Women cannot achieve full equality without the right to work. It’s not merely a matter of having one’s own money: work allows women an opportunity to express their talents and provides an environment in which skills and aspirations can be nurtured.
Yet, according to a World Bank report published in May 2019, Pakistan has one of the lowest female workplace participation rates in the world: only 26 percent of women are in paid labour. The World Bank has argued that for Pakistan to hit its growth targets, this rate must rise to 45 percent.
Economic efficiency demands that more women work, earn, save and spend. The experience of most developed nations suggests that women working drives growth. More recently, there was a notable propensity for countries with female leaders to deal with the coronavirus effectively.
So: why isn’t Pakistan able to tap into women’s strength, knowledge, and talents? It may be because sexual harassment and social pressures have combined into a toxic brew which has poisoned Pakistani society and retarded its progress.
I speak from personal experience: I am a dual qualified solicitor. But my personal aspirations and intellectual abilities did not matter: the obligations imposed by my family were very clear. I was expected to marry a man that my father had chosen and to put aside my own aspirations and interests. My story is not atypical; it is no wonder that female participation in the workforce is so low.
A 2013 study by Dr Munir Moosa Sadruddin of Sindh Madressatul Islam University surveyed working women in Karachi; one hundred percent of them agreed that sexual harassment was taking place at their places of work. One respondent stated: “It happens a lot in our context, particularly because men think that the working women ‘need’ their jobs so they can do anything they like and get away with it.”
The types of harassment that were described included physical assault to intimidation via pressure such as showing pornography to female employees while the male boss touched himself.
Women are often reluctant to report these incidents. Between 2008 and 2010, there were 24,119 recorded cases of violence against women. However, only 520 cases arose from the workplace. As another respondent to Dr Sadruddin’s study stated: “In one of the organizations, where I was working in the past, the manager of the unit office was misusing the female employees while we all were quiet and did not take any action. I also preferred to leave that job.”
Why does this reluctance exist? Some of it is an understandable concern that objecting may lead to immediate dismissal: Dr Sadruddin’s study indicates this. Also, organisations can appear to be less interested in protecting the rights of employees than shielding management from being held to account.
It may be that a presumption of female guilt is also to blame. This is a distortion of Islam’s endorsement of female modesty: this has been interpreted by some men as a get-out-of-jail-free card for anything they do. They can say that their bad behaviour is not due to a lack of self-restraint, rather, it is due to the woman’s provocative presence in a male environment.
This attitude, however, is distinctly un-Islamic: the Quran places great value on restraint and self-control. Furthermore, discouraging women from work is also un-Islamic. The Prophet’s (pbuh) beloved wife Khadija was a successful businesswoman in her own right.
If the law, economic necessity, and theology are all opposed to keeping women out of work, then what is the countervailing force that is preventing progress? It’s very simple: too many men profit from the present arrangements.
Women are an unpaid source of labour in the home: they cook, clean, and care for relatives and children. They are expected to provide sex to their husbands without complaint, even if this is not desired. Societal pressures push women towards compliance: unhappiness in marriages is invariably blamed on the wife’s ‘inability’ to ‘please’ her husband. Such ‘failure’ leads to ‘shaming’ of the family, and more pressure on the woman to comply. Living under a series of harsh gazes and under a blanket threat can only lead to broken lives. It is no wonder that female participation in working life is so low; it says much about the strength and resilience of Pakistani women that it is as high as it is.
If Pakistan wants to be a modern, developed country, it will need more than better infrastructure and improved healthcare and schools. It will have to live up to the ideals embedded in Islam and Pakistan’s political rhetoric. Our elected leaders are going to have to actually implement the law, in particular the 2010 Sexual Harassment bill. Furthermore, they are going to have to make it clear to law enforcement that it’s unacceptable to blame the victim.
This will require politicians and community leaders to also speak difficult truths to a vast constituency of men who aren’t necessarily inclined to listen: they will need to hear that their attitudes are holding everyone back. Perhaps the crisis imposed by the coronavirus pandemic will force a change of heart, and a recognition of everyone’s necessity and value; we have just been in a situation in which all hands were needed to help. Alternatively, crisis can have the opposite effect: hearts may be hardened, and change further denied.
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