For a very long time, Pakistani politicians have said they are in favour of women’s rights. This is probably because we are half the electorate.
On March 8 of this year, Prime Minister Imran Khan said that his government was committed to ensuring women’s rights. This statement coincided with International Women’s Day. Prime Minister Khan said: “I firmly believe that inclusive and sustainable socio-economic development can only be ensured by providing equal opportunities and a conducive environment to our women….I reaffirm my pledge this day to take all measures that would help our women to lead a safe, secure and prosperous life.”
Fine words. But he hasn’t been the first to say such things. It’s unlikely he will be the last. Women do not necessarily believe him. On March 8, the annual Aurat March also took place throughout the country; feminists demanded their rights to equal pay, equal rights and personal autonomy via a series of demonstrations.
We should continue to protest. We do not have equality; nowhere near it. Unlike politicians, statistics tell no tall tales.
Pakistani women suffer from endemic violence. According to a 2005 study carried out by academics at Aga Khan University of a cohort of Pakistani men, “The lifetime prevalence of marital physical abuse was 49.4 percent; slapping, hitting or punching was most often reported (47.7 percent)”.
Violence is not an aberration; it has been normalised in our society. As the Aga Khan University study stated: “Of the men 55 percent were themselves victims of physical violence during childhood and 65 percent had, as children, observed their mother[s] being beaten. Almost half of the subjects thought that husbands have a right to hit their wives (46.0 percent).”
Women can be ostracised, beaten and indeed killed for resisting the will of their husbands and male relatives. There are many men who still regard women asserting their rights as a threat to their masculinity and leadership role. Divorce is still often regarded as shameful, rather than a necessity in situations of relationship breakdown.
Leaving a bad relationship can get a woman killed. Human Rights Watch estimates that 1000 women are killed per year due to reasons of “honour”; the Human Rights Commission in Pakistan goes with a lower number, stating around 500 women are killed for this reason.
Threats are just as endemic as violence. The Aurat Match has featured some fairly spiky slogans, and some of the responses to these activities are indicative of the kind of treatment women can face for speaking up. In 2019, the Guardian newspaper reported the case of one Javeria Waseem, a film student. She posted “screenshots of a group of boys sexually harassing her 16-year-old younger sister online and threatening her with rape for posting on Instagram in support of the march”.
Theoretically, women demanding education should be uncontroversial. However, Malala Yousafzai’s story provides a counterpoint; for standing up for women’s education, she was shot in the head and now lives in exile.
In such a society, equal pay for equal work is unlikely to occur. According to a 2018 report by the International Labour Organisation, “Pakistan has the highest overall hourly average (mean) gender pay gap of the 73 countries for which comparable data are available. In particular the gender pay gap for Pakistan was identified to be 34 percent, which is more than double the global average. Moreover, the report finds that women account for almost 90 percent of the bottom 1 percent of wage earners in Pakistan”.
Social media is no escape: I am a visible, Pakistani woman defending the rights of women online. Just by virtue of being this person, I am bombarded with threats of violence and violation. Even some of the more well-intentioned messages I receive from men often have a sexual undertone; I believe that they think because I am divorced and “liberated” that I will be more receptive to their advances. This type of sexism, while less life threatening, is pernicious even among “good” men.
The current stresses and strains of the pandemic period, with their economic consequences, are unlikely to make anything better. A man who believes that violence is an acceptable form of conflict resolution is likely to resort to it when he feels conflicted: without a job, without prospects, and trapped by a disease, he may not feel like he is in charge of his own life. Who will suffer the consequences?
Westerners may scoff and think this has something to do with Islam. In fact, the forces which support sexism in Pakistani society pre-date Islam; it is an allocation of roles which extends back to an unknown point through the mists of time. However, like many things which are ancient, they are antiquated.
If we want to address these issues, ulema in Pakistan should issue an ijtihad clarifying women’s rights in the 21st century. There is scope in Islam for reason; it should be used to apply true justice. There are examples from Malaysia and Turkey.
Politicians need to address education; our present society is the child of teachings of previous eras. These need to be brought up to date and made widespread. Then, men perhaps will stop believing that their families revolve around them; rather, a family is more like a constellation than a single star. There are multiple points of light, which each should have an opportunity to shine in their own right. They are no brighter than the women that inhabit their space; they are not entitled to snuff out their flame.
Pakistani politicians will say a lot of things to try and convince women that they are avatars of progress, that they care about women’s rights. These are just words without the change of heart, and law, necessary to ensure genuine equality.
The writer is a freelance contributor.
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