The Women of the World (WoW) Festival, which Karachi now has the distinction of being the first Asian city to celebrate, was a precious opportunity to evaluate the place women had carved for themselves in a traditional set-up and also be acquainted with the various shortcomings.
These views were expressed by Jim Booth, country director of the British Council in Pakistan, as the one-day WoW Festival was inaugurated in the city on Sunday morning. Booth also took the opportunity to announce the opening of new libraries in Karachi and Lahore.
Jude Kelly, founder and organiser of the festival, said that quite contrary to popular belief, men and women in the United Kingdom did not have equal pay even though a bill was passed in the 1980s that aimed at ensuring the similar pay scales for both genders.
“We need to share experiences. It shouldn’t be just a man’s world,” she said. “It’s not just a human rights issue.” Other members of the panel were Islamabad-based social activist Tahira Abdullah, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) General Secretary IA Rehman, and Nimco Ali, a British social activist of Somalian origin.
Rehman lamented that women did not have the right to posts in trade unions and remained low-paid in agricultural jobs. Women, he said, had been registered as voters but were not allowed to exercise their right to vote in many places.
The veteran rights activist said females in Pakistan faced huge challenges as the governments had never been interested in their welfare, remaining limited to lip service.
“Women have managed to make it to high positions in certain fields all by themselves. Without actual social change, no one will be able to alter our current situation,” said Rehman, adding that while it was true that the number of women in the parliament had increased, the female representatives were still kept at “a safe distance” by male MNAs.
Tahira Abdullah’s views were not very optimistic either. She said 68 percent of the country’s rural population were women and, of them, 90 percent were unpaid, while 32 percent of the urban women workers were unpaid.
However, on a positive note Tahira, turning to Jim Booth and Richard Davies, British Council’s regional director for Sindh and Balochistan, said, “Next year when you come, you’ll see a larger number of foreigners as terrorism will have decreased and things will certainly be better overall.”
She also lauded Mukhtaran Mai, who was in attendance, and her magnanimous spirit for using the injustices met out to her for the welfare of her area and the women of Pakistan.
Nimco Ali too added to the conversation and said that women had a right to go on strike to press for their rights.
Among other sessions, the most revealing and touching was the story of Syeda Ghulam Fatima, the Lahore –based activist who has worked tirelessly for the brick kiln workers, on what motivates her to be an activist.
“Behind every brick, there’s a humiliating tale. It is bricks that build grandiose structures. It is bricks that create structures that last through the ages. Yet, the condition of the brick kiln workers continues to be worse than that of animals,” she said.
Fatima stated that the workers were treated in the most humiliating of manners by the monetarily oriented kiln owners, even being kept chained as punishment. All of this, she said, was for a mere pittance as salary and if they got a loan from the owners, their generations were pawned as bonded labour. There were, Fatima added, no hygiene facilities for them and their womenfolk were vulnerable to molestation and sexual assaults when they went out into the fields to obey the call of nature, even more so because the culprits invariably get away scot-free.
“I became a kiln worker to motivate the workers to unite and was almost murdered. My family dissociated from me. I was jailed and dubbed a terrorist, but the drive to help these workers was always too strong,” she said.
Educationist Shamim Akhtar explained how very hard it was for girls to acquire an education in Sindh.
Sana Mir, the outgoing captain of the Pakistan Women’s cricket team, enumerating the fields open to women, said that she also started as a street cricketer and described how since 2009, they had been scoring successes by defeating the likes of India and Bangladesh.
She thanked the Pakistan Cricket Board and the government authorities for augmenting their efforts and their talent.
In a following session on poetry, noted Sindhi Poetess Attiya Dawood recited her verse translated from Sindhi into Urdu by another poetess, Fehmida Riaz. Vocalist Tina Sani spoke of the importance of hard work in the creative process.
The final session, “Taking stock”, included Sarmad Khoosat, Shaista Aziz, Robin Davies, and Nighat Said Khan.
Khoosat, in his closing remarks, lauded the spirit of equality in which the whole exercise was conducted, lauding the diversity reflected through the festival.
Shaista Aziz, a UK citizen of Pakistani origin, lauded the organizers of the festival for injecting the element of diversity, expressing particular appreciation for the level of debate and discourse at the event.
The sessions were followed by impressive musical performances by the Nescafe Basement all girls’ band and ‘Sounds of Kolachi’.