Women’s role in a peaceful Pakistan

Highlighting the challenges and issues that must be tackled at the family level for a peaceful and pluralist Pakistan

Women’s role in a peaceful Pakistan

If we need peaceful societies we have to be pluralist; and for pluralism, family upbringing plays an important role. Recently Insan Foundation Trust (IFT) organised a launch forum for three of its publications that must be read by all interested in a peaceful and pluralist Pakistan. These documents, both in English and Urdu try to highlight the challenges and issues we must tackle at the family level, for it is the family that nurtures early attitudes and habits in children who grow up to become intolerant or tolerant human beings.

The first study that needs highlighting was conducted by Dr Farhan Zahid who is a young scholar specializing in terrorism. His PhD in terrorism studies from the University of Brussels qualifies him well to lead such a study. He has authored more than 70 research articles and papers especially on counter-terrorism, al-Qaeda and its linked groups, and jihadi ideologies. Pakistan needs more such scholars, thinkers, and writers who can enlighten us on one of the most challenging issues we have been facing since the ill-conceived policies of General Ziaul Haq.

The title of the study is Women’s perspective on the impact of terrorism and extremism and their role in communities’ peace and security. The study was funded by the Embassy of the Netherlands that has been actively involved in raising women’s leadership potential not only in Pakistan but also in other developing countries. With their help, Insan Foundation has been able to work in over a 100 communities including Bahawalpur, Bhakkar, Faisalabad, and Sialkot, with local women groups, civil society organisation, universities, and officials.

Dr Farhan Zahid in his study begins with a brief background to crimes against women in conflicts. He cites violence against women in civil wars such as the civil war in East Pakistan in 1971, the wars of Yugoslav succession in the early 1990s, the Hutu-Tutsi conflict in Rwanda, civil war and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and crimes against women in other conflicts such as in Iraq, Sudan, and Syria. Some of the figures he gives are staggering such as around half a million women raped during the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and up to 50,000 women raped in Bosnia in 1992-94 wars.

With this backdrop the study moves into the role of women in peace building. Dr Zahid highlights the fact that very few women have been able to participate in peace talks as delegates or managed to get officially involved in peace negotiations. Though women remain pivotal and their role was crucial as they mobilised the masses to influence belligerent groups to negotiate. Coming to Pakistan, the study mentions the underground hate literature embedded in jihadi media and ultra-orthodox curricula being taught at madrassahs that serve as major sources of dissemination of jihadi narrative in Pakistan.

As mentioned in the study, during the last 16 years more than 60,000 Pakistanis have lost their lives in more than 18,000 terrorist attacks across Pakistan, also causing an economic loss of over $120b. Dr Zahid minces no words and directly links the damaged cultural and social fabric of Pakistani society with Islamic radicalisation after Pakistan became part of US-collaborated anti-Soviet operation from 1980 onwards. "The then military junta of Pakistan decided to bandwagon the US and Saudis for bleeding the Soviet forces inside Afghanistan. The Islamist environment that was created through thousands of madrassahs, established during the anti-Soviet warfare, had come to fruition after the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1989."

The second study is titled, Perceiving women as voters and representatives in the political process. It was led by Shirin Gul, another young and dedicated researcher with experience in governance and social development. While Dr Farhan Zahid’s focus was on terrorism, Shirin Gul is more concerned with the role of women in politics. She begins by underscoring the fact that women and minorities are among the disempowered, vulnerable, and excluded groups in Pakistan and it is imperative to challenge discriminatory norms and practices so that inclusive and cohesive democratic practices lead to a representative and pluralistic society.

It appears pertinent to quote an informative paragraph from the study here: "In 2002, the voter’s ratio was 86 women per 100 men. In 2008, it had fallen to 79 women per 100 men. In 2013, it had fallen further to 77 women per 100 men. Women constitute 48 per cent of the population of Pakistan as per the census of 2017 and the sex ratio is 105 men to 100 women, which is not reflected in the voter registration."

For her study, Shirin Gul conducted 200 focus group discussions with 12-14 participants, reaching out to around 3000 respondents. Some of the problems women mentioned included the family pressure to vote not by her own choice but by the choice of her family. Men responded by saying that it has to be a family decision because it increases family’s prestige when they vote for the same candidate. According to most men, voting is not an individual’s decision but a collective one taken by the family. In most cases it is not the family but the head of the family who decides and forces women to vote according to his decision.

Distance to the polling station is a major issue for women voters who have to rely on men to transport them hence increased influence by them. Many women complained that they were unaware of the process of casting votes resulting in misuse of their votes. Women’s identity cards (CNICs) also emerged as a big hurdle for women voters whose cards are normally kept by men who again influence the decision. It is not only the CNICs but also the B-Forms that are kept by the father that create problems. A newly-married woman has to produce B-Form for the new CNIC, once again depending on her male relatives.

The unavailability of birth and marriage certificates with women creates tremendous hardship for female candidates and voters. If a male relative is not available or is unwilling to help, a woman becomes retarded in her attempts to get a copy of her birth certificate, B-Form, marriage certificate, and even a CNIC.

The third document by Insan Foundation is a marvelous Urdu booklet titled, Intihapasandi se bachao main gharaney ka kirdar (The role of family in the prevention of extremism). Beautifully illustrated and simply written by Kishwar Sultana, this booklet is a helpful read for families. Beginning with an introduction to what extremism and terrorism are, Kishwar Sultana explains the harmful effects of both on society. She clarifies that it is everyone’s responsibility to work for the elimination of extremist tendencies in communities. Women’s role in these efforts is of paramount importance and the booklet suggests four steps in the self-awareness in this regard.

Sultana suggests that the family should start by promoting self-awareness and assessment, then move on to knowing and assessing others. This assessment and awareness of one’s own actions and thoughts helps us understand others better. She gives guidelines on how to respect difference of opinion and how to make decisions in the right direction. An important part of the booklet is devoted to explaining how family members can inculcate and promote respect for other ethnic, religious, denominational, and regional groups. In this, she also includes respect for animals, plants, and trees. What a joy it was to read this gem of a booklet that should be part of our curriculum right from the primary level.

Women’s role in a peaceful Pakistan