By Aneka Chohan
18 August, 2012
For a country that has had a female head of state elected twice and claims to be an ‘Islamic Republic’ at heart, the irony is far too cruel
“A woman is like a tea bag — you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water” — Eleanor Roosevelt.
The treatment of women is based on two simple beliefs in Pakistani society. One, women are subservient to men and that a man’s honour lies, and to some extent, depends on, in the actions of the female members in his family.
Regarding the female status, Islam and its prescribed words about women play a major role. Clearly, women are seen as wives and mothers. Whilst their economic provision is handled and taken care of by men, women are taught to get married and bear children. In a way, the conflicting thoughts of women in Islam and the cultural ideologies about women clash and become a paradox. Like Zeba Sathar said in Women’s Status and Fertility Change in Pakistan: “A paradox arises in terms of the definition of status, as Muslim scholars may argue that Islam prescribes an elevated status of respect for women (particularly mothers) and ensures their guardianship by male kinsmen; but at the same time women are rarely given the autonomy to make their own choices about whom to marry and when, how many children to have, whether to work.”
Women find their freedom restricted, barriers on their behaviour and activities, limited mobility and hardly or limited contact with the opposite gender. In some extreme parts of the country, such as the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and Balochistan, women hardly leave their homes after getting married and rarely do they receive the opportunity to meet men outside of their families. Some women are not allowed to make contact with male cousins from the mother’s side since they are not considered to be relatives in a strongly patri-lineal society. As for relatives such as the father-in-law, brothers-in-law and paternal uncles whom they can meet, relations are very formal. Rather than a human being, women are considered to be accessories that can be hidden and controlled when and wherever.
Purdah, more commonly known as veiling, is one example of this. Depending on different traditions, regions, classes and rural or urban areas, women find themselves confined within the four walls of a house. Outside the home, social life normally revolves around what men do. Sometimes, in some parts of the country such as Islamabad and Karachi, people consider a woman to be ‘shameless’ if there are no restrictions on her mobility.
Another reason that reinforces this status of women is in the broadcast media. Women are often portrayed as subservient in TV soaps and films. Although these programmes spark off controversies by showing women working, seeking divorce, or having a voice in the subject of family politics, these programmes also show that these kind of women — who stray from the image of a traditional, quiet housewife — face ‘insurmountable problems’ and find themselves alienated by family members.
Since the inception of Pakistan, the status of Pakistani women deteriorated under the rule of the country’s former military dictator, General Ziaul Haq, who harboured provincial views about women’s social status through selfish means supported by religion. In a country where government sidelines the poor treatment of women and is too busy fighting a war that is proving too expensive, most cases go undetected and unsolved. With a poorly trained police force and no other authority to hear their pleas, women find their last hopes lie with NGOs and human rights groups.
For a country that has had a female head of state elected twice and claims to be an ‘Islamic Republic’ at heart, the irony is far too cruel. On the one hand, people revered the late Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto and on the other hand, unleashed their cruelty on their wives, sisters and daughters.
The problem is not religious, as most westerners think, but cultural. Almighty God, through his Last Prophet (PBUH) and the Holy Qur’an, has commanded mankind to take good care of their womankind and to treat them like human beings rather than the animals some men think they are. However, the tragedy is that the cries of innocent women are drowned thanks to the belligerent and patriarchal booming voices of misogynists.
What we can do is get together and try to get our voices out there. Although non-violent, they must be louder than the sinful bells of extremism that threaten the current and forthcoming generations of Pakistani women.
The writer is a freelance journalist, writer, artist, photographer and a human rights activist.