February Issue 2015

By | Society | Published 6 years ago

The cameras are rolling and a group of young men and women — reasonably well off and educated — sit around a television studio. The host announces the topic of the day: should women pursue higher education? A young man from Sindh voices against the motion: “Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s mother was not an educated woman, and look at what a great man she raised.” The implication is obvious.

The opinion of one individual? Or indicative of a national mindset? The jiyala in all probability would be oblivious to the contradiction inherent in his own belief system and choices: a die-hard supporter of the Pakistan People’s Party and its (then) populist chairperson, the Oxford-educated Benazir Bhutto, he would prefer other women to not be educated. To not be exposed to the world. To remain dependent. To be mentally shackled, if not physically, blind to their own potential.

Welcome to the land of contradictions. Where wealthy politicians residing in mansions speak about the living conditions of the poor. Where democratic parties brutally crack down on dissent. Where a televangelist espouses anti-India sentiments while singing tunes from old Bollywood films during the show’s lighter segment. Where religious sermons abound alongside massive violation of the basic tenets.

Nowhere else are these contradictions more apparent than in the attitudes towards women: their bodies, their personal choices, their freedom of movement and their rights. Pakistani women can be seen everywhere — in Parliament, in courtrooms, in offices, in the armed forces, on billboards and on camera — and yet remain the marginalised gender. They may hold up half the sky, but are still under-represented in every field.

In the international media, Pakistan is a portrait of gloom and doom when it comes to women’s rights. However, anyone who has more than a cursory knowledge of the country, knows this is only one side of the picture. The reality exists between the headlines. Pakistan is a tale of multiple worlds — coexisting and conflicting — and women’s progress is one more battlefield.

Who will win the war on this front goes hand in hand with the very real war being fought in the form of Zarb-e-Azb — a war of competing ideologies. If the other side is to gain, and we should brace ourselves for that very real possibility, the first direct hit will be women. As was the case in Afghanistan with the Taliban. As is the case in northern Nigeria with Boko Haram. As is the case in Syria at the hands of ISIS. And as was the case in Swat in 2009, under the Fazlullah-led Tehrik-e-Taliban. But under the Taliban’s nihilistic form of governance, emerged Pakistan’s strongest voice for girls’ right to education.

On December 21, the world watched as Malala Yousufzai spoke for the rights of children and women everywhere. “This award is not just for me. It is for those forgotten children who want education. It is for those frightened children who want peace. It is for those voiceless children who want change. I am here to stand up for their rights, to raise their voice. It is not time to pity them. It is time to take action so it becomes the last time… that we see a child deprived of education. I have found that people describe me in many different ways. Some people call me the girl who was shot by the Taliban. And some, the girl who fought for her rights. Some people call me a Nobel Laureate now.”

And others, a CIA pawn. An agent of the West. Anti-Islam. Here is a girl who survived a gunshot to the head, became an international icon and a symbol of resilience and hope. Pakistan’s global ambassador, representing us in the best possible way: articulate, courageous, progressive and dignified. One would imagine this is something a nation should be proud of. Instead, much of the reaction by her own countrymen was derision, snark and envy. Malala’s autobiography was banned in her home province.

Everything else standing as it does, would the reaction have been the same if Malala was a boy? If not, then Pakistan has a long way to go when it comes to acknowledging women as equals. In the reaction to Malala’s rise to fame, we see the two sides of Pakistan.

This is a country that was created thanks to the efforts of a number of women who worked actively alongside men. Fatima Jinnah, Rana Liaquat Ali Khan, Shaista Ikramullah, Begum Shahnawaz, Salma Tassaduque Hussain and Fatima Sughra were at the forefront of the Pakistan Movement.

This is a country that has twice elected a woman as the Prime Minister, and it is the first Muslim nation to do so.


This is a country that has a large number of visible and vocal women in politics. Dr Fehmida Mirza became the first woman speaker of the house in the National Assembly. Sherry Rehman was Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United States.  Maleeha Lodhi, who served as the High Commissioner of Pakistan to the United Kingdom and twice as the Pakistan Ambassador to the United States, was appointed as the Permanent Representative of Pakistan to the United Nations in December last year. Nasim Wali Khan, the first woman elected from a Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province general seat in 1977, recently announced her return to political life at the age of 85 plus. And in the previous election, we saw ordinary yet exceptional women such as Saniya Naz, Veeru Kohli and Badam Zehri contest for the first time.

This is a country that has produced world-class filmmakers in Sabiha Sumar, Afia Nathaniel and Oscar winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy.

This is a country that has produced journalists such as Razia Bhatti, a pioneer in her field who said what many of her male colleagues were afraid to; Anita Ghulam Ali, one of the initiating members of Women’s Action Forum and founder of the Sindh Education Foundation; Asma Jehangir, a former special rapporteur for the United Nations and the first woman elected as President of the Supreme Court Bar Association, is the recipient of multiple local and international awards, including the Ramon Magsaysay Award and the 1995 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders; Hina Jillani, a human rights activist and an advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan; Bilquis Edhi, half of the Edhi Foundation, who works tirelessly alongside her husband in running the largest charitable ambulance service in the world; Sultana Siddiqui, the CEO of a channel that creates programmes watched by millions around the world; Arfa Karim, the youngest Microsoft-certified professional; and internationally acclaimed artists Shahzia Sikander and Aisha Khalid. The list goes on…

Away from the spotlight are the women who toil in the fields and feed the nation, who labour at the factories in Sialkot to manufacture the footballs used at the FIFA World Cup, the polio health workers who risk their lives on a daily basis. These are the countless, everyday unsung heroes. Doctors, nurses, engineers, teachers, architects, entrepreneurs, diplomats, judges and CEOs, the Pakistani woman has made her imprint in every field.

In 2014 alone, Pakistani women clinched the Emmy for Best Documentary, brought home the Gold for cricket at the Asian Games, scaled Mount Everest, won the Snowden Award and the Nobel Peace Prize.

But this is also the country where, in the same year, a popular prime-time preacher and former pop singer boasted on television that his greatest decision was not allowing his wife to drive, advising other men to do the same.

This is also a country where the daily newspapers are full of horrific cases of violence against women. Scan over some of the headlines, so commonplace that they don’t even make the front pages: Trainee nurse raped, burnt to death in Karachi in April; Woman stoned to death outside Lahore High Court in May; Woman burnt to death in Toba Tek Singh by rejected suitor in June; Four women sprayed with acid-filled syringe in Quetta market in July. And 261 women kidnapped in Sindh for forced marriages in 2014.

The Acid Survivors Foundation estimates 150 acid attack cases in Pakistan each year. IA Rehman from the HRCP wrote an article for Dawn, revealing the dismal status of women in the country: In 2014, there were 481 incidents of domestic violence, 344 cases of gang-rape and 268 complaints of sexual harassment. The government runs ads on spousal abuse on TV, and yet we remain the only nation in the South Asian region that does not have laws on domestic violence. Sindh is the sole province to have passed a bill in 2013, and also increased the age of marriage to 18. However, Benazir’s province, with the highest number of female parliamentarians and generally considered the most ‘liberal,’ also registered  the highest number of incidents of violence against women in the last year. And these are only the cases that were reported. In a country where women are all too aware that reporting to the authorities means the beginning of additional trauma, one can only imagine where the actual figures stand.

On the accuracy of statistics, activist Farzana Bari says, “There is no systematic, all-encompassing data on violence against women. However, the most brutal form of violence occur in areas where there is a stronghold of feudalism and tribalism. That includes interior Sindh, South Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.”

In many cases, women enter the job market due to economic constraints. Often, and especially if the husband or sons are not working, they become the sole breadwinners in their families. Sarwar, an economic migrant from a small-town close to Multan works as a maid in Karachi. She has eight children, and while her eldest two sons work and provide for their own families, she is the main support for the rest of her children. Her husband works as a labourer and does not earn enough. She enjoys her work, but is constantly stressed about making ends meet. She is illiterate, but ambitious, and wants her granddaughter to go to college. The fact that she is the prime earner in her family gives her more say in the affairs of the house.

In the same household, Salim works as a driver. He is originally from Hala and says that he has no issues with women working, but would not like his own wife to: “Unless we are obligated by circumstances, there is no need for her to work. She should stay home and look after the kids. It’s better that way.” Additionally, while he will allow his daughters to be educated, there is some hesitation. “If they become too educated, their chances of getting married are reduced,” he says.

“The fact that we’ve twice elected a woman Prime Minister and women occupy important positions in the country’s premier institutions — including the National Assembly or as Governor of the State Bank — does not reflect the reality of the common Pakistani woman. These women who succeed come from very privileged backgrounds, and while they may have struggled for their place in a man’s world, they have been largely accepted by society. For example, in 1988, Benazir Bhutto won the election from Peshawar and her mother from Chitral. These were areas where men do not allow women to vote, and yet were voting for women,” says Zohra Yusuf, Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

But it would be wrong to assume that it is only a certain strata of women who face discrimination. The poor treatment of women is not determined solely by class or privilege, nor by political leanings. In many instances, women of economic privilege still cannot marry of their own will or pursue a career. At the workplace itself, among the shiny corridors and offices, women still have to counter patronising attitudes, tolerate inappropriate comments and sexual harassment, differences in pay and being overlooked for higher positions — a result of the belief that they are less needy of money than their male counterparts.

Worse, there is an assumption that they are hired on the basis of things other than merit. In 2013, before she was Mrs Imran Khan, Reham Khan hosted the White Ribbon Conference on Gender Sensitivity in the Media. Journalist Salim Safi made a joke about women anchors being hired on the basis of their appearance, rather than qualifications. “Would you rather look at me or her on TV?” he pointed at Reham. The audience, comprising mainly journalists who seemed to have gained nothing from the conference, laughed and applauded. Reham didn’t get the humour, and pushed Safi to apologise for his remark.

Mystified, villainised and dehumanised, women still bear the brunt of backward and essentialist thinking in this day and age. Why do earthquakes occur? Because girls go to school. Why do nations crumble? Because women get too much freedom. Why is there war? Because of fashion shows. Because women. Because girls…

Recently, the Council of Islamic Ideology — an advisory body to the government — endorsed lowering the age of marriage and allowing men to marry multiple times without the first wives’ consent. Despite pressure from such retrogressive, obscurantist lobbies, however, Zohra Yusuf does not believe that the progress made in legislation in recent years can be reversed. “In the last few years, there has been positive legislation on ending harmful customary practices and stronger punishment for perpetrators. These cannot be rolled-back, as Pakistan has some international commitments.” Asked as to whether women being in Parliament really makes a difference in the lives of the common woman, Yusuf says: “To an extent, yes. For example, the sexual harassment bill was the result of women members, across party lines, pressurising their male colleagues to vote in its favour. However, the trouble in Pakistan is that enforcement is very weak, so women at the grassroots do not benefit.”

Farzana Bari adds, “Legislation is important, as it forms the fundamental social contract whereby the state is meant to treat all citizens as equal. But legislation alone does not mean much. If you look at the number of women sitting in Parliament and the pro-women laws passed over the last decade, it does not indicate improvement in the overall status of women in the country. Poverty has increased.  And with religious extremism rising and the emergence of conflict zones, the situation for women is worse now than in the past. What is lacking is the empowerment of the average, ordinary woman to claim her rights.”

So what does 2015 hold for women in Pakistan? If we continue on the path that we’re on, the future looks as bright as it does dark, depending on who you are and where you are coming from. Perhaps it is time to overcome the contradictions. As Malala’s father, Ziauddin, said in an interview with NPR: “You should not ask me what I have done. Rather ask me, what I did not do. I did not clip her wings. I did not stop her from flying.”

This article was originally published in Newsline’s February 2015 issue.

The writer is a journalist and former assistant editor at Newsline.