Opening the gates to gender justice

Local experts share insights on women’s empowerment in the Pashtun society

Opening the gates to gender justice


or several decades Western academics have explained gender inequalities to activists and reformers in the East and suggested frameworks for addressing those inequalities.

The explanations include the integration thesis – which claims that although traditional societies are essentially patriarchal, they will eventually move away from the rigid gender codes as they progress towards modernity. This thesis contends that patriarchy is a necessary feature of rural societies and primitive cultures. It is pointed out, for example, that practices like ghag and swara in Pashtun culture have diminished as the community has modernised.

Opening the gates to gender justice

Then there is the marginalisation thesis. This theory turns the integration theory on its head and argues essentially that patriarchy is much more a result of colonialism than traditional culture. It contends, for example, that the term Pashtunwali didn’t exist before the British raj and that the Frontier Crime Regulations held the Pashtun women back unlike their counterparts in other parts of the country.

The exploitation thesis holds that gender inequality exists because it meets the needs of the elites in the global capitalist system. For example, women provide a cheap and easily exploited source of informal labour that works for trans-national corporations (TNCs) and capitalist elites.

The first thesis has derived from the modernisation theory, while the last two perspectives have stemmed out of the dependency theory in the discipline of political economy and development studies.

To date, most local practitioners have been applying the dominant Western theories to explain and address local issues. Nevertheless, Dr Amir Jamal – a Pashtun academic based at the University of Calgary in Canada, thinks differently. He believes that local issues need local solutions. He strongly disagrees with the notion that the issues of Pashtun women can be resolved by implementing imported solutions.

His work is founded in the epistemological tradition known as feminist standpoint theories – one of the most well-known to come out of second-wave feminist thought.

Feminist standpoint theorists make three main assertions: knowledge is situated in society; compared to non-marginalised groups, marginalised groups have a greater capacity for awareness and inquisitiveness due to their social positioning; and the lives of the underprivileged should be the starting point for research, especially on power relations. In light of this, feminist standpoint theories have something to offer in terms of epistemological and methodological discussions in the social and natural sciences, philosophy of science and political activity.

Dr Jamal conducted research for his PhD thesis in social work to introduce gender justice into Pashtun culture and came up with a book, The Gatekeepers: Engaging Pashtun men for gender justice and girls’ education in Pakistan.

The book, which has been translated into Urdu and Pashto, criticises the Western frameworks for women empowerment and makes a case for using local solutions to address local issues. He argues that educating men regarding women’s rights is essential before encouraging women to cry for their rights. Without doing the ground work, he says, inciting women to shout in marches could lead to either open conflict or locking the doors with heavier locks by “the gatekeepers” i.e., men. He told this scribe, “The West has sailed through three waves of feminists’ struggle. Our desi feminists want to cross the sea in a single leap; that seems impossible.“

With his research, Dr Jamal has laid the groundwork for a new discussion on men as allies in gender justice in the Pakistani Pashtun community. This newly emerging social movement has been fostering critical awareness in the community and a growing resentment towards gender injustices and inflexible gender standards.

With his research, Dr Jamal has laid the groundwork for a new discussion on men as allies in gender justice in the Pakistani Pashtun community.

His efforts have changed attitudes and cultural perspectives and have helped actively engage communities in the fight against gender-based violence. His work has promoted social justice and brought change through governmental and societal measures.

In this regard, Iqra University in Peshawar hosted a one-day symposium organised by Dr Jamal with collaborators from the University of Calgary and organisations like UN Women and Peshawar University. The programme was titled: Engaging Men in Gender Justice: Indigenous Voices and Local Contexts.

The symposium sought to bring local representatives from all walks of life so that the audience could benefit from their knowledge and experiences of the problem under discussion.

The selection of the speakers was rich and diverse. A journalist talked about the role of media in promoting gender justice and an assistant inspector general of police who was also a Fulbright PhD scholar, presented his research on the role of police in preventing gender-based oppressive cultural practices and how the idea of gender sensitive policing is changing the cultural landscape. An academic explained the Islamic perspective of gender justice. A former woman MNA shared her knowledge of women parliamentarians and gender justice. An educationist described the government initiatives for the promotion of girls’ education in the informal sectors.

The following stories shared by the speakers underscore the importance of understanding local cultures before initiating any intervention for cultural change.

Dr Shah Jehan, the Iqra National University (INU), Peshawar, vice chancellor, said: “After I graduated from Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, I decided to set up a school in my village for both girls and boys. In order to open the school, I went to the appropriate government official, who in turn requested that I donate land to the state. I agreed to do that, giving the government one kanal of ancestral land for constructing a school building. However, only boys attended the school and the girls didn’t.

“Since I belonged to a landlord family and most of the families in the village were our tenants, I asked them to either send their girls to school or evacuate the houses. This was a serious matter for them. I was approached by an elderly man who asked, ‘Will you marry my daughter to your son if I send her to school and she completes secondary education?’ The question astonished me. ‘What does marriage have to do with it?’ I asked the tenant. ‘When my daughter passes her secondary school certificate,’ he said, ‘she will not marry her cousin Toor Gul with whom she is engaged now. She wouldn’t make dung cakes while Toor Gul will work on your farms. She won’t feel at home in her own social class, and your class won’t accept her either.’

“This conversation left me amazed. I realised that with my bookish knowledge, I was advocating a false solution to the problem. There was a glass ceiling I hadn’t noticed despite my education. That day I realised the importance of understanding the local contexts and listening to the indigenous voices in solving any social problem.”

Inayat Begum, a former MNA, shared: “Sixty years ago, my father sent his daughters, including myself, to school in a conservative Pashtun society in the then NWFP. My father was the only religious scholar in the small village who had studied the Holy Quran with translation and tafsir (explanatory notes). Constantly taunted and slurred by fellow villagers for sending his daughters to school, he left the village and moved to a town to send his daughters to schools without social stigmatisation.

“Today, I am an independent woman. I have been a member of the National Assembly and have fought for women’s rights on many fronts. None of this would have happened without the support of my father. I was not empowered by any feminist movement or inspired by Western slogans like ‘know your enemy’ or ‘man has been the eternal enemy of women.’”

“On the contrary, I was empowered by a man, my father, who had studied the Holy Prophet’s (peace be upon him) word cautioning men to be careful in the affairs of women.”

Nadeem Khan is a post-graduate student of international relations. He can be reached at

Amina Sajjad is a graduate student at Quaid-i-Azam University,


Opening the gates to gender justice