Whither the Aurat in Pakistan?

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Celebration of International Women’s Day on 8th March annually is a reminder of the need for gender balance in global society today. However, Pakistan presents a stark case of a nation, whose women are still in the backwaters of civilization.

According to the recently published ‘Global Gender Gap Report 2021’, Pakistan ranked 153rd out of 156 countries, as per gender parity index. Statistics alone do not reflect the realities of being a woman in Pakistan. The twin challenges of existing societal Islamic norms and the lack of legislation or legal rights empowering women is a reminder that Pakistan needs to change its attitude towards women if it is to modernise as a society.

The most telling example of the lack of recognition of the rights of women emerged in February this year when Waseem Azeem, convicted (2019) of honour killing his sister Qandeel Baloch was acquitted! The tragedy is that while the Government of Pakistan has passed various laws to prevent violence and support those affected by it, the conviction rate for violence against women sits at only 1-2.5 per cent.

The available statistics, however, do not accurately represent the full extent of the problem. Estimates indicate that one in two Pakistani women who have experienced violence never sought help or told anyone about the violence they had experienced. The silent majority is obviously out there, making the task of redressal almost impossible.

According to the Census of Pakistan in 2017, women make up 48.76 per cent of the population. Most analysts agree that women in Pakistan have played an important role throughout the country’s history, and empowerment has come to them slowly. For instance, Pakistani women have been allowed to vote in elections since 1956. Pertinently, the status of women in Pakistan differs considerably across classes, regions, and the rural/urban divide due to the uneven socio-economic development and the impact of tribal and feudal social formations in Pakistan.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) Gender Gap Index 2021 states that only 45 per cent of women are literate, 61 per cent attend primary school, 31 per cent attend high school and only 8.3 per cent enrolled in tertiary secondary courses.

Women’s empowerment in Pakistan has always been contested. Notably, women are ranked lower than men on all vital human development indicators. That this is a factual reality is evidenced by the fact that Pakistan is ranked almost at the bottom of the Gender Gap Index — 151st of 153 studied countries. The WEF report combines gender-related parameters of economic participation, opportunities, educational attainment, health, survival and political empowerment to reach a country-by-country assessment of gender gap and achievement.

Women’s activism in Pakistan is a difficult societal occupation. However, some stalwarts like Asma Jahangir set the ball rolling to protect the rights of women, children and ethnic minorities. Over the years, more and more women in Pakistan have contributed to society in myriad ways. However, activism in this domain still faces obvious bias and societal refusal, especially from men. Efforts to bring together women came alive in 2018 when an annual march was held by Pakistani women in Karachi, known as the Aurat (Women)’s March.

The 2021 March, was held in seven cities of Pakistan and demands echoed in the streets, included safety for women from endemic violence, accessible health care, and the basic economic justice of safe working environments and equal opportunities for women. In Pakistan, the Covid crisis further exacerbated the status of women.

Just how sensitive the issue of women’s empowerment remains in a patriarchal society like Pakistan was witnessed last year, when opponents of women’s rights doctored a video of the ‘Aurat March’ suggesting that the women had committed blasphemy, an accusation that has been frequently weaponized in Pakistan and has resulted in vigilantes killing those who are targeted.

A patriarchal society combined with the system of honour has only intensified the oppression of women. Women from religious minority communities, especially, are in danger of persecution. This is complicated by the attacks on women, students and, schools by extremist groups like the TTP. In the case of Christian and Hindu communities in Pakistan it is assessed that at least 1,000 women are forced annually to marry Muslim men.

Further restrictions arise from women requiring permission from a male member of the family to seek employment. Official statistics show that 40 per cent of women in Pakistan need permission from a family member to earn a salary.

Sadly, Pakistan’s ‘Demographic and Health Survey’ (January 2019 for the year 2017-2018) estimates that 28 percent of women in Pakistan have “experienced physical violence” by the age of 50. Overcoming patriarchy and a dominant religious narrative on women makes the task of activism difficult.

Unfortunately, religion in Pakistan falsely portrays feminism as being inimical to Islam. This complicates societal relations further. Pakistan’s problem is a matter of concern, and it is not being helped by the attitude of its political leadership. In this case, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan has often gone on record and supported the Afghan Taliban and their actions while rationalising all forms of discrimination, especially against women.

Speaking at the 17th Summit of the Organization of Islamic States in Islamabad (December 2021), Imran Khan justified the Afghan Taliban’s non-recognition of the rights of women. He claimed the Taliban were mostly Pakhtuns and therefore, did not send their daughters to school! Khan went on to defend the Taliban’s position on preventing young girls from attending educational institutions, saying that all governments must be “sensitive to tribal customs”.

There is a fundamental challenge to women’s empowerment in Pakistan. This multi-faceted issue is difficult to resolve unless there is social reform with strict legal protection of gender rights. Unfortunately,

Pakistan lacks the socio-political will. Thus, another year will pass with observance of International Women’s Day and another Aurat March will occur, but fundamental change will elude Pakistan.

20220307-192006

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