The Institute of Women’s Studies, Lahore emerged out of the imperative to develop cost-effective, socio-politically relevant, and academically rigorous Women’s Studies courses and programmes in South Asia.  IWSL seeks to address the needs of activists, development workers, human rights’ workers, university/college professors, graduate students, professionals, researchers, artists, writers, and those interested in women’s issues, who would like to keep abreast with developments in Women’s Studies and the women’s movement, nationally and internationally, without enrolling in an institution in the West.

The Institute, then, fills a vacuum by providing a type of Women’s Studies training that takes into account the specific realities of Asian, particularly Pakistani and other South Asian, women’s experiences and contributions. This Women’s Studies training emphasises the linkages between oppressions deriving from factors other than gender, such as poverty and race

The concept of this Institute originated from South Asian women’s collective efforts over the past decade to come together for the following ideas; to share information and experiences, grapple with theories and concepts and to come to a common understanding of feminism and the women’s movement with a vision of combined action to redress the inequalities women face in their roles and participation in economic, political, academic and domestic arenas.

ASR from Pakistan was the first to implement the idea of short residential courses on feminism and women and development issues at the national level for activists, development workers, researchers, and writers and held 12 such specific workshops over 8 years (from 1987 to 1995). ASR’s commitment to systematise these courses and to offer them regularly from a Women’s Studies Institute has tremendous support from those in academia, activism, media, law, creative arts and development work who are looking for space to link and integrate their theoretical work into the women’s movement.

The first half of 1993 was spent in meetings with potential faculty for the Women’s Studies programme discussing responsibilities and envisioning the Institute. In July 1993, in Abbotabad, a short course on Women and Development and the Women’s Movement was offered by ASR in a workshop with Pakistani and South Asian participants who were activists, development/NGO workers as well as journalists and media workers. This was a fairly rigorous workshop with a focus on demystifying and clarifying concepts of development and theories of the global women’s movement. This was also the first time that the envisaged ‘faculty’ of the ASR Women’s Studies ran a co-coordinated course. This workshop also included South Asian participants and South Asian resource persons as a continuation of previous experiences.

The response to the Abbotabad workshop was very positive and ASR decided to follow up with another workshop to continue the momentum and also as part of ASR’s belief in the need for reflection and continuance in our work rather than one-shot projects/workshops. Hence in December 1993, ASR organised a workshop for a smaller group of the participants from the Abbotabad workshop who came together to continue the process but in a more structured manner. In many ways this follow-up workshop affirmed ASR’s approach to training in general and Women’s Studies in particular. Not only had participants actively prepared for this workshop but also the level of discussion and strategising were more clarified and thought-out which was not possible without the earlier Abbotabad workshop.

Perhaps the greatest ‘success’ of these workshops has been in the continued relationships with the participants, many of who continue to consider their experiences with ASR as a ‘turning point’ in their personal and professional lives. ASR’s experience has been most satisfying where the gap between theory and action or practice has been bridged through understanding of issues or in raising awareness and drawing links for those involved or wanting to be involved in activism, development work, media, policy making and so on. Hence, the training and sensitisation programmes are crucial since many development workers and activists have little or virtually no holistic grasp of the historical, social or political background or of the issues related to development work or indeed, the women’s movement/Women’s Studies.

In March 1994, ASR organised a National Multidisciplinary Women’s Studies Conference in Lahore. This Conference was extremely successful both thematically and in terms of the workshops, papers, issues and multidimensional activities and exhibitions. It was also very successful organisationally and this has given tremendous confidence to the ASR team and those involved in the Women’s Studies Centre in its ability to handle large-scale initiatives especially in connection with the Women’s Studies/Women in Development Training Centre. The thematic workshops for which papers were written for this Conference were; Women and Development, Women, Identity and Ideology, Writing and Creative Arts, the Women’s Movement.

The decision to organise 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 Women’s Studies Conference was the first such event initiated in Pakistan. Some 60 women who wrote papers for the Conference came together from across Pakistan from different disciplines to share and pool their expressions into a collective whole in the form of Women’s Studies in Pakistan. As estimated 8,000 to 10,000 people were mobilised in this event as participants, organisers, volunteers/helpers, viewers, spectators and observers of the open day presentations, debates, discussions, multimedia art exhibition, theatre, continuous film and book festival, the Urdu poetry recitation, musical evening, prose readings, dance performance, art slide show and the opening and closing ceremonies, candle-lit street demonstration against violence against women and so on. As much of the news coverage suggests, it was considered one of the most pioneering, ambitious and well-received events in Pakistan in a long while and certainly, on behalf of women.

This was the first attempt in Pakistan to bring women across disciplines and for some, the first coming together even within a discipline. More than the energy and inspiration that sustained the whole Conference, the differentiating marker was the space the Conference provided for sharing, questioning, debating, critical analysis, input to ongoing research or work and challenging of views.

The Conference provided an opportunity to clarify and expand on the meaning of Women’s Studies and to affirm the interests and contributions of women in the country as well as to encourage more to be actively involved in this field. Hence, the positive surge following the Conference was from various fronts who look towards involvement in the courses that a Women’s Studies Institute  would offer as well as to take on supervised research according to evolving methodologies and facilities that the ASR Women’s Studies Institute would offer on a regular basis.

Considerable work was done in making and strengthening existing contacts for the IWSL. Given ASR’s tremendous involvement both at a national and regional level in the process to the 4th World Conference on Women at Beijing the IWSL gained much publicity and support, particularly as this personified the meaning of the IWSL- an activist cum academic institution that would help shape a new generation of women’s rights activists.

From 1995 to 1997 there was an emphasis and concentration on preparing for the ASR women’s Studies Institute which would offer various levels of academic, conceptual courses as well as opportunities for research, writing, publishing, media related studies, networking, solidarity and activism. Although located in Lahore the Institute is meant to serve not only the rest of Pakistan but to be available and accessible to South Asians and the rest of the region in particular. In many ways therefore, in terms of its curriculum, its faculty and its students, this Institute should be seen as a regional programme.