In the 1980s, the Women’s Action Forum used activism to oppose General Zia’s myopic vision of Islam; today, Pakistani feminist collectives continue to protest violence against women, raise awareness about women’s education and political and legal rights, and lobby policy makers to enact women-friendly laws. The groundbreaking Repeal of Hudood Ordinance, the women’s empowerment bill and anti-honor-killings bill were all moved in Parliament when Sherry Rehman, a former ambassador to the United States and a renowned feminist, held the portfolio of minister for women’s development in the last decade. These and the anti-sexual-harassment bill were all eventually codified in Pakistani law over the next several years.
But many Pakistanis cling to the idea that feminism is not relevant to Pakistan — that it’s the preserve of the rich and idle or, worse, that it’s a Western imposition meant to wreak havoc on Pakistani society. Many Pakistani men and women believe that women’s rights need go no further than improvements Islam brought to the status of women in tribal Arabia in the seventh century. Men in Pakistan are not yet ready to give up their male privilege, and many Pakistani women, not wanting to rock the boat, agree with them. The Pakistani historian Ayesha Jalal calls it the “convenience of subservience” when elite and upper-class women marginalize women’s movements in order to maintain their own privilege.
The scholar Margot Badran has identified two threads of feminism in the Muslim world: 19th-century “secular feminism” and 20th-century “Islamic feminism.” Islamic feminism, pioneered by scholars like Riffat Hassan, Amina Wadud, Asma Barlas and Fatema Mernissi, seeks to reclaim Islam from male interpretations by using passages in the Quran to combat institutional misogyny. Islamic feminism as practiced in Pakistan is accessible to the middle and upper middle classes, who enthusiastically attend Quran classes held in Urdu, where they analyze verses and learn about the rights that the religion affords them. It also inculcates solidarity with Muslim women around the world. But with its emphasis on academic learning, it can limit empowerment to educated women, marginalizing the unschooled and the poor.
Pakistani feminists like Shahnaz Rouse, a Sarah Lawrence College professor, and Farida Shaheed, a sociologist who heads the Shirkat Gah women’s resource center in Pakistan, have done vital work in the field of Pakistani gender identity and class analysis, while Fouzia Saeed has been instrumental in raising the issue of sexual harassment. But their work, and that of other theorists and activists whose primary basis for feminism is not Islam, is often dismissed as favored only by an English-speaking elite with little relevance to greater Pakistani society.
Yet secular feminism has a more democratic scope; its proponents agitate for the rights of all women in Pakistan, non-Muslim as well as Muslim. It links to other feminist movements worldwide, not just Islamic ones, and is more pluralistic. By appealing to secular nationalism as well as Islamic modernism, it is not restrained by the need to base all thought in Islamic scripture, although secular feminists also use this powerful tool when necessary.
A feminist movement can succeed only when it mirrors the makeup of the women and the society for whom it operates. Pakistan needs a feminism that elegantly marries both strands of feminism — secular and Islamic — because that’s how Pakistan was formed: on both Islamic and secular principles.
The clinical psychologist Rubeena Kidwai said this about the status of women in Pakistan today: “Pakistani women are like bonsai trees, clipped and pruned and weighed down by the expectations of Pakistani society.” And Pakistan’s feminists are the only ones who can undo that destructive process, so that Pakistani women can flourish and grow to the heights of their human potential.
Bina Shah is the author of several novels, including “Slum Child,” and short-story collections.Continue reading the main story
We have heard numerous times that women are the cornerstone of a progressive nation, the edifice to tolerant civilizations and a basis to everything that concentrates within an influx of virtue. But, while all this might sound too idyllic, the harsh truth is that even in today’s world where nations are empowering their female populace, Pakistan still lags for behind as far as rights and status of women are concerned.
It won’t be an overstatement, but what one calls a legitimate one, that the women in Pakistan face myriad problems. The patriarchal system has been, and still is, our predominant social setup that not only limits men to engage in immoral and intimidating acts against women but also accords them the ‘privilege’ to blatantly deny the existence of the injustices that nearly every woman faces at some point in her life. The hierarchy of these misogynistic attitudes has been a chronic problem for working women all over Pakistan.
Verbal abuse, disparaging one’s gender and creating a hostile workplace environment or intimidating a person to receive some favours against his/her will, and in case of non-compliance, threatening him/her of dreadful consequences all fall within the ambit of harassment. Amidst all the offences against the working women in urban — or so-called developed — areas, it is no surprise that women in country’s rural areas are treated more inhumanly. In 2012, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, a Pakistani filmmaker documented a film on female acid victims in Pakistan’s rural areas. The film ‘Saving Face’ went on to grab the Oscar, however, what was more important than the documentary’s international recognition was the raised awareness level of our masses about the atrocities inflicted on the womenfolk.
In our society women are subjected to continuous savagery and barbarity as if they were inferior entities. They are treated as ‘assets’ or ‘property’ rather than humans. The conservative mindset that women should remain restricted to four walls of the house has destroyed generations. What could be a most striking illustration of illiteracy and ignorance than having a fickle-minded population which still believes that educating women is a sin in itself!
Even though we are the residents of an Islamic Republic, we remorselessly fail to follow the true essence of Islam. Although the Holy Prophet (PBUH) said, “Seeking knowledge is incumbent on every Muslim, man and woman,” yet despite constituting 48.63% of the country’s population only 16% of women are literate. It’s no less than a dilemma for us as we claim to be a nation that strives for progress and development. Other statistics too support this notion. For example, the 1981 census reported that 5.6% of women were employed as compared to ratio 72.4% for men. Furthermore, less than 4% of women were engaged in some form of salaried work. By 1988, this figure increased significantly, but still only 10.2% of women are reported to be a part of the working force.
If on the one hand, them women are harassed, restricted from being a part of labour force and looked down upon as frivolous entities of trivial or no importance, a bigger shame for us on the other is the poor educational and work infrastructure provided to them.
In addition to being the victims of unending violence and restrain from education, women in Pakistan are deprived of their fundamental rights. Over the years, we have heard the term “feminism” quite a lot and the most obvious and authentic reason for its coinage was that women all around the world felt the need to rise up and stand for their rights. As far as Pakistan is concerned, women are largely deprived of their fundamental rights; the right to freedom of expression and consent seem to have been long forgotten. When Malala Yousafzai stood for her right to basic education, she was shot in the head.
However, while women rights and status in Pakistan are invariably usurped, it is imperative to show the other side of the picture as well. In spite of the fact that we are struggling with the notion of ‘women empowerment’, there have been some major developments for the betterment of our female populace. Consider, for example, that notwithstanding Balochistan’s deeply patriarchal society, the Provincial Assembly unanimously elected Ms Rahila Durrani as speaker of the house — the first woman from the province to hold this post. Prior to that, another woman Dr Meher Taj Roghani was elected Deputy Speaker of the Provincial Assembly of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a province that, like Balochistan, is overwhelmingly dominated by conservative ethos. Again, she is the first woman to have taken up this particular mantle of honor in the province. Another notable example is Dr Fehmida Mirza who served as the country’s first woman Speaker of the National Assembly in the last PPP regime. Such instances of women’s participation in the political process are encouraging and do indicate some measure of the political parties’ concern for, and ownership of, the struggle for gender equality. Furthermore, there are women like Zar Aslam, a mundane Pakistani Woman who recently initiated a “Pink Rickshaw Scheme” with the simple motive of empowering and strengthening her fellow women, and making them independent and self-sufficient. Another striking example is of Zahida Bibi (Rawalpindi) who has been driving a taxi for 30 years to successfully earn her livelihood.
However, still far more needs to be done — and can be done indeed — to bring about a sea change. In this regard the role NGOs play for women empowerment and the stance they promote must be appreciated and acknowledged. The prevalent perception about NGOs is that they follow the foreign agenda, and therefore, are detrimental to the country. To dilute this impression, they need to work towards spreading awareness, creating harmony and providing services in accordance with local customs, beliefs and religious sentiments. Women’s Division founded in 1979 with an aim to improve women’s position in our society should be rejuvenated and upgraded. In order to promote women’s participation and to strengthen their roles, equal social, political and economic opportunities should be created.
Programmes to increase literacy rate among women should be initiated with the help and support of institutions and organizations like UNESCO. The promotion of women in financing should be directly linked to the establishing of enterprises. After all, if we want more Sharmeens, Zars and Zahidas, then we must encourage our Maryams and Fatimas to be like them, and that is only possible if the nation and the government work in tandem toward promoting gender equality!
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