As countries around the globe celebrated International Women’s Day on March 8th, Pakistani women and transgender people confronted baton charging police officers and protesting men from conservative groups amid attempts by them to stop the ‘contentious” and ‘immoral’ Aurat March—a grassroots movement led by women, for women, to celebrate womanhood and protest the systematic societal discrimination and patriarchal norms and prejudices that women encounter every day in the country.
This is not the first time the March has angered the sensibilities of Pakistani men, who have accused the movement of promoting ‘western values’ and being ‘anti-Islam’ and fear that anything other than the suppression of women would weaken their hold onto the country’s socioeconomic and political reins. This country is no longer safe for half of the country’s population; last month’s rape case in an Islamabad Park where a woman was raped by two men, last year’s Motorway rape case, and the countless instances of femicide— abuse of little girls, homicide, honor killings, gang rapes and domestic abuse, bear witness to this. Not only this, the suppression and marginalization of women have become so ingrained in the societal morass that one can find patriarchal and misogynistic discourse across different socioeconomic groups, from the lower classes to the supposedly literate and ‘woke’ upper classes.
The hideous objectification of women on the floor of the National Assembly, where they have to go the extra mile to be taken seriously, shows how this is an issue concerning the balance of power. When Benazir Bhutto became the first female Prime Minister of the Muslim world in 1988, paving the way for many female heads of state around the globe, from Sheikh Hasina to Jacinda Ardern, the clerics protested her premiership just because she was a woman.
Pakistan’s performance on a range of indicators concerning the status of women is poor, even for a developing country in the 21st century. As per a report released by the World Economic Forum in 2022, Pakistan currently ranks 153rd out of 156th countries globally in terms of gender parity, only performing better than Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan. The report elucidates that Pakistan has been unable to improve its score on gender parity in the last 16 years; the gender parity score being 0.553 in 2006 and 0.556 in 2021, while India and Bangladesh both have shown remarkable progress. As per the 5th CEDAW Review of Pakistan, violence against women is widespread; 34 per cent of women who have married have experienced physical, sexual or emotional violence at the hands of a spouse. Sexual harassment is another issue Pakistani women encounter daily; a survey by the Aurat Foundation found that 97% of women in Pakistan have experienced some form of sexual harassment in public spaces. On the economic front, the International Labour Organization estimates that Pakistan has one of the lowest female labor force participation in the world – only 25%, while the number for males is 81%.
A Pakistani woman’s income tends to be 16.3% that of a Pakistani man on average, and of the 5.26 million working in the informal sector in Pakistan, 81% are women, not to mention the hours of unpaid labour Pakistani women have to do from childcare to domestic work, without any compensation, monetary or otherwise. In 2019, Pakistan’s literacy rate was approximately 58%, with less than 46.49% of women being literate, relative to 69.29% of men. In the political realm, while in the 2002 elections, the-then President Musharaf reserved 20% of seats for women, amounting to 60 seats out of a total of 342 members in the assembly, this quota was still 10% less than the UN’s mandated target for women’s political representation in all public and elected houses.
Despite being at the forefront of the movement for Pakistan’s inception and playing a pivotal part in the survival of democracy in the country, women have seen their position reduced to mere pawns in men’s power games. Yet, these women have been much more than side characters in the country’s tumultuous history. Fatima Jinnah was not just Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s sister; after playing a pivotal role in the independence movement, when it came to challenging a military dictator, Ayub Khan, who had come to power in a coup d’état, and contesting elections against him, she was the first one to do so, despite the despicable character assassination campaign against her by the former. Similarly, the late Asma Jahangir was a formidable name in Pakistani judicial and human rights circles, having defended women, children, minorities and the poor for three decades and being elected as the first Female President of the Supreme Court Bar Association of Pakistan in 2010. Her immense courage and commitment to her cause is reflected in the following words, ‘everything is a risk in Pakistan: If you defend women, it’s a risk. If you defend non-Muslims, it’s a risk. If you discuss religion, it’s a risk. But you can’t really sit there like a vegetable in your own society. And I’m committed to that society… and I feel I need to turn around and speak as I should.’
What can be done? This is an important question and one that has a straightforward answer. Substantial legal and police reforms to help victims of abuse, rapes, and domestic violence and shelter and mental health support provision for them can go a long way. By strengthening the legal framework, we can safeguard women against the plethora of violent crimes and societal discrimination that they face, both in the household and the workplace. Research from India has shown that economic networks of women lower their informational costs, help them mobilize, and strengthen their positions within the household, politics and society. In a similar vein, providing skills and economic training and supporting women’s business initiatives in the form of cheaper loans, microcredit, and financial and consulting services can help them gain economic emancipation. A great example comes from Bangladesh, where more than 30 million women are clients of microcredit organizations, showcasing their direct interactions with the economy. Community-level programs can invest in women’s education and entrepreneurship, with the intention of building a women’s workforce that is skilled and equipped at the state and community levels to industry and production requirements.
Significantly, addressing cultural practices and patriarchal discourse in feudal areas that discriminate against women and enabling progressive interpretations of religion can help safeguard women and help people understand the principles of social justice, female emancipation and empowerment that Islam itself advocates. Within the political arena, both demand and supply-side policies need to be implemented to help eradicate structural barriers and implicit biases. Most importantly, education and awareness across different demographics can help instigate discourse around discriminatory attitudes and cultural norms and help eradicate the cultural and institutional level patriarchy that women have to encounter daily. It is only by doing so Pakistan can progress.
It is only a matter of time before women of Pakistan shall free themselves from the very chains that shackle them. The question is whether the state and sections within society would want to be remembered on the right side of history as facilitators and enablers of equality and emancipation for women or the wrong side as systematic barriers that need to be overcome.
In the words of Maya Angelou, ‘You may write me down in history with your bitter, twisted lies. You may trod me in the very dirt, but still, like dust, I’ll rise.’
The women of Pakistan, too, shall rise!
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