By Rafia Zakaria
30 Dec, 2014
It is an unenviable exercise, to write about one tragedy in the midst of another. As Pakistanis pick up the pieces from Peshawar, collect the condolences, assess the helplessness and avert their eyes from what is at best a feeble future, there is the task of assessing the year gone by. And within this yearly exercise is the job of taking measure of the year for the country’s women.
Was it a good year for them? Were they defined by the Pakistani girl that won the Nobel Peace Prize or by the Pakistani woman who was stoned on the steps of a courthouse? Was it a year of successes or losses, more joy or more tears, more hopefulness or more regret?
To begin the task of weights and measures; there are numbers. More men than women are born in Pakistan – 105.7 boys born for every 100 girls. Of the girls that manage to survive, roughly 40 per cent will not be literate, and will never learn to write their name or read a book or sign a document. It may be an unlettered life, but it is likely to be a longer one – life expectancy for the Pakistani female has risen from around 53 years in 1970 to about 66.4 years.
Woman of the Year: The Pakistani Mother
Nearly 150 of them buried their children in this the last month of the year, and no assessment of women can be complete without saluting the courage of these mothers. If war has defined Pakistan’s politics in 2014, the resilience of the Pakistani mother has been its least saluted constituency.
With the funerals of children tearing the hearts and minds of the country, it befits that the last moments of 2014 be devoted to remembering just that.
More than 75 per cent of Pakistan’s female population will be mothers during their lifetimes; they will bring children into the riven reality of a country that can provide few guarantees for them. If any words can define the condition of the country’s women, they would be the words of headmistress Tahira Quazi, who told the Taliban gunmen who entered the school: “Talk to me, I am their mother”.
She is gone now, but in her bravery, the women of Pakistan, mothers of now or later, have a summation of the challenge before them, which will not cede with the passing of the year.
The Youngest Mothers and Those Who Tend To Them
Many Pakistani women who become mothers are children themselves. A recent study disclosed that over half of married Pakistani women between the ages of 20 and 24 were married before they turned 18. Even this is some progress; however, the average age of marriage has gone up from 13.3 years in the 1950s to about 23 years currently.
Unsurprisingly, the youngest mothers are the poorest and least literate, living in the country’s rural areas where they have little or no access to healthcare. Only 20 per cent of the poorest Pakistani mothers, had any medical care when they gave birth, compared to over 77 per cent of the country’s wealthiest.
Like everything else, the landscape of motherhood in Pakistan is defined by class, by the luck of those who have much; against the fortunes of those who have almost nothing at all. The Pakistani mother will bear 3.8 children during her lifetime, one of the highest rates in the world. In maternal health, Pakistan ranks above only above Afghanistan in the entire world. Only a quarter of Pakistani mothers have access to any kind of contraception.
Those that tend to the mothers were also targets this year. Members of Pakistan’s Lady Health Workers became targets, many were mothers themselves and others tended to women who were mothers; often providing the only healthcare that rural Pakistani women are able to receive.
Four more were killed in the last days of November, just as the numbers of the babies afflicted by the polio virus rose to 260, the highest anywhere in the world.
Being targeted by terrorists was not the only hurdle these mothers faced. Amid reports of widespread harassment by male superiors, one from Mansehra involved the case of Fauzia Bibi who was slapped on the face and abused. When confronted by the case, Dr Jamshed reported that the female health worker had “attacked” him. Despite all of these formidable obstacles, Pakistan’s Lady Health Workers continued to carry on.
The Plight of “Other” Mothers
There are mothers who mourn, and mothers who must be mourned. The year 2014 was barely half done when on the morning of May 27, Farzana Parveen, pregnant, was stoned to death outside Lahore High Court months before she could give birth.
In the initial reports of the incident, Parveen was said to have been stoned to death by her family for having married a man of her own choice. Those first reports said her father had admitted to the killing. Later, reports revealed complications in the story, with Muhammad Iqbal, Parveen's husband, now implicated in the murder of his first wife.
When the case finally came to court this November, Farzana Parveen’s father, brother, cousin and another man were found guilty of her death. She had been killed by her own. In meeting such an end, she joined the nearly 1000 women who are killed for honour every year in this country. In 2014, hers was the most gruesome and most public case.
This bygone year was also one in which a mother was sentenced to death. Asia Bibi, a mother of five, lost her appeal before the Lahore High Court on October 17 2014 and her death sentence for blasphemy was upheld. On December 2, 2014, her lawyer filed a final appeal before the Pakistan Supreme Court. If her case is not heard, she will await the execution of her death sentence.
The Pakistani woman stands very much in the midst of seas which were as turbulent in 2014 as they're likely to be in 2015. There have been flashes of brilliance, of sheer mettle and spirit; awards and achievements.
But any promise or glint of hope is drowned out by the wailing of those close to 200 mothers, who either buried their children in Peshawar near the turn of the year, or are awaiting the miracle of health and happiness for their battered, injured children languishing in hospital wards.
Rafia Zakaria is an author, attorney and human rights activist. She is a columnist for DAWN Pakistan and a regular contributor for Al Jazeera America, Dissent, Guernica and many other publications. She is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon Press 2015)