By Saad Hafiz
April 10, 2020
The gender rights movement in Pakistan faces tough going as many men and women in society view male supremacy as divinely-ordained and unquestionable. The big issue is that social and cultural norms are a serious obstacle to the progress of women in society.
A volley of fatwas and references to religious strictures oppose any progressive legislation in support of women. It is hard when society at large doesn’t treat women’s empowerment as a fundamental moral and human rights issue. Women marching to protest inequality and violence is a touchy subject. This year, in particular, activists incensed the powerful Islamist lobby, in the deeply patriarchal Muslim country, by adopting the apt slogan my body, my choice.
Islamists were quick to dismiss the slogan as anti-Islamic vulgarity because it hinted that women could do what they pleased with their bodies. But, despite court challenges and threats, and a few incidents of violence, the marches in major cities went off peacefully.
But do well-attended women events in urban settings, apart from raising hackles among the unholy band of extremists and chauvinists, suggest that the outlook for women empowerment and free choice is any brighter in Pakistan?
The short answer is no.
Women belonging to elite, feudal, and political families are treated vastly different than the less privileged strata of society. There is a sizeable gender gap favouring urban women over rural women.
If that wasn’t enough of a challenge, since the 1970s, women have paid a price as Pakistani labour became exposed to the conservative tribal societies in the Middle East. The workers remit valuable foreign exchange to support the country’s ever-struggling economy but bring back regressive attitudes towards women.
The country’s women have low labour force participation and low contribution to the GDP. This is due to the fact that a low percentage of women are employed, as a majority of men do not find it acceptable for women to work outside their homes. Another startling negative statistic is that average schooling for Pakistani women is just five years.
It is little wonder that Pakistan sits nearly at the bottom of the latest Global Gender Gap Index, issued by the World Economic Forum (151st out of 153 countries listed). For comparison, Bangladesh (former East Pakistan), Malaysia, China, India, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia rank 50, 104, 106, 112, 130 and 146 respectively.
The low rate of literacy hinders the participation of women in society. As a result, many women aren’t even aware of laws that protect their rights or the power of their vote. And gender violence and the failure of the state to provide access to justice further adds to the appalling situation of women in Pakistan. It’s no secret that acts of honour killings and domestic violence are widespread, under-reported, and mostly go unpunished.
Khan’s insular outlook on women’s rights is in sharp contrast to his Oxford-education but fit his born again Muslim persona, a cultivated change after a colourful past in the West
Not only that but Pakistan faces a ticking population bomb with an annual population growth rate of 2.4%, which threatens any improvement in living standards in a poor country. Women with little say in family planning, and not in control of their destinies, are in no position to help change this dismal outlook.
Importantly, women’s empowerment doesn’t figure in the priorities of the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan. Khan said that the women’s marches reflected the existence of different cultures in Pakistani society, meaning that Western ideas of gender equality and women empowerment had infected a few urban women activists. Earlier, he had said that western feminism downgrades the role of the mother.
Khan’s insular outlook on women’s rights is in sharp contrast to his Oxford-education but fit his born-again Muslim persona, a cultivated change after a colourful past in the West.
In fact, the poor statistics cited above confirm that most Pakistani governments have shamefully neglected to advance women’s rights. By caving in to religious obscurantism, the state itself has proved to be an obstacle for women to gain their rightful place in society. This has helped to reinforce Pakistan’s negative image as a misogynistic society that allows the oppression of women.
But the important fact is that Pakistan is swimming against the tide. Countries, globally, are making a concerted effort to invest in women’s education and assisting in the financial empowerment of women. They realize that the contribution of women is vital to creating prosperous, more secure, and less corrupt societies. If it wants to be self-reliant and competitive in a globalized world, Pakistan must do the same.
Saad Hafiz is an analyst and commentator on politics, peace, and security issues.
Original Headline: Women’s marches aren’t a threat to the divinely-ordained male supremacy
Source: The Daily Times, Pakistan