There is a need to see women’s question and peace issues in Pakistan in the larger context of consolidation of capitalism and its implications for the socio-political and economic order.
The old guard in Pakistan is misogynist and wants to continue to subjugate women to a lower status in the society. However, growth of capitalism cannot take place unless women’s position is changed in the society. The recent backlash against Punjab’s Women Protection Bill leading to escalating violence and verbal attacks against women reflect the familiar “one-step forward, two-steps back” tussle.
The pro-business PML-N government may not be a flag-bearer of women’s rights. It functions to maximize commercial interests. The European Union’s granting of GSP (Generalized Systems of Preferences) Plus status to Pakistan in December 2013 leads to duty-free access for Pakistani exports in the EU which was thought to bring USD 1 billion worth of exports, leading to Pakistan’s textile industry net profits of more PKR 1 trillion on yearly basis. GSP Plus status requires Pakistan to ratify and implement human rights conventions. It will be up for renewal in the near future. Therefore, the pro-business government cannot afford to not take into account at least the legislative requirements of human rights and women’s rights. In other words, even if the government of PML-N (and other political parties) does not believe in women rights, they cannot ignore it at the cost of causing damage to country’s economic interests.
Capitalism needs respect for diversity, human rights and women’s rights
The same is true for Pakistan’s relationship with India, Afghanistan and other neighbouring countries. Political governments need not be inherently pacifist. However, they see the large peace dividend coming in the realm of civilian socio-political and economic realm, if business and political relations improve with Pakistan’s neighbours. Again, the old guard of establishment does not agree with the civilian political forces on normalization of relations with Pakistan’s neighbours. It senses loss of power away from establishment to the civilian political space, if relations improve between Pakistan and India or other neighbours on civilian terms. To continue its hegemony, the old guard of establishment wants to maintain Pakistan’s foreign policy on its terms with India, Afghanistan and other neighbours. The peace dividend that an entrepreneur like Nawaz Sharif would want to seize to lead to unlocking of hostility and mushrooming of economic and business ties are perceived as national security dangers.
Similarly, on the women’s question, the old guard of conservative forces sees women’s emancipation and empowerment as an inherent threat to its constituency. Therefore, we are seeing the backlash against women in public and private places, particularly after the Punjab government’s Women Protection Bill. Capitalism has evolved in a highly conflict-ridden process. However, for capitalism to prosper, it needs respect for diversity, human rights and women’s rights not to serve idealism but to be able to provide diverse and robust labour force.
GSP Plus requires Pakistan to ratify and implement human rights conventions
Capitalism also needs political stability within the country and regional security between neighbours to prosper. The dictates of capitalism may not push for women rights because it is morally the right thing to do, it may do so out of economic compulsions of making half of population productive in the process of creating value.
Similarly, capitalism may not promote peace between countries because it is a lofty objective, it might need to do so to promote commerce, business and trade. The old guard in Pakistan is resisting both women’s emancipation and peace as it perceives it tantamount to losing its power and hegemony leading to the classic “one step forward, two steps backward” tussle.