By Meera Ghani
26 Aug 2011
Pakistan is one of top three most dangerous countries for women with Afghanistan and the Congo leading the way. According to a poll almost 90 per cent of women in Pakistan face of domestic violence while about 1,000 fall victim to honour killings every year.
Growing up I heard stories from my grandparents about their emigration from India to Pakistan. They were mostly sad tales. Like many others my grandmother, Anwar Ikram, came to Pakistan with high hopes. Her journey from Amritsar to Lahore, though not long, was a harrowing one. With only the clothes on her back and a small child held tightly close to her chest she narrowly escaped the massacre that took place on the trains headed to Pakistan. Their train was stopped and looted and many got killed. A journey of a couple of hours turned into an eternity fraught with great dangers. She and her family came to this new land with big dreams.
My grandmother told me that given how Islam exalts the status of women and gives them more rights than enjoyed by their Hindu counter-parts, she thought they’d experience more freedom and emancipation in Pakistan. She got to Lahore, and was placed with some relatives, till her husband’s family decided to move north. Due to the shortage of doctors in what was known as the North West Frontier Province, they relocated to a small town called Mardan, a very conservative traditional town where women had no social presence. My grandmother had felt more at home in Amritsar than she did in Mardan. She had more in common with her neighbours back there in terms of her language, culture and customs than she did with her new ones even though their religion was the same. But she did what any brave woman trying to help her family integrate would do; she learnt the language, abided by the customs and did her best to make new friends.
While her life went from a confined to a secluded one, women in urban areas of the newly founded Muslim majority country saw some semblance of freedom. Pakistan’s first military dictator Field Marshal Ayub Khan, passed a new constitution in 1961 and brought in the Muslim Family Law Ordinance which gave women more rights when it came to issues of divorce and child support. Right up till the 70’s there was a surge of women in universities and colleges and many held well paying jobs. Women were active members of society. How they chose to live, interact or dress was a matter of their own choice. You even saw women riding motorbikes and bicycles. We saw an increase in parliamentary participation by women and Bhutto’s 1973 constitution guaranteed gender equality. However, freedom was short-lived.
What happened you ask? Well we were set on a path of “righteousness” through the “wahabization” of Pakistani society by General Zia ul Haq. After taking power, he enacted many discriminatory laws such as the Hudood Ordinances, Law of Evidence Order and Qisas and Diyat laws that still exist today. Islamic edicts based on hard-line literalist interpretations of the Shariah, were introduced. What was ingrained in us was a strange mix of religious nationalism and paranoia propagated through the media and school curriculum. He instituted systematic gender subordination. Women were discouraged from entering into many professions, and their rights under the 1973 constitution were suspended. Zia’s Islamization led to a new national narrative, one where national honour became akin to a woman’s “honour”. Women were now being judged on whether their attire and behaviour met the new standards of decency and purdah.
As Amir Qureshi wrote in his recent article “in the ensuing years after the end of Zia’s regime, successive governments reinforced the Islamized national narrative”. None of the democratic Governments made any effort to improving the status of women in Pakistan. Sadly, it took another dictator General Musharraf to undo some of the damage done during Zia’s dark days through passing of the Womens Protection Act in 2006 and Sexual Harassment Bill in 2008, though these are far from perfect. Prevailing misogynistic practices and patriarchal moral codes that focus on women’s piety, chastity, conduct and clothing helped pave the way for the suppression and subjugation of women which is evident even today. Gender violence is now justified in the name of honour and religion, and usually minimal public outrage is observed.
Last year, a bill was initiated in the Parliament against Domestic Violence but it lapsed when the Islamic Ideology Council decreed that the bill was against the teachings of Islam and would disrupt the social fabric.
The culture of violence especially against women is growing in Pakistan; an expert poll by the Thomson Reuters Foundation shows Pakistan to be amongst the top three of the world’s most dangerous countries for women with Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo leading the way. According to poll almost 90 per cent of women in Pakistan face of domestic violence while about 1,000 fall victim to honour killings every year. Pakistan ranks high on the list not only because of its high incidence of brutality against women but also because “basic human rights are systematically denied to women.” According to another report crimes against women have risen by 18 percent just in the last year. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reported that 3,000 were raped in 2010; while that number may seem low these are only the reported cases. Most cases go unreported in Pakistan because women are afraid that they won’t find justice and might end up getting incriminated themselves and that because reporting the case would bring shame and dishonour to their families. Though the 2006 legislation has helped keep many women out of jail.
Women are routinely objectified in Pakistan hence “sexual harassment is considered a recreation rather than a crime” says Dr. Shazia Nawaz, a renowned and prolific vlogger who’s a doctor by profession. Unfortunately women are often blamed for being violated. In a video that has gone viral recently adorning of a burqa is being promoted as the only way for a woman to avoid being harassed. It implies that in order to prevent men from sinning it’s a woman’s religious duty to make herself invisible. By applying the same logic we should also consider not carrying wallets or owning any possession if we are to prevent people from committing the sin of theft.
Zia’s deleterious legacy has left such a huge imprint on our societal mindset that it will be a hard task to reset. But that doesn’t mean that nothing can be done or hasn’t been done. Many courageous women are dedicating their lives to fighting our unjust system. The slight increase in independence and liberties that we are experiencing today didn’t just happen; it was because of the sheer will and determination of these countless heroic women fighting oppression, aggression and inequality. Amongst them are prominent human rights activists, students, lawyers, journalists, media personalities, educators, artists, politicians, public servants, social workers, doctors and even homemakers.
Take Uzma Noorani and the other members of the Women's Action Forum (WAF), who, through their protests and campaigns, have helped shelve many cases being tried under the Country’s discriminatory laws. WAF worked as a catalyst and women are finally being taken notice of. Uzma was inspired by her mother, who was also a human rights activist, to challenge the status quo. She says what horrified her was to find the State increasingly becoming our moral custodian and the lines between the private and the public sphere’s blurring. In 2001 she set up Panah, a shelter home for women. “A majority of the women coming to Panah are victims of domestic violence seeking divorce or are being forced into marriage. Their age ranges from 16-35 and we usually house 30 women (with their children) at the shelter at any given time”. They also see a large number of teenagers that come to the shelter, mostly to escape marriage or to avoid being sold.
Uzma and her colleagues are doing a tremendous job by helping these women through rehab activities and therapy. They also provide medical and legal assistance and vocational training. These women stay at the Panah for 3 months and then are helped to relocate. “But often the younger girls have no families to go to and have no means to sustain themselves. We try to place them with other families of with the SOS village but it’s not a long-term solution” says Uzma. Often these girls want to go back to school but the shelter doesn’t have funds to finance their education. Panah is run on local donations hence anyone who wishes to fund a young girl’s education should get in touch with the management.
Then there are the efforts of women like Nazish Brohi who worked tirelessly as a part of the Alliance Against Sexual Harassment (AASHA) for 10 years to get the Sexual Harassment in the Work Place Bill passed. They encountered immense resistance from parts of the intelligentsia, bureaucracy, political elite, and religious parties. Apparently the only objection Musharraf’s Cabinet had to the bill was the word “sex” in the title. This is an indicator of how these issues are inherently misunderstood and are marred by denial, myths and chauvinism. The Bill was eventually approved by the cabinet in November 2008 but as Nazish tells us “at each level we had brave women who would stand in front of others and give their personal testimonies. We tried facts, surveys within the country, psychology studies, global paradigms, collected compilations of women's personal experiences - it was a long drawn out battle to convince others.”
The Bill was operationalized on December 22 of last year, now officially the day to mark the struggle against sexual harassment. None of this would have been possible without the dedication and commitment of the people at AASHA. “Hundreds of women were there, from motorway police and army cadets to hari women workers and sweepers associations and nurses, and they were laughing, in tears, and saying 'we did it'” recalls Nazish.
Hear Gulalai Ismail, who set up Aware Girls at the age of 16. “From a very early age I couldn't digest the inequalities between men and women, for me it was unacceptable that some people will enjoy more easy access to information, services, and opportunities, while others will have restricted access just on the basis of gender. But the sad part is that girls internalize bigotry and violence”, she says. Aware Girls is working on strengthening the leadership skills of young women and girls enabling them to stand up for their own rights and work as agents for empowerment and change in their communities. It’s a platform where young women learn through various training and leadership program to stand up and challenge the violence and discrimination that faces them. Gulalai feels that the greatest setback of our society is the acceptability of the oppressive patriarchy by females “once women collectively start challenging the culture of violence, it won't sustain”.
Aware Girls is running two programmes– one on gender empowerment and the other on combating religious extremism –in Peshawar. Aware Girls has a safe abortion hotline. They also work on the capacity building of midwives on safe abortion and are trying to change the attitude of doctors towards women who want to have abortions. Their program against religious extremism was set up to promote peace activism among young people. They train young people, especially girls, to develop skills for peace-building, conflict resolution, and for countering extremism. These trained young people then work at community level with other young people who are more vulnerable to extremist movement.
While there are countless other stories I want to focus on the more positive ones. These amazing women are the future, though presently they still struggle against huge odds. Until we alter the current national narrative that Zia bestowed upon us and work on changing sexist attitudes and environment, things will remain rather difficult for women in Pakistan. Sure institutionalising certain rights and ethics through laws, may help change the social construct in the long-run, but a lot awareness raising needs to be done in tandem.
The problem also seems to be that many people have a very skewed understanding of freedom and individual rights. Recently I came across a post where a gentleman gave the example of women being able to go shopping in an urban metropolis as the case for freedom and rights women enjoy in Pakistan. While that may be an indicator of mobility in Pakistan, women go out shopping even in Kinshasa and Kabul but it completely misses the point. What matters is whether they have equal access to justice, education, healthcare, and are active participants in the economy. We not only have unfair and prejudice laws but also religious and cultural traditions that hamper treatment of women as equal citizens. It has led us to be treated as possessions that need to be protected from the evils of the world instead of treating us like people who are free to make our own choices and decisions. If we compare the lives of urban women in Pakistan to those in India it won’t be hard to notice how emancipated they are and how much individual liberty they enjoy. While culturally we are not too different, luckily Indian legislature took a secular turn while our Shariah inspired laws have restricted women from participating in society.
The media has played both a negative and positive role when it comes to women’s rights in Pakistan. Lately with all the religious demagogues and zealous tele Islamists more negative than positive. That is not to say that it’s all bad out there. There has been change and the credit goes to the women who have helped bring it about. We can't say that Pakistani women enjoy similar rights and freedoms as our men do. Not by any standard and not by a long shot. But in spite of the dismal prospects and current surge of violence and lawlessness I still believe the future of women is in Pakistan is bright. I see women being the most vocal, active and strong element of society in Pakistan. Women are the agents of change and with no offense to the men out there, our only hope!!
Meera Ghani is a Pakistani activist. She focuses on issues related to climate change, politics, and social justice. She's currently based in Brussels.
Source: The View Point