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How far have we progressed?

You
By Adeela Akmal
Tue, 01, 22

As we step into 2022, this week you! talks to experts and activists who analyse the status of women rights in Pakistan and its progression over the years…

How far have we progressed?

Pakistan happens to be one of the most male-dominated societies on the map, with discrimination against women almost an institutionalised policy. But perhaps this debilitating environment itself is also what encourages a handful of courageous women to step up and challenge the status quo.

“Despite the harassment I used to face in the field, I didn’t keep myself limited to just Peshawar. I used to report in tribal areas, Swat (when terrorism was on the rise) and I did a live show in 2009 and 2010, which was a first for KP where a woman was covering hard news,” shares Journalist Farzana Ali. Originally from Dera Ismail Khan, Farzana started her career from Peshawar in print journalism in October, 1997. She was on the desk as a sub-editor and feature writer for the magazine. At the time she was the only female reporter in the office, but later she went on to become the Women page and magazine in-charge. In 2006, she joined a reputable TV channel as a reporter during the conflict era. She was then promoted to Bureau Chief in 2012. “I always found there was discrimination against women and I wanted to stand up for myself and for others like me. That is why I chose the Human Rights beat. Even though I am cautious with my work, things can get very uncomfortable in the field to this day. I admit, there were some moments when I wanted to give up, but then I thought, if I step away too, what example will I be setting?”

Journalist Farzana Ali
Journalist Farzana Ali

If we take a look back at history, we will find many women like Farzana who stepped up and inspired change around them; whether it were the feminist movements and activism that emerged in response to the Hudood Ordinance in the early ’80s or to our current day marches against patriarchy.

And while the current environment for women rights offers some optimism, there are also some underlying issues that constantly pose a threat to women’s liberation. To understand how women’s rights have progressed over the years and where are they headed, You! spoke to some activists and experts who have witnessed this change over the years…

According to social activist and founder of Tehrik-e-Niswan, Sheema Kermani, “In the ’70s, many women were employed in factories and many girls were going to schools and colleges. Women had become part of the Trade Union movement and had started addressing their needs and their rights. Z. A. Bhutto had a fairly liberal attitude towards culture and women. However, when General Zia-ul-Haq took over in 1977, things started changing and women’s status started deteriorating.”

Every time we step forward, we are also stepping backwards because there is still uncertainty at home and with the law-and-order situation. Whatever setbacks take place, women are affected the most. In the last 2-3 years, we have noticed a rise in religious extremism, which is not a good sign.

In 1979, the Hudood Ordinance was enacted by Zia-ul-Haq. Among other things, these set of laws criminalised adultery and non-marital sex. But in reality, victims of sexual violence and rape were unable to get justice through the system; and instead found themselves in hot water. This ordinance came under the guise of Islamic principles. But in actuality, how Islamic was this law anyway?

Justice (retd) Majida Razvi
Justice (retd) Majida Razvi

Justice (retd) Majida Razvi found the answer to this question in 2003, when the National Commission on the Status of Women came out with the Hudood Report. After her retirement, she was appointed as the Chairperson of The National Commission on the Status of Women in 2002. “My first priority was Hudood Laws. I formed a legal committee which had 16 members – including Dr Farida Ahmad a scholar, Retd Judges Nasir Aslam Zahid and Shaiq Usmani, myself, Hina Jilani and Shahla Zia, lawyer from minority and chairperson of Islamic Ideology Council Dr Sher Zaman,” tells Razvi. “I studied the Quran and Hadith myself and we had regular meetings over the Hudood Laws, mainly the Zina law and Qazf because they were connected. The biggest issue was that zina and rape were on the same footing. One would need four witnesses for rape and women cannot be witness, it had to be the men. Moreover, they had to be in compliance with ‘Tazkiyatul Shahood’ (a credible witness). The women were completely sidelined and were pushed back 50 years. They just wanted us to stay in the ‘char deewari’(four walls).”

Razvi shares that out of 16 members, two abstained from voting, and two favoured amendments in the law, whereas the rest wanted to repeal it. However, the law was not repealed. “It took a year to publish the report. We found that this law was not in accordance with Islam and there was no need for it. This was our verdict. If the government thinks that such laws are needed by the people, they should get opinions on it. If it’s a yes, then re-drafts the entire law in accordance with Islamic laws, circulate it for an opinion and then finalise it,” informs Razvi. “When the first executive order was passed by President Musharraf in 2004-5, thousands of women were released on bail, then several amendments were introduced including definition of ‘honour killing’. In December 2005, all the final amendments were brought in, but these were not mentioned as amendments in the Hudood Laws; instead it was amendments in the Pakistan Criminal Law. On January 6, 2006, the Women Protection Act came out, which was the amendment in Pakistan criminal law. Unfortunately, the Zina ordinance still exists with few sections left after amendments”

This was a major achievement in order to regain rights for women. “The change may not be visible in the big picture, but there has been a lot of change,” illuminates Activist Afia Salam. “Before, we didn’t have a legal recourse for many things. The Hudood Ordinance changed, there are now proper definitions that distinguish the victim and oppressor. In Sindh, we have a Child Marriage Restraint Act, domestic violence is now being termed as a crime otherwise it used to be shrugged off as a personal matter and workplace harassment is also now identified.”

Journalist Afia Salam
Journalist Afia Salam

Afia also emphasises that change like this is usually slow. “The thing is that laws do not bring instant change, it takes time. Gradually you start getting examples which eventually gives other people the confidence to pursue their cases. For instance, when the cyber crime law came – even though it is a badly drafted law, where people are victimised more – after five long years, there was a verdict given out against the culprit who harassed his colleague in KU. Not everyone has the stamina to bear five years of court hassle. Until and unless a law is passed, there will be no fear of consequences. Despite the structural weaknesses and inefficiencies, there will be some action regarding the case. So, the changes will come, but they will take time.”

While these are milestones to celebrate, Razvi highlights some things that are worrisome, “Women are moving forward and they are honing their skills but every time we step forward, we are also stepping backwards because there is still uncertainty at home and the law-and-order situation. Whatever setbacks take place, women are affected the most. There are debates and conversations happening but in the last two-three years, we have noticed a rise in religious extremism. The madrassas which should have been registered have not been, and nobody knows what is being taught there but one can see religious extremism on the rise which is not a good sign. One can notice the shift of public opinion, especially those who are illiterate/ less educated who can be easily misled. To tackle this, we need mass intensive and proper education that focuses children’s learning towards science, mathematics and other technical developments.”

Afia also points out a similar problem with deep-rooted patriarchy, “The government and society are not the same even though the government (or the people handling it) are a reflection of our society. There are some things that the government is bound to do even if they don’t particularly believe in it, because there are some international standards and treaties to abide by. They are more or less pressured to do certain things,” she explains.

“For instance, if women are given leadership positions, it may look like you are inclusive, despite the fact how you behave with these women on those forums. Even though you are giving women decision making roles, the question is whether her voice is getting the recognition and importance it deserves. Are her decisions, experience and analysis being taken seriously? We have seen how women in the parliament are treated or how people respond to women journalists. Men are called out for their work, women on the other hand have to face character assassination. So, this still exists in our society. Women are still not accepted in those roles and it’s ironic because we live in a country where a woman was voted as a Prime Minister twice. But then they also assassinated her,” she laments.

When asked about how she views the current times and how far they have come, Afia finds herself disillusioned. “Women have had to face many obstacles before they could get to the position that they are at. Men have never had to face them. When I sit with people to talk about the ’70s and ’80s, and we compare them with today, we find that we are in regression. Despite the difficulties we faced even in the ’50s and ’60s, those times weren’t regressive. After Jinnah, we had women ambassadors and qualified women taking up positions on merit, and not for being someone’s wife or daughter. But, now, it’s so difficult for women to come forward without a reference, especially those who are trying to make a name for themselves. After 70 years, this hurdle shouldn’t have existed but that shows the challenges persist.”

Activist Sheema Kermani
Activist Sheema Kermani

In the same vein, Sheema Kermani agrees, “Women’s Rights go one step forward and two steps back! I think we are lacking in all fields of social welfare of the people.

We have to improve the educational system, bring more women into education and provide vocational training to them; improve the health care systems (especially for women’s health), look into Family Planning and population control; improve the transport system (again, especially for women) and stop the spread of religious extremism.

I feel that the current regime is worse than earlier ones; it is highly misogynist, extremely hypocritical and has made a mess not only of the educational system but of the economy as well. With increased poverty, the status of women is bound to get worse!”

When asked how this can be improved upon, Afia responds, “Social change is dependent on generations and the damage that came with this generation was engineered. If it was not engineered this way and social change had been taking place organically, things would have been much better. When we talk about matters at home, in schools, institutions, these were the places where we had a civil debate without prejudice. Nowadays, we are trying to negate the other person, there is no tolerance for the other opinions and they are often labelled as ‘anti-state’ or bring in a religious element. These things kill the debate and the questions the society should be asking don’t come up anymore, hence they don’t get resolved.”

Journalist Farzana Ali encourages women to come forward as that eventually becomes the force of change. “The more women we have in this space, the louder our voices will be and we’ll have stronger footing. When you have the experience, you also have the ability to bring in more people and make a change collectively. There is change happening because we are increasing in number, but it is also imperative that we practice caution as well,” enthuses Farzana.

“A woman’s struggles begin the day she steps out the door, because you are challenging society. You will hear things like ‘chaar deewaari humara tahafuz’ (four walls, our protection) but you challenge it. You will have more challenges than your male counterparts, because women are criticised for doing the same job. This is why we need to be strong, cautious and united. Us, women, should not be divided in this time otherwise we will not find a solution to our issues,” concludes Farzana.