The State of Pakistani Women

In recent weeks I have come across a blog which has really captivated my attention, as well as over 17,000+ other ‘bloggers’ since it’s first post on June 12, 2006.  The blog is managed by Adil Najam, called: All Things Pakistan (ATP), where his posts range from reports on the national past time of cricket, to politics, society-at-large, music, food, culture, and all the good, bad, beautiful and ugly, which makes up all things ‘Pakistani’. It is amazing how his idea has transformed into a lively platform for diverse and open discussion on a wide range of topics by Pakistanis and non-Pakistanis coming from all walks of life.  Thank you, Mr. Najam.

tarazoo.gifOn a recent post entitled: ATP Poll: Pakistan’s Image and Women’s Rights, I found some of the questions he asked to be a step in the right direction as far as making his blog more inclusive of a large segment of Pakistan’s society (women), whose plight is often not part of everyday discussion or discourse.  The main gist of the poll asked: “[W]hat can be done to improve Pakistan’s International image in terms of women’s rights?”.  What was even more interesting were several insightful comments left by visitors of his blog.  While I agreed with what many were saying with regard to how the image of women in Pakistan needs to be ‘improved’ and that certain reforms need to be made, I felt the poll did not adequately represent the larger segment of Pakistan’s female population who are in essence the most oppressed and underrepresented: the urban poor and rural, tribal women. More importantly, perhaps we need to be more concerned with can and should be done to help the plight of women and others who are neglected in our society, as opposed to being worried about how the West or outside world perceives us.

Here is my rather lengthy ‘comment’ which I posted to ATP:

The fundamental human rights of women and how they are perceived and treated in a predominately patriarchal society are at the core of the question on ‘how to improve’ the image and more so the condition (as you, Adil, even felt was the better question to ask) of women’s rights and how they may be perceived globally. Apologies in advance if I seem to stray from the essence of your poll, but I feel I must express in greater detail! Harping on the image issue is not the reason why women’s rights should be improved.  Improving the ‘image’, however defined, will not make the inadequate & unrealized rights of women in Pakistan disappear.  Mountains have to be moved.

The Image Issue

The question I ask, is what is the image that we want to portray of Pakistan and the status and plight of those women?  And again, from which segment of society, are these women who’s image needs to be promoted?  Do we want to promote how the educated class of women (so many of us now educated in the UK and US) are working side by side with their male counterparts in high profile banking, marketing, and industry professions with much greater access today?  Of course, no doubt, it is a good way to publicize to the world at large that Pakistan is able to churn out female prime ministers, internationally acclaimed women artists, female fighter pilots, fashion designers, cardiologists, business leaders, and entrepreneurs – and that the Pakistani middle and upper classes are more westernized and progressive now.  But I feel the question of image also should more broadly include the underrepresented, urban poor and rural, feudal communities, where this wave of modernity and gender equality has yet to hit!  Would it be safe to say that there are, in essence, 2 worlds, 2 Pakistans?  The image of women repressed by patriarchy, conducting their daily lives under the so called ‘veil’ and oppression, whilst being victimized by unjust Islamic rules, is probably the one we should be more concerned about.  That is not to say that sexism is rampant amongst the professional class, as the Dawn Ad illustrated.  But is that not the case in even European and other western societies?  Women at work are subject to that day in and out in varying degrees and subtleties.  The plight of women like Mukhtar Mai or female child brides for that matter, is what we really need to focus on, as far as ‘improving their condition’ is concerned –.  It took a NY Times journalist to bring Mukhtar Mai to the International media arena, forcing the government and President to have to deal with this ‘national shame’ by confiscating Mukhtar Mai’s passport & putting her on a ‘no exit list’, so that she would not leave the country to further ‘tarnish’ Pakistan’s image internationally.  (I am not sure if such eye-opening news reports would either contribute to or take away from items: 1, 3 & 4 listed in your Poll Question!) If this kind of press is given in the international arena, then perhaps it may put governments to shame and finally force them to act?   

Anyway, here are a few mountains… 

Education

Agreeably, like many who have thus far commented, education, that is, equal access and delivery of that education to girls, is a must.  Sadly, we are not even close to that target, let alone overall literacy.  Educating girls, will educate the next generation and in turn will teach the sons of those women how to respect women and show how important their mother’s education, vocation and worth is in their families.  So you ask, what ought to be done?  Well, for those of us who are privileged and are able to afford it: donate generously to NGO’s which support the education of children, especially young girls.  Since governments (and not just Pakistan’s’, but many of the world’s underdeveloped governments) are unable to provide this basic ‘right’ and public service, it falls on the abled citizens and expatriates of Pakistan to fill this gaping void, by outsourcing this job to the private organizations who can deliver tangible results with a higher rate of return.  

Violence and Abuse against women must be publicly shunned:  

Sadly, the world (not only Pakistan) is rife with domestic abuse and violence towards vulnerable women.  It transcends all stratas of society, regardless of economic or educational backgrounds, but tends to be more prevalent, and accepted in the rural and tribal communities.  The immediate remedy is clearly to repeal the reprehensible, Zia installed, Hudood Ordinances which provide absolutely no legal protection to women who allegedly commit adultery and the like, and then criminalizing them.  Massive social, economic and judicial reform must take place, and here are some starters: 

1)affording proper legal representation to women who are ‘accused’;

2)provide vocational and academic education to women in hopes of making them financially more self dependent;

3)providing protection while they are in Police custody, reforming the Police & their proceedings with severe legal consequences for reprehensible ‘Police behavior’;  

4)and ultimately making women more aware of the power they have, from breaking their silence by reporting abuse, violence and rape. 

Unfortunately, not all are as brave as Mukhtar Mai.  This public form of ‘outing’ may be the only, desperate channel left to many.  The press, NGO’s and women’s rights activists like Asma Jahangir remain the thin line of hope for so many of these women.  Sadly, there is no institutional infrastructure in Pakistan to help rape victims, no trauma centers or legal aid bodies where women can even turn to. Just repealing archaic laws or doing an educational campaign won’t rid the mentalities and backward traditions.    

Women in Islam? 

I think most Muslims will agree that the essence of Islamic teaching and the Qu’ran place the status of women in extreme high regard, as did Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).  So I am not sure how highlighting the point that Islam, (‘theoretically’ gives a lot of rights to women), even to the Western media, can truly ameliorate the plight or image of women in Pakistan?  It’s a great spiritual belief, but it’s not doing that well in practice on the whole.  It is the ‘clergy’ of Islam which needs reform – A wake up call to us to stand up to uneducated mullahs who dominate the cultural fabric and mentalities of the common Muslim men (and women)’s understanding of the essence of Islam.  Again, repealing the Hudood Ordinances would be the first signaling of this much needed shift in interpretation, but not the end all.  In John Esposito’s: What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam, © 2002 Oxford University Press (found in an article on this website), sums it all up interestingly:

“…The status of women in Muslim countries has long been looked to as evidence of “Islam’s” oppression of women in matters ranging from the freedom to dress as they please to legal rights in divorce. The true picture of women in Islam is far more complex. The revelation of Islam raised the status of women by prohibiting female infanticide, abolishing women’s status as property, establishing women’s legal capacity, granting women the right to receive their own dowry, changing marriage from a proprietary to a contractual relationship….The Quran declares that men and women are equal in the eyes of God; man and woman were created to be equal parts of a pair (51:49) . The Quran describes the relationship between men and women as one of “love and mercy” (30:21) …Most Islamic societies have been patriarchal, and women have long been considered to be the culture-bearers within these societies. Prior to the twentieth century, the Quran, hadith (traditional stories of the Prophet), and Islamic law were interpreted by men in these patriarchal societies, and these interpretations reflect this environment. Women were not actively engaged in interpreting the Quran, hadith, or Islamic law until the twentieth century. Nowhere in the Quran does it say that all men are superior to, preferred to, or better than all women. God’s expressed preference for certain individuals in the Quran is based upon their faith, not their gender.”

For real and more permanent change to occur in how the world views the rights of women in Pakistan, or even Islam for that matter, we need more than an image make-over, so that we are not forever hinged on an image, but rather on actual realities. Reform & revolution in the legal structures and religious institutions, as well as the eradication of female economic dependency are the tasks ahead….These, in essence, are the mountains.

end of comment posted in ATP

GEO TV & PUBLIC DISCOURSE:

GEO TV Screen ShotIn connection to this post, I came across an article in the Christian Science Monitor, referring to GEO TV’s (independent Pakistani TV outlet) new campaign and very relevant content which is aiming to again, generate discussion and equip the Pakistani people with a rather unbiased history and public debate on issues of controversy and those which soceity has stopped ‘thinking’ about.  The drive and special programming is called: ZARA SOCHIEYE! (‘Just Think!’).  The current topic of debate and discussion are the Hudood Ordinances.  The media content is impressive and the most inspiring part is that there is finally a multimedia, interactive platform for open dialogue and debate on the many issues which plague Pakistan.  In their own words…

Zara Sochieye (THINK) is a formal drive initiated by GEO Television Network that attempts to highlight issues that promote and/or represent imbalance and injustice in our society and have divided us for years. As the name suggests Zara Sochieye will include all such issues that have become so integrated into our society that we have stopped thinking about them. GEO, therefore, aims to explore new dimensions of an existing problem and create a platform for creative thinking and discourse between diverse people and ideas.

On an issue like the Hudood Ordinance, GEO wants to empower its viewers with information on all aspects of the issue so that they can independently decide what position they want to take on the matter. We think this is a difficult task, and therefore, we are invoking people to think with our slogan, “Zara Sochieye.”

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4 Comments »

  1. […] The focus of what we do ought to be improving the real lives of real women in Pakistan and the ‘image’ question could become a distraction women, especially from the challenges faced by rural and poorer women (for excellent discussion on this, see this post on the blog Boundless Meanderings). […]

  2. […] The focus of what we do ought to be improving the real lives of real women in Pakistan and the ‘image’ question could become a distraction women, especially from the challenges faced by rural and poorer women (for excellent discussion on this, see this post on the blog Boundless Meanderings). […]

  3. Raheema said

    There’s a lot that needs to be done.Coming from India where Muslim women face a more complex plethora of experiences, all I can say is that it doesn’t help for us to guard any sort of ‘image’ of Islam.
    ‘Islam’ itself has less to do with women’s oppression today as practices of being in Muslim households.But having said that I sometimes admire the status of women in other ‘Muslim’ cultures in places such as Turkey or Spain.
    Women in post-colonial developing countries in general face the problems that having less resources bring.

  4. Most of the religions of the world Judaism,Christianity and ofcourse Islam originated in Middleast which area itself treats women in less respectful way as in Saudiarabia. Religion is an excuse.Christianity also favours head covering by women and Must not talk inside church etc. But women do read bible lessons in church disobeying its content.
    In India as one sees the temples of prehistoric times, one sees women showing thier body with pride.Hinduism is the only religion which has women as gods.But in actual practise they kill women in womb itself. This social need to have MALE CHILD is throughout south asia.This has to be eradicated. It has nothing to do with religion.

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