Women: Looking back to look to forward

August 14,2018

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When we look at the history of Pakistani women at the time of independence, we always hear about the examples of the famous women who participated in the Pakistan movement or who held important portfolios or were the first ones to join some particular sector. However, such accounts invariably leave out Pakistan’s common women. While celebrating the 71st independence day of Pakistan, let us think about the women who saw the bloodshed at the time of partition or were born in the early years of Pakistan; women who saw the wars; women who saw their country being dismembered; women who struggled against the discriminatory laws of Zia-ul-Haq; women who struggled to restore democracy; women who faced ethnic and state terrorism; women who became councilors in local government of Pervez Musharaf; women who came in assemblies on reserved seats and proved their mettle; and also those women who became part of IT and digital revolution.

The women who supported the demand for a separate homeland for Muslims of the sub-continent and were part of the Pakistan Movement were full of enthusiasm and patriotism. Most of them migrated to the new country amidst erupting riots. “D” was a student in the 10th grade in a government school of Amritsar when the partition of the subcontinent took place. She used to raise the slogan of “Layker rahain gay Pakistan” with other Muslim girls. Her elder sister was a government servant and had opted for Pakistan as government employees had been given a choice to choose between two countries. Their train was the last train that reached safely to Lahore station under military supervision as Amritsar faced worst riots and bloodshed during partition. The trains after their fateful train were the ones which suffered from horrifying displays of inhumanity, the stories of this massacre have filled much of Indo-Pak literature, particularly in the stories of Krishna Chandra, Manto and Ismat.

‘D’ and other young women of her generation were deeply in love with their new homeland and were full of enthusiasm for their future. Majority of them wore black ‘burqa’ that was considered fashionable in those days. Educated women joined either teaching or medicine as profession because only these two sectors were considered suitable for women.

The generation of women born after independence in the late 40s or early 50s grew up in a relatively enlightened society, though during their childhoods they witnessed much political chaos which they were not able to comprehend. However, many of them still remember the martial law of Ayub Khan, when cities of Pakistan became suddenly clean and prices of consumer goods went down and suddenly General Muhammad Azam Khan became very popular. This change was short lived as cities again became dirty and monster of price hike raised its head again. Ayub Khan, the president of Pakistan during the period 1958-69, encouraged women to explore new possibilities in the field of education and had an aversion to the reactionary element, holding it responsible for the backwardness of the masses and the country.

Ayub Khan gave the Constitution of 1962 and introduced a system of basic democracy both of which vanished after his unceremonious departure from the political scene. Pakistani women will remember Ayub Khan for Family Laws Ordinance that discouraged polygamy. The year1965 will be remembered for controversial presidential elections in which Fatima Jinnah stood against him on behalf of all opposition parties and Indo-Pak war in which Ayub settled for a ceasefire which made his young foreign minister Bhutto very angry. Ayub Khan eased him. Ayub’s opponents accused him of ‘losing the war on the negotiation table.’ Bhutto went on to form the PPP, and along with the already established left-wing groups, such as the National Awami Party (NAP) and the National Students Federation (NSF), he became the most prominent face of left-wing opposition in West Pakistan. At the same time, Shaikh Mujeeb had gained much popularity in East Pakistan. Bhutto served as the president of Pakistan from 1971 to 1973 and as the prime minister of Pakistan from 1973 to 1977 while Mujeeb became the founder of Bangladesh.

The democratic regime of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (1970-1977) had liberal attitudes towards women. All government services which had been denied to women earlier were opened to them. About 10 % of the seats in the National Assembly and 5% in the provincial assemblies were reserved for women, with no restriction on contesting general seats as well. Gender equality was specifically guaranteed in the Constitution of Pakistan adopted in 1973. The Constitution says: “there shall be no discrimination on the basis of sex alone.” Additionally, it affords the protection of marriage, family, the mother and the child as well as encouraging “full participation of women in all spheres of national life.”

Another step that Bhutto took was to democratise Pakistan’s civil service. He opened the doors of Foreign Service to women and in this period, for the first time a woman was appointed vice chancellor of a university in Pakistan.

When General Zia-ul-Haq took over as the Chief Martial Law Administrator on July 5, 1977, government adopted the policy of Islamisation and enacted discriminatory laws against women. They were not allowed to participate in sports. As a result, a women’s movement began under the umbrella of Women’s Action Forum. Zia’s government also curtailed a number of rights that women had previously possessed. His social policies encouraged segregation between women and men in public life.

Benazir Bhutto came into power through elections held after the crash of Zia-ul-Haq’s plane in 1988. Benazir Bhutto seized her moment, campaigned as the “daughter of East” and, at 35, became the youngest female prime minister of Muslim world. She was elected twice, serving from December 1988 to August 1990 and again from October 1993 to November 1996. For women she established women police stations and elevated women lawyers as judges of High courts. She allocated huge funds to establish “First Women Bank”. She also established ‘Women Studies Departments’ in universities. Her Lady Health Workers scheme is considered to be one of the best community-based health systems in the world,” (Dr Donald Thea, a Boston University researcher).

Pervez Musharaf came into power on October 12, 1999. He introduced Devolution plan to empower people at grass root level. Women Protection Bill and law against honour killing were enacted. Private electronic channels were allowed to work and media was given total freedom. Youth were empowered by reducing voters’ age from 21 to 18. Huge amount was allocated for science and technology, health and education and for the development of human resources.

In Punjab, under Shahbaz Sharif’s government a centre was set up in Multan, where all the facilities have been provided to the victims of domestic violence under one roof. FIR will be registered and action will be taken against the persons lodging illegal FIRs. Doctors and psychiatrists will be there to help the victim. A court room will also be set up in this centre. Punjab government had also amended Land Revenue Act for facilitating women in their right of inheritance and a special committee “District Enforcement of Inheritance Rights Committee” has been formed.

Ex-CM Punjab Shahbaz Sharif’s government increased the quota in public service employment for women from 5 to 15 percent. Besides, other steps were also taken like establishment of Punjab Working Women Endowment Fund, establishment of family courts complex in each district, easy loan scheme for women medical officers, public services, maternity leave, day care centres, women entrepreneurship schemes, interest free loan facilities and vocational training facilities to name a few.

Sindh government has enacted many progressive laws for women which include the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act of 2013, Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act of 2013 and the Sindh Commission on the Status of Women Act of 2015.

It is too early to say how IK government will fare for women but during last tenure of Tehreek-e-Insaf in KP, it could not pass the Domestic Violence Bill. But it did allow women to receive royalties from foresting. The government made sure that the amount given to local residents for commercial foresting should go to women.

As euphoria of July 2018 election is still in air, it will be unfair to end this article without taking a look at the female candidates and voters. This time 3.8 million more women were eligible to vote on July 25. The cultural change was most remarkable in traditional areas. Tens of thousands of women cast ballots for the first time without caring about old customs and traditions. From Sindh two women of PPP (both happens to be sisters of Zardari) have won on general seats for provincial assembly and three women including Nafisa Shah for National Assembly. The 2018 general election has also resulted in the landmark victory of Fehmida Mirza, who has been elected Member of National Assembly (MNA) for the fifth time. This time she contested as a member of GDA.

Despite being rough and unprivileged, the two constituencies of Thar NA-221 and NA-222 were the most visited. Characterised by difficult transportation system, undeveloped infra-structure and harsh weather conditions, people were not deterred from taking part in election process.

It is rather worth mentioning that women set a record in this area where by the ratio of women who came out to vote is the highest in NA-221 than anywhere in Pakistan. As many as 72.83 percent women showed up to vote in NA-221 while 71.40 women opted to vote in NA-222. This highest turn out of women in Thar is confounding and sets a milestone in Pakistan’s electoral history, according to a private TV channel report.

In the end I would request all political leaders not to look backward to condemn what has already been done; look forward to create a better future for Pakistan.

–The author is Resident Director, Aurat Foundation and is women rights activist


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