In Pakistan's male-dominated society, some of the most aggressive and sustained opposition to President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq's martial-law government is coming from women.
Fearing that their role is being undermined by Zia's campaign to impose strict Islamic values in Pakistan, increasing numbers of women have been taking to the streets to assert feminist rights and holding meetings to challenge martial law.
When the movement hesitantly began last year, it was confined largely to a small group of socially prominent professional women who often conducted their meetings in English and inevitably were branded by the government as elitist, western-oriented and "un-Islamic."
Recently, however, women's groups here and in the Punjab capital of Lahore have begun to broaden their base of support to include housewives from lower economic classes, and to conduct protest meetings in Urdu.
While Zia has offered only a few token concessions to the women, the movement has attracted the support of an increasing number of men and has begun assuming a political character that could grow into a more serious challenge to the government.
A perception is growing within at least this segment of society that results can be achieved through direct action, and that this could be interpreted as a sign of weakness of the government.
The catalyst for the surge of militant feminism was a bill proposed to Zia's handpicked Consultative Council that would require the evidence of two women to equal that of one man.
When 200 women demonstrated against the bill in Lahore last month, police wielding clubs and using tear gas broke up the march, injuring 20 of the women.
Fundamentalist Islamic teachers called the women "traitors to Islam" and threatened to declare any demonstrating women apostates, meaning they could not marry a Moslem.
In contrast, the police action was denounced by many Pakistani men as unprecedented brutality toward women in an Islamic country. One newspaper in Islamabad reminded Zia that the last time women protesters were beaten was in 1977, also in Lahore, when they protested the rigging of elections by former prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. That incident galvanized opposition that allowed Zia to overthrow Bhutto and later have him hanged.
A furor erupted last summer when a fundamentalist preacher and member of the Consultative Council, Israr Ahmed, began asserting on a regular state television commentary that a woman's place is in the kitchen.
"In Islam, the actual field of movement for a woman remains within four walls," he declared, adding that all women should be required to wear a chador, or heavy full-length veil, because they are responsible for sex crimes.
The debate over these comments was so intense that Zia was forced to dissociate himself from Ahmed's views, and the commentator was taken off the air.
Other targets of protest include: a proposal by the Council of Islamic Ideology, an advisory body drafting new Moslem laws, that compensation to a family for the death of a woman be fixed at half that for a man; increased flogging of women convicted of adultery; a government proposal to establish separate universities for women and a ban on women athletes at the Asian Games in New Delhi last September.
Also being challenged is a proposed law that the family of a crime victim can ask for the death penalty only if the victim is male.
Pakistani officials counter the grievances by pointing out that most of the proposed laws dealing with women have not yet been implemented, and that the process of Islamization is being conducted slowly to avoid inequities.
Zia, whose eldest daughter is a computer programmer in a bank and whose second daughter is a medical school graduate, has said that women have a role in the nation's development but that Islamic values must be broadened because Islam is not only a theology but also a way of life.
But women's rights leaders charge they are pawns in what they say is an attempt by Zia to perpetuate martial law in Pakistan.
"Islamization is a farce. It is a justification for continued martial law. He is doing it to convince the junior ranks of the Army that he is all for Islam," Shahida Jamil, a Karachi lawyer and activist in the Women's Action Forum, said in an interview.
She added, "The basic principle of Islam is justice, but there is no justice for women in Pakistan today."
Because many of the early organizers in Karachi were supporters of Bhutto's banned Pakistan People's Party, and included many westernized liberals, Jamil said, it was open to charges of being dominated by "loose, radical, un-Islamic women," which alienated many less well-to-do conservative women. The party is headed by Bhutto's widow and daughter.
"We have to bring in the traditional women to make our voice stronger," Jamil said, adding that the forum has begun going into Karachi's slums to convince traditional housewives that they are the victims of discrimination.
The feminist activists, she said, talk to the housewives first about such immediate problems as child labor, growing narcotics use and sparse public services, and then gradually introduce more conventional feminist issues.
"Eventually it has to be a political struggle. If it the opposition continues without women, it will die. It has to become political," Jamil said.
Women's groups elsewhere in Pakistan have adopted the government's major weapon--the Koran--to fight discrimination.
Sabheeha Hafeez, an Islamabad sociologist, says research by women has demonstrated that incorrect translation of key Arabic words in the Koran has worked against women.
The danger the women face, however, is to have their movement become so politicized that Zia will invoke the standing ban on political activity and begin breaking up women's meetings on the basis of their allegedly being subversive.
One active male supporter of the movement, Karachi lawyer Khalid Ishaque, said he expects Zia to adopt a familiar tactic in countering opposition.
Ishaque, who has argued several court cases on behalf of women's rights, said Zia "will progressively ignore these women" until they lose importance. "He did it to the Pakistan People's Party and other groups, and he can do it again."