By Ammar Rashid
There is a distinct way in which gender issues are conflated with religious beliefs in Pakistani public discourse that often results in deeply disturbing rhetoric about women being tolerated and accepted as religious fact. A prominent voice in this genre has been the bureaucrat-turned-anchor Orya Maqbool Jan, a public figure who often expresses outrage against the global ‘evil’ of women’s social and economic liberation. On International Working Women’s Day earlier this month, Jan took to his pulpit in a tirade against the idea of gender equality that offered an uncensored glimpse into the pervasive and fact-free ideology that underpins patriarchal control in Pakistan.
Jan started his TV show with the refrain that nowhere are women given a higher status than under Islam (a popular claim that actually deflects attention from women’s actual conditions in Muslim societies). This high status though, he explained, is dependent on women achieving motherhood. God has not, Jan declares, ‘placed heaven under the feet of female airhostesses, pilots, mountaineers, business executives, cricket team captains or TV producers’, all of which are apparently ‘meaningless qualities in God’s eyes’ (Hence, working women or women unable to have children may as well stop trying to win God’s favour).
Women’s worth in our unparalleled family system, Jan explains, is exemplified by the fact that the house, the place where she supposedly wields all power, ‘revolves around her’. Strange then, that the last Pakistan Demographic and Household Survey found that only 38 percent of married women in Pakistan participate jointly in decisions about their own health, household or family issues (while nearly half had men or other relatives make these decisions for them). In practice, it appears our exemplar family system disempowers even the mothers it is supposed to exalt.
Women and men can never be equal, according to Jan, because after all, ‘can an employee ever be equal to their boss’? The two genders have different roles in life, and based on this difference, men have the ‘upper hand’. If any doubt remained about what this difference implied for women, Jan states it emphatically for our benefit — that it is ‘absolutely wrong for women to step out of the house as per Islam’. The main problem for women today, he asserted, is (not honour killings, violence or education gaps) that ‘they have been released into the market’ or ‘bazaar’ (a phrase widely construed in colloquial Urdu as a marketplace for sex trade).
Jan’s views are sadly not an exception. His recurrently-expressed dogmas — often pertaining to the necessity of restricting women inside their homes — are pathologically widespread in Pakistani society. Millions, especially among middle classes, actively profess and practice the notion that beyond their reproductive functions and care duties, women have no part to play in public or professional life, in politics, in business, or in matters of the state; that they must be kept confined within domestic quarters, away from any intellectual, creative or recreational pursuits.
While these extreme beliefs are justified in the name of Islam, the scriptural support for them is tenuous at best. There are certainly patriarchal strains in all religious traditions, but nothing in the Quranic text suggests women should seclude themselves from society, and even a cursory review of the women in the Prophet’s (PBUH) own life and in subsequent Muslim history is sufficient to dispel the notion that Islamic teachings require such total subservience of women. In truth, such beliefs are nothing but an ideological cover atop a system of violent patriarchal exploitation that they help keeps in place.
The reality is that men benefit enormously from women’s domestication. Pakistan’s socio-economic structure depends upon domestic production fuelled by the free labour of millions of women who are made to toil in service of their families and patriarchal guardians their entire lives.
In 2015, UN Women estimated the average number of hours worked by Pakistani women on unpaid domestic labour at 5 /day — 10 times the average of men’s contribution which, at 0.5 hours, was the lowest in all the countries surveyed. Other studies have estimated Pakistani women’s overall workload at between10-16 hours/day. A mere 22 percent of Pakistani women — compared to 68 percent of men — are part of the paid labour force (among the lowest in the world), while the rest work entirely for free, supporting both their families and the broader economy (by ensuring the lifelong health and maintenance of paid workers through their care work), while remaining financially powerless themselves. A 2008 study by Zehra Arshad using minimum wage figures, estimated the value of Pakistani women’s unpaid work at $25bn per year (nearly a fourth of the GDP).
For most of the part, this system of domestic servitude is held in place through violence. According to the Human Rights Watch (HRW), between 70-90% of Pakistani women are estimated to experience domestic violence in their lifetimes, and 80% of this abuse comes at the hands of their own husbands. Minor acts like venturing outside the home, looking at other men or cooking an unacceptable meal are punished with beatings, acid attacks or murder in the thousands. The protection of the patriarchal family can often be fatal.
Coercion, however, is rarely the sole basis for domination. It is no accident that these horrific levels of inequality and exploitation exist in the same society where hateful yet widely accepted ideas are aired on TV about the need for gender apartheid. Much like slave-owners in the United States employed pseudo science like phrenology to assert white racial superiority and justify black enslavement, patriarchal ideologues employ similar pseudo science with tenets of faith to justify gender hierarchies. In doing so, they help men mitigate the guilt and bad faith that accumulates from being in lifelong positions of unquestioned privilege and exploitation, while convincing women about the divinely-sanctioned nature of their bondage, pacifying them with stories of how their silence, self-sacrifice, spousal devotion and obedience to patriarchal authority are virtues ordained by God (and nothing to do with the material interests of men).
Jan ended his women’s day show by confidently stating that the ‘only’ thing God would ask on the Day of Judgment is, ‘Did you fulfil the gender roles I gave you as men and women?’ In one rhetorical stroke (and with no scriptural references) he reduced the entire purpose of God’s creation of humanity to assessing whether women are sufficiently domesticated.
Such narratives over the centuries have successfully managed to disguise patriarchal structures as the immutable ‘Will of God’. It is this historical deception — the cynical veiling of patriarchy’s material interests as divine commandments — that needs to be relentlessly exposed for the sham that it is.
Ammar Rashid is a researcher in gender, development and public policy and a political worker for the Awami Workers Party.