ASR Institute of Women Studies Lahore hosted a Second Transdisciplinary Women Studies Conference from 24th to 28th March 2001 that was an event of its own kind.

The Institute of Women Studies, Lahore, retains the original spirit of women studies in its insistence on the inseparability of theory and practice. The courses and other events in IWSL are premised on the notion that critical thinking developed through rigorous academic trainings and struggle for justice go hand in hand. Theorizing and activism are mutually enriching processes, and the Institute stresses the role of knowledge in the transformation of the individual and collective reality at psychic and structural levels. Moreover, by emphasizing the linkages between oppressions driving from factors other than gender, such as class and race, and contextualizing those oppressions in specific context, South Asian and otherwise, the Institute facilitates the growth and awareness of meaningful activism.

Women Studies, as a discipline, is an unfamiliar concept in Pakistan. Even within academic setups, it is often misunderstood to be a course on domestic sciences. While universities have had a problem defining Women Studies, women’s groups/ NGOs are equally at the loss in their approach to the discipline. In effect, the very inter-disciplinary and multidimensional nature of Women’s Studies is being defeated through misconceptions and an absence of a theoretical framework to inform such courses.

In order to convey the transdisciplinary and holistic approach of Women’s Studies, the Institute of Women Studies Lahore had planned a transdisciplinary Women Studies Conference.

 This Conference was extremely successful both thematically and in terms of the workshops, papers, issues and multidimensional activities and exhibitions. One of the consequences of the conference was an intensified dialogue among the women on a range of issues including political economy, macro/ micro development; literature; media; creativity; the women’s movement; identity and ideology. A space for critical thinking had been created in the conference.

The decision to organize such a Conference stemmed from the belief that women in Pakistan have been contributing to and involved in Women’s Studies but most initiatives have been fragmented and restricted to the social sciences. ASR has always considered Women’s Studies to be much more interdisciplinary and a coming together of individual and collective expressions in relation to women, their relationship to development and their creativity as part of development

The conference gave an opportunity to hear, to be familiar with and understand women’s voices in the given social, economic, political and cultural context. It also meant sharing one platform to make a joint statement for women with the hope that the opportunity would reinforce our beliefs and strengths and add new dimensions to enrich our work further.

The definition of the title of the conference  “Making of Meaning” can be understood and derived through the objectives of the conference.

It was held basically to:

  1. Extend the definition of Women Studies by bringing together Pakistani and South Asian women’s opinions and ideas on national issues, policies, writings, activism and cultural expression etc.
  1. To bring together Pakistani women in different fields and disciplines to share their work and views. To bring the tremendous work together out of isolation within any single discipline.
  1. To develop networking among the participants.
  1. To find resource persons for IWSL.

The conference not only encouraged Pakistani women to write but would also help to build national women’s studies resource pool for the institute and for Pakistan, at large. The issues discussed in this conference revolved around women and development, identity politics and ideological control over women, women and literature and the women’s movement.

We had about 120 participants from all over Pakistan, and about 27 participants from South Asia, France and USA. Originally the conference was meant to be a national one but as part of our peace initiative we thought this would be an ideal opportunity to invite activists and scholars from South Asia as well. The response to that initiative was quite encouraging for us. All the participants belonged to diverse backgrounds yet they shared a common bond. All of them were active in promoting the cause of women through activism, scholarship and /or creative expression. The premise of this multi-dimensional conference was to come and bring together the various aspects of a woman’s being and to try to struggle towards making whole the dislocated, disempowered and demolished woman. This not only meant bringing together the fragments of feminist academia/ researchers/ activists but a bringing together of the fragments of other women’s experiences of the past and the present.

The participants comprised of activists, artists, poets, writers and students from all parts of the country. An interesting feature of the conference was that while some participants had been active in the women’s movement in one way or the other, most were new entrants to it. The response we received was overwhelming and we unfortunately had to turn down a lot of people, who wanted to be invited, due to the lack of funds and space. As this conference was only for women we also had to turn down a lot of men candidates who wanted to attend the conference!

The conference raised many issues of national and regional concern, it also brought to the forefront many issues and dilemmas that confront us in our daily lives which we either marginalize or ignore completely. An important aspect of the conference was that the younger generation was exposed to a way of thinking that questions the socially constructed norms, and also critically analyzes the part played by the government, military, bureaucracy and society during various events in the past so as to avoid the same mistakes and to transform society.

The basic themes of the conference were Women’s Movement, Women and Literature, Identity and Ideology, Women and Development. Specific themes of each day were taken out from these broad themes. On the whole the conference was a very enriching experience especially for the younger generation. A remarkable feature of the conference was their enthusiastic participation in presentations, discussions, music, evening programs, poetry, performance and exhibitions. The feedback that ASR/ IWSL got after the conference was amazing. The media coverage was quite well. The prose and poetry reading program was quite publicized.