability" at the esteemed Margalla Hotel in Islamabad on October 24, 2019, as part of its broader initiative, "Creating Spaces to Take Action on Violence against Women and Girls" (Aurat Foundation, 2020, p. 26). This crucial event attracted a diverse cohort of participants, including women leaders, members of women protection forums, legal professionals, and youth advocates, reflecting a concerted effort to engage stakeholders from various sectors in the discourse surrounding gender equality and violence prevention (Aurat Foundation, 2020, p. 26). With over 30 dedicated individuals in attendance, the workshop aimed to cultivate a deeper understanding of critical issues such as women's rights, leadership empowerment, and the imperative of eradicating violence against women and girls (Aurat Foundation, 2020, p. 26). Central to its objectives was the goal of building the capacity of participants by fostering attitudinal shifts, normative transformations, and behavioural changes while also advocating for the enhancement of standards, legislation, and regulatory frameworks to bolster accountability mechanisms at the local level (Aurat Foundation, 2020, p. 26).

Under the expert guidance of Ms. Shamaila Tanvir, the project manager, participants were provided with a comprehensive introduction to eliminating violence against women and girls, setting a robust foundation for the ensuing discussions (Aurat Foundation, 2020, p.26). Additionally, an insightful overview analysis of participants' pre-training comprehension levels served to tailor the workshop's content to suit their individual needs and contexts (Aurat Foundation, 2020, p.26). Further enriching the discourse, Mr. Bilal Naqeeb, the esteemed training expert, elucidated fundamental governance concepts, delving into the nuances of good governance and its application within community settings (Aurat Foundation, 2020, p.26). Through interactive group activities, including utilizing the SWOT model to conceptualize community governance dynamics, participants were encouraged to engage with the material actively, fostering a collaborative learning environment (Aurat Foundation, 2020, p.26). Moreover, Mr. Naqeeb's exploration of accountability, focusing on social accountability mechanisms, prompted thought-provoking discussions and immersive role-playing exercises, enabling participants to grasp the complexities of accountability frameworks within local governance structures (Aurat Foundation, 2020, p.26). As the workshop drew to a close, a comprehensive summary underscored the key takeaways, while participant feedback provided valuable insights, affirming the workshop's efficacy in fostering critical dialogue and empowering stakeholders to advocate for transformative change within their communities (Aurat Foundation, 2020, p.26).

Enhanced Women Groups Leadership Skills on KP Local Government and Women-Friendly Laws 

The Peshawar office of the Aurat Foundation spearheaded a transformative initiative through a series of training sessions known as "Community Peace Groups" (CPGs), aimed at bolstering the leadership capacities of local communities in fostering peace within their respective domains (Aurat Foundation, 2020, p.26). With a keen focus on leadership development and peer-to-peer learning dynamics, 176 women were equipped with comprehensive knowledge about leadership intricacies, the challenges women leaders face, and pertinent legal frameworks such as women-friendly laws and the Local Government Act of 2013 (Aurat Foundation, 2020, p.26). Concurrently, 143 women were apprised of referral pathways, augmenting their understanding of essential support mechanisms (Aurat Foundation, 2020, p.26). Empowered by newfound confidence, participants were encouraged to confront barriers impeding their political participation while also embracing women's distinctive leadership styles and devising strategies to combat discrimination in their pursuits (Aurat Foundation, 2020, p. 26). Encouraged by this newfound agency, these emerging leaders pledged to actively engage in local body elections, advocating for equitable access to vital resources such as education, healthcare, and economic opportunities within their communities (Aurat Foundation, 2020, p. 26). Through the facilitation of women-to-women learning sessions across six targeted Union Councils (UCs) in Peshawar, the CPGs emerged as catalysts for promoting social cohesion and addressing gender-based issues at the grassroots level (Aurat Foundation, 2020, p. 26).

Moreover, the impactful strides made by the CPGs attracted the attention of influential figures, such as MPA Rabia Basri from PTI, who embarked on a visit to engage with the women's group in the Shadbagh colony (Aurat Foundation, 2020, p. 26). In a sad exchange, MPA Basri not only empathetically delved into the multifaceted challenges faced by minority women but also offered unwavering support and encouragement, urging the group to harness their collective potential as political and community leaders (Aurat Foundation, 2020, p. 27). Emphasizing the transformative potential of active political participation in facilitating the myriad problems plaguing their communities, MPA Basri galvanized the group to take charge of their destinies, enhancing their overall quality of life (Aurat Foundation, 2020, p. 27). This dynamic interaction underscored the pivotal role of political engagement in effecting tangible change. It was a poignant reminder of grassroots women leaders' resilience and agency in driving meaningful societal transformation (Aurat Foundation, 2020, p. 27).

Women Leaders trained in Community Leadership and Local Government systems in Karachi and Quetta.

In Quetta, the Aurat Foundation orchestrated a transformative 2-day Capacity Building Workshop on "Community Leadership and Local Government System" within the premises of the Aurat Foundation office, drawing participation from over 20 dynamic community women leaders (Aurat Foundation, 2020, p. 27). Among the participants were political activists, former councillors, and office-bearers representing mainstream political parties, reflecting diverse voices poised to effect change within their communities (Aurat Foundation, 2020, p. 27). The workshop, focusing on empowering youth leaders to engage in local initiatives, also prioritized providing follow-up training for program graduates, ensuring sustained impact and continuity of efforts (Aurat Foundation, 2020, p. 27). Ms. Yasmin Mughal, the program manager of the Aurat Foundation's JAZAB program, underscored the pivotal role of women leaders in transcending partisan divides to advocate for gender-sensitive legislation and the effective implementation of pro-women laws and policies, crucial for advancing the rights and well-being of women and girls (Aurat Foundation, 2020, p. 27). They were encouraged to develop their manifesto; participants were galvanized by Mr. Allauddin, the Resident Director of the Aurat Foundation Quetta, to leverage their newfound knowledge and awareness of the local government system to actively engage in budget oversight, development scheme identification and decision-making processes at various levels (Aurat Foundation, 2020, p. 27). Recognizing the democratic deficit resulting from the underrepresentation of women in governance and decision-making, Mr. Allauddin emphasized the importance of diverse perspectives in informing sound decision-making across critical sectors such as housing, security, transport, and the economy, reaffirming the imperative of women's meaningful participation in local governance structures (Aurat Foundation, 2020, p. 27).

Meanwhile, in Karachi, the Aurat Foundation convened another impactful 2-day Capacity Building Workshop on "Community Leadership and Local Government System," attracting a cohort of approximately 20 women leaders eager to enhance their capacities and drive positive change within their communities (Aurat Foundation, 2020, p.28). Ms. Malka Khan, the Senior Programme Manager, led the workshop (Aurat Foundation, 2020, p.28). It catalyzed empowering local women leaders with a deep understanding of women's community challenges and equipping them with the skills to address these issues effectively (Aurat Foundation, 2020, p.28). After completing the training, participants emerged poised to actively engage in the local government system at the district, tehsil, and village levels, aligning their efforts with the provisions outlined in the Sindh Local Government Act 2013 and their respective Rules of Business (Aurat Foundation, 2020, p.28). Beyond fostering technical competencies, the workshop also sought to raise awareness among women councillors about their rights, economic independence, and various legislations pertinent to women's empowerment, underscoring the Aurat Foundation's commitment to fostering an inclusive and empowered society where women play a central role in shaping their destinies (Aurat Foundation, 2020, p.28).

Aurat Foundation pushes for women to vote during elections. 

Aurat Foundation has been engaged with the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) and political parties since the early 1990s; thus, Aurat Foundation’s experience spans two and half decades (Aurat Foundation, 2013). Their work mainly focused on supporting political parties in putting women’s rights agendas on their manifestos and facilitating and supporting the ECP and local government election authorities in elections. Here is one of the relevant projects in detail:

Women’s Participation in Local Government Elections 2005: In the context of Women's Participation in Local Government Elections 2005, a comprehensive Nationwide Campaign funded by CIDA was initiated across Pakistan, spanning 110 districts (Aurat Foundation, 2013). This ambitious endeavour aimed to mobilize women candidates by providing them with extensive training on the intricacies of running an election campaign, alongside facilitating the training of their polling agents (Aurat Foundation, 2013). Moreover, the campaign focused on creating an enabling environment conducive to women's participation while prioritizing voter education initiatives to empower citizens with the knowledge necessary for informed decision-making during the electoral process (Aurat Foundation, 2013).

Limitations/Challenges to the campaign for increasing women’s political participation

During the 2004 local elections, the Aurat Foundation took proactive measures, including setting up temporary camps and organizing seminars and workshops to educate the populace on the election process, including the technicalities of running a campaign and filling out nomination forms (Jafar, 2011, p. 80). However, despite their efforts, some women attendees encountered delays and inconsistencies on the part of the Aurat Foundation representatives, which, though common, posed significant challenges, especially for those who had travelled long distances with their children to attend these sessions  (Jafar, 2011, p. 80).

Furthermore, in their campaign to enhance women's political participation, the Aurat Foundation encountered entrenched patriarchal values in remote areas of Pakistan, where the notion of women assuming roles beyond those of wives and daughters met with considerable resistance  (Jafar, 2011, p. 81). Wajid, a worker with the Aurat Foundation, highlighted the difficulties faced by families with politically active women, emphasizing the upheaval experienced when women transition into public roles  (Jafar, 2011, p. 82). Additionally, the campaign faced skepticism and resistance due to perceptions of NGOs as Westernized entities or agents of the West, with some viewing the issues raised by NGOs as too modern or nontraditional  (Jafar, 2011, p. 83). Saeeda, a young woman working with the Aurat Foundation in Islamabad, recounted the challenges of breaking down such barriers at the grassroots level, where cultural norms and religious beliefs often dictated perceptions of women's societal roles  (Jafar, 2011, p. 83). Addressing obstacles such as women's lack of national identity cards and promoting women's education emerged as key strategies to increase women's political participation  (Jafar, 2011, p. 84). However, resistance persisted, particularly in tribal areas where traditional views on women's education clashed with contemporary notions of gender equality  (Jafar, 2011, p. 84). In response, initiatives were undertaken to provide education within the confines of cultural norms, such as bringing female teachers to rural areas to educate girls in the safety of their own homes  (Jafar, 2011, p. 84).

Strategies used in the Campaign 

Despite the array of challenges faced by the Aurat Foundation, it is noteworthy that discourses surrounding women's political participation adopt instrumentalist and essentialist frameworks. In these discussions, the advocacy for women's involvement in politics often hinges on the perceived benefits it may yield, such as improved governance or reduced corruption  (Jafar, 2011, p. 85). Notably, women's engagement in the political sphere is seldom presented as inherently transformative or self-serving (Jafar, 2011, p. 85). For instance, the arguments use traditional concepts and understandings about the essential “nature” of women. For example, the notion that women are less corrupt than men. Hence, their participation will lead to better politics, or women are less aggressive and more virtuous than men. Thus, their participation will help bring about peace, often used to increase the acceptance of women in politics (Jafar, 2011, p. 86). Consequently, promoting women's political participation employs these traditional narratives to garner acceptance and support, manifested through posters and politically themed songs  (Jafar, 2011, p. 86).

Influence, Outcomes, and Effects

Aurat Foundation has spearheaded a comprehensive campaign to bolster women's political participation, effecting significant impacts through its advocacy for greater inclusion of women in the political sphere and prioritizing women's issues on the political agenda. By actively engaging women in local government elections, facilitating their attendance at workshops and training sessions, and nurturing their development as community leaders, the Aurat Foundation has played a pivotal role in cultivating a new generation of female political leaders. The crucial 2000-2001 elections saw the government acceding to demands for gender parity by reserving 17% of federal seats and 33% of local positions for women, resulting in a notable surge in female participation, with 70,000 women vying for local office (Jafar, 2011, p.80). Aurat Foundation's interventions proved instrumental in equipping these aspiring women community leaders with essential skills and knowledge, providing training on election processes, campaign strategies, and nomination procedures (Jafar, 2011, p. 80). Through a multifaceted approach encompassing seminars, workshops, training sessions, conferences, and ceremonies, the Aurat Foundation has empowered young Pakistanis to actively participate in the political process, catalyzing significant shifts in the political landscape and amplifying the representation of women in leadership roles. By challenging entrenched social and cultural norms that constrain women's agency, the Aurat Foundation has emerged as a vanguard in the fight for gender equality, advocating for the recognition and elevation of women's voices and concerns within the public sphere of Pakistan.

Analysis and Lessons Learned

The case study of the Aurat Foundation's endeavours to enhance women's political engagement has uncovered a fundamental association between activism and agency. It underscores that empowerment is the pivotal factor in interlinking activism and agency in advancing women's political participation. According to Kabeer, Human agency is central to the analysis of social inequality because it draws attention to how structural constraints shape the distribution of livelihood options available to differently positioned men and women (Kabeer, 2021, p.1). It's also central to the social justice agenda because the human capacity of an agency drives the processes of structural transformation (Kabeer, 2021, p.1). She also mentions that empowerment is the shift of power from the perspective of dominant groups to forms of agency exercised by the oppressed (Kabeer, 2021, p.2). It is the type of power that brings about change, such as the power to transform the self to achieve valued goals (“the power within) and the new forms of power that come into existence through collaborating with others (‘the power with’) (Kabeer, 2021, p.2). Kabeer also mentions that her concept of empowerment is for people who have been denied the capacity to make choices to gain the capacity to feel empowered. The way to feel empowered by making choices that someone never used to make is by recognizing that they can make choices for themselves. Empowerment is supposed to come from within, leading to engaging in such activities and becoming an activist in a specific cause. The Aurat Foundation is simply a case that demonstrates that Pakistani women, regardless of their social status, can choose to engage with the political process in Pakistan and include women’s issues in the political agenda. By actively participating in activities such as voting, workshops, seminars, and other community initiatives, Pakistani women empower themselves and emerge as activists within their communities. This multifaceted engagement fosters awareness about women's issues and electoral processes and cultivates leadership skills, enabling them to confront patriarchal norms entrenched within Pakistani society.

See Also


Aurat Foundation. (2013). Working for Women’s Empowerment and Democratic Governance Outreach and Volunteers. 

Kabeer N., (2021). Three faces of agency in Feminist economics: capabilities, empowerment and citizenship. The Routledge Handbook of Feminist Economics. Routledge International Handbooks.

Jafar, A. (1970, January 1). Better Government, better lives: The campaign to increase women’s political participation. SpringerLink.


Cubberley, Courtney Nicole. (2020). Women’s Organizations in Pakistan: The Evolution of Women’s Advocacy in an Islamic Republic.

Aurat Foundation. (2020). Annual Report-2020. Reports/Report_2020/Annual Report 2020.pdf 

Khattak, R., & Higdon, G. (2020, November 24). Strengthening women’s political participation in Pakistan.

 USAID. (2011). Gender equity program Aurat Foundation.

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