While gender inequality in Pakistan has improved since the early 1980s, LSE alumnus Themrise Khan (Independent researcher) argues why women in Pakistan must not become complacent about the fragility of their place in society, politics and the economy. Here she takes stock of the progress made by Pakistani women and outlines the work still left to do.

When I first heard the late Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan’s and the Muslim world’s first democratically elected female Prime Minister, speak at a gathering when I was a student at LSE in 1999, she no longer held that position. The hall was packed. Less with Pakistani’s, more with others. She was an icon of feminism for the West. But as a Pakistani woman, all I could think of was her missed opportunity to change our lives. The opportunity to really bring us to the forefront, as she struggled to maintain a fine balance between Islamists and oppositionists – unsuccessfully. But despite this, Pakistan’s women have still managed to come a long way.

From President General Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamisation policies in the early 1980’s, which spawned a women’s movement who bore the brunt of police brutality, to the coordinated women’s march held across the country on International Women’s Day this year, women in Pakistan continue to fight against attitudes that wish to render them nameless and faceless.

But somehow, statistics remain abysmal. Female literacy rates stand at 51.8%. In 2017-2018, the female labour force participation rate was only 20.1%. Pakistan has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in South Asia and in 2017, it ranked 133 out of 189 in the Global Gender Inequality Index. And these are just the numbers. In practise, women still do not have the right to own or control land. In many cases, male guardianship is still required if a woman wants to apply for a National Identity Card or a passport. Women’s testimonies are rarely upheld in court and only male witnesses can attest to character in legal cases, including in cases of rape.

Child sexual abuse is rampant, as are honor killings. Birth control is still frowned upon, leading to an extremely high rate of unsafe abortions. In an age of social media, women are now the targets of an unflinching torrent of online hatred, the worst of which was recently unleashed after the Aurat March held across Pakistan. Women were threatened with rape and even murder by vicious online trolls for marching for their rights.

The Sindh Child Marriages Restraint Act 2013, a landmark legislation in women’s rights, could have been a model for the entire country, instead of just the province of Sindh. However, it suffers from a complete lack of enforcement. Similarly, Pakistan’s first ever, Domestic Violence Against Women (Prevention and Protection) Bill, was referred to the Council of Islamic Ideology in 2016, “to avoid any controversies”, by none other than the then Chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) Imran Khan, showing just how intertwined the (male) face of religion is with controlling women’s rights in Pakistan. The Bill still faces serious opposition in the Parliament from the country’s religious parties, with the now-in-power PTI government keen to push it through.

But the current government has never-the-less kept a safe distance from women’s rights since it took office a year ago, pre-empted with the future Prime Minister’s rather misogynist pre-election statement last year, that “feminism has degraded motherhood”. Sure enough, there are only three female Ministers in the current Cabinet (out of 34), in an age where many countries, including in the developing world, are at least in theory trying to achieve gender parity in politics; and no Federal Ministry altogether for either gender or women’s rights. Not to mention, that majority of the lawmakers in Pakistan’s Parliament – as is usually the case – are men. Men with feudal mindsets, who often heckle the handful of female lawmakers we do have.

Having worked with international donors for decades in gender mainstreaming and women’s rights in Pakistan, I see minimal change in the status afforded to women through these efforts either. If all this sounds pedantic, its because it is. Change is still needed in far too many places.

While there are several brave women determined to raise the bar on women’s rights in Pakistan, the progress is still not to scale. Speak to any male lawyer, service provider or government bureaucrat about any of this, and the response is a tepid “we can argue about this for a long time to come…”.

But we need to argue about this incessantly. And as women, our legal and social limitations notwithstanding, we aren’t arguing enough. The emphasis being on “enough”. And herein lies the dilemma. The reason behind the inability of women’s rights in Pakistan to reach a critical mass, is not just lack of political will or state enforcement. Rather, it is also an archaic mind-set that is not just perpetuated by men, but also by women themselves.

Conditioned for generations that we are subservient to men, we continue to allow ourselves to be defined by them. For instance, many women when asked to introduce themselves, still reply, “I’m Mrs. {insert husbands first name}.“ We are not only invisible when it comes to our legal identities, but our physical as well. Religiosity amongst Pakistani women is on the rise, as it seems more women, particularly in Pakistan’s urban centres, are turning towards wearing the hijab or the full niqab. This act does not preclude women from being high-achievers. But it does raise the question of why women are choosing to turn towards conservatism, despite having more access to jobs and economic opportunities than they have perhaps ever had in Pakistan’s history.

It is a fact that the younger generation of women in Pakistan are becoming bolder more creative, innovative,  aware, technologically savvy and entrepreneurial in finding their own identity and in helping other Pakistani women find theirs. Twitter is now the urban Pakistani female activist’s best friend. But at the same time, many women are also clinging to patriarchy through religion and traditional cultural tropes, such as arranged marriages, the concept of motherhood and traditional household dynamics.

I see my own female students who belong to a variety of social classes, thoroughly bold and outspoken, ready to confront the patriarchy, but yet, equally ready to resign to convention if needed, despite being desperate to break out of it. This is not helped by progressive educational institutions acting as breeding grounds for misogyny.

This dichotomy of modernity versus tradition is perhaps more damaging to women, than the lack of access to resources and rights. While neither is mutually exclusive, this new direction of women rights in Pakistan, attempting to ride the #metoo wave, perhaps needs to find a bridge between these two opposing trends. Particularly between the urban and rural female populace. Women in rural villages may know how to use a mobile phone, but they still don’t have the means to fight the feudal patriarchy.

Whatever the route, for women of Pakistan, time is running out. We cannot wait for any Government to pave the way for an equal and just society for women. We must decide for ourselves what it is we want; to rebel or to comply. I hope for the sake of all women, it is to rebel.

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the South Asia @ LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. Photo credit: Light bulbs; Pixabay, ColiN00B.

Themrise Khan is an LSE DESTIN Alumnus and former Chevening Scholar (2000). She has been an independent researcher and analyst in international development, social policy and global migration for over two decades. She is currently an Adjunct Faculty member at Habib University, Karachi, Pakistan. She blogs at www.lamehdood.wordpress.com

Print Friendly, PDF & Email