Friday August 12, 2022

The Gender question

March 23, 2022

Few questions in Pakistani state and society are as fraught, divisive and contested as gender. At worst, the inter-subjectivities of politics, religion and culture deter much-needed critical dialogue on the question of gender within the socio-political dynamics of the state of Pakistan. As a result, the fundamental question related to gender, the situatedness of male, female members of the society within the gender power hierarchies is still contested and relevant after seven decades of its existence on world map.

Being a predominantly patriarchal construct, one of major organising principles of Pakistani society is gender. Clearly defined hierarchies of division of labour between productive and reproductive, predetermine the social value of its members within the state and society of Pakistan. Popular desirability of a male offspring sets off a lifelong challenge for women. They have to grapple with gender discrimination and disparities in all spheres of life.

Treated as a liability, women tend to receive low levels of resource investment, both by their families and the state. Currently, the gender gap in enrolment in Pakistan’s education system stands at 13% that widens at lower educational levels, standing highest at tertiary levels at 87.1%. Ranking at 153 out of 156 nations, right on top of war-torn Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan in world economic forum’s 2021 global gender gap report, seventh amongst eight South Asian countries, the gender equality index in Pakistan portrays a gloomy picture. As a result, women fail to develop their intellectual and material faculties remaining stuck in a cycle of oppression, discrimination and mediocrity. State fails to capitalise on half of its human capital that is essential for the growth of a healthy economy and for a “nation to be worthy of its existence” as envisioned by the father of the nation.

Cultural connotations of character, shame, honour and negative social biases associated with being a woman premeditate all aspects of a woman’s life beginning at birth. From female infanticide to emotional and physical abuse faced by women for bearing a female child, the ordeal of being a woman begins in the womb and culminates in the form of ‘gender based crimes’ or ‘crimes against women’ in our society. The recent harrowing murder of a seven days old baby by her own father wanting a son in Minawali, Punjab, perfectly encapsulates internalised misogyny and sexism prevalent in our society. According to Pakistan demographic and health survey, 2017-2018 an estimated 28% of women aged between 15-49 years had suffered domestic violence. Last two years, 2019-2020 also witnessed astonishingly high cases of rape, sexual violence, kidnapping and child sexual abuse.

Last year, 3,881 case of rape and 1,359 cases of sexual abuse were reported in Punjab alone. The scale and frequency of these ‘crimes against women demands to be seen as systemic and endemic, especially given the fact that the reported cases of gender-based violence, especially rape, child sexual abuse and domestic violence, are grossly underreported due to the connotations of family honour associated with them. The very act of admission and report of being a victim of such crime is equated to shamelessness. Sadly, the conviction rates in crimes against women sit at 1-2.5%. Moreover, the victims of such heinous sexual crimes not only live with the physical pain of rape or sexual violence but also carry the stigma and shame of somehow becoming victims of such crimes. The vitriol and mudslinging hurled at Noor Mukadam, the victim of horrific murder, by the society is still raw and unforgotten by the women seeking justice in this country. Noor’s murder and subsequent slut shaming that her corpse had to bear portrays how crimes against women are symbiotically tied to society’s obsession with policing and controlling female morality.

On February 7, 2022, a gang-rape victim was murdered by her brother after police failed to arrest the accused. The poor woman lost her bodily autonomy to five men, the four men who raped her and the one who snatched her right to live and get justice. According to Human Rights Watch, an estimated number of 1,000 women are killed every year in the name of honour. The causes vary from being accused of establishing ‘unacceptable amorous relationships’ to show of defiance to socially and culturally acceptable behaviours including dressing, use of social media, brazenness in language or accusation or suspicion of immoral conduct. Arguably, both men and women become victims of rape and sexual violence or engage in socially unacceptable behaviours; however, it is always the women who become victims of honour killing in our society. This is how patriarchy affects both men and women differently by creating hierarchies of privilege and accountability for both sexes.

Ironically, it does not stop here, pervasiveness of deep-seated patriarchy within the social fabric of Pakistani state and society leaves little breathing space for state institutions to expand and enshrine legal framework for protection against gender based violence. The controversy surrounding the Domestic Violence Bill, 2021, uncovers the inherent divisiveness on the understanding of gender treatment at state level. The opposition against the bill did not come from the religious quarters alone that one normally presupposes but also in the form of popular demand on twitter as the hashtag, “Khandani nizam ki tabahi.” This consequently leads to the premise that domestic structure in this country is established and normalises violence in one form or the other. Hence, sexism and misogyny permeates across social, cultural and religious boundaries, constraining the limited state apparatus devised to protect the vulnerable genders.

Nothing riles up sexism, wrapped up in shrouds of religiosity and cultural value as the mention of ‘Aurat March.’ With all its flaws and missed opportunities, the biggest achievement of Aurat March is to have uncovered the intolerance within Pakistani society for women’s demand for equality and bodily autonomy. Labelled un-Islamic, obscene and a source of western propaganda, Aurat March highlights the deeply entrenched notions of shame, honour and passivity associated with the gender identity of women in Pakistan. The discourse and rhetoric employed in and against Aurat March highlight a need for critical dialogue concerning gender questions in Pakistan in order to recognise the agency and changing realities of the time.

Pakistan is free but are women in Pakistan free? Apparently, the majority of men think they are! However, the majority of women will beg to differ. The point of contention lies where gender identities diverge. Limits on freedom of movement, freedom of expression, speech and visibility within the public sphere is something that only women or minorities face, hence understand. Only women pay the price of ‘family honour’ and bear the shame of ‘victim blaming’, so let women tell you whether they feel free or not, whether they feel safe or not.

The Father of the nation while addressing the women had said, “You, young women, are more fortunate than your mothers are, you are being emancipated. I do not mean that you must copy the west. But I do mean that man must be made to understand that a woman is his equal and that woman is his friend and comrade and they together can build up homes, families and nations.”

Without engaging in dialogue and listening to what women have to say, without understanding their idea of emancipation, women cannot achieve the level of equality that they were promised by the Quaid.

The question of gender will remain divisive and contentious unless women’s agency as independent, intelligent, and equal individuals is not recognised. Pakistan Day demands introspection; for the country to progress it needs to muddle its way out of regressive gender norms and negative social practices associated with women’s gender identity. Women in Pakistan are still excluded from the decision making process at local, provincial and national level, They are deprived of space and opportunity to voice their problems and offer their perspective and experience on legislation and governance matters based on their lives. Concentration of decision making powers in male hands has resulted into creation and recreation of cycles of dominance and oppression through perpetuation of gender inequalities.

States cannot progress without investing into female resource development. The recent development in this regard is the launch of the first ever ‘Gender National Policy Framework’ by the government that aims to achieve gender equality, gender emancipation and gender mainstreaming in order to embark on the road to sustainable development. As a welcome step, the framework presents a roadmap for gender inclusive reforms through systemic mechanisms to uplift women’s place in the society. Through this framework, the government shows a commitment to ensure gender equality, however, there are certain impediments that are needed to overcome for this intent to be materialised.

Implementation of legislation on gender protection remains the biggest obstacle till date. Individuals cannot uncover their true potential unless they feel secure in public and professional spaces. It is essential to understand that women’s voice is critical in decisions that directly impact their lives. An enabling and nurturing environment is a prerequisite for intellectual, physical and material growth of individuals regardless of their gender.

Gender inequality, gender based violence and societal regression is a disease that needs to be taken seriously. The symptomatic treatment of disease can take us so far; the real healing, emancipation and progress can only begin after society undergoes a prolonged treatment for social transformation, beginning at homes, schools, mosques and popular media.

-The writer is a feminist researcher with special focus on female agency and security, a lecturer on international relations and first hand witness of how patriarchy affects women in this country. She can be reached at