Counting the strides: life of a Pakistani woman

Without a religious and economic challenge, any sort of emancipation of Pakistani women will be, at best, partial

No one would deny that Pakistan is a particularly misogynistic country, where patriarchal relations and attitudes discriminate heavily against women. Killings in the name of some medieval notion of ‘honour’ meant mainly to control women’s sexuality and choices in terms of marriage, supposedly archaic ‘tribal’ customs of exclusion from public assembly, participation and representation, fatwas against women’s deportment and behaviour, or even against their constitutional right to vote as citizens, are all frequent episodes in the life of the Pakistani woman.

Not surprisingly then, that Pakistan has been ranked very low in the Gender Gap Index, with only Yemen being worse off. These facts about the position of women in Pakistan are often related to social and cultural norms, where ‘Islam’ is said to blame for women’s backwardness, or the fact that the Saudisation of Pakistan over the last few decades has meant that the hijab or the abaya worn in parts of Islamic West Asia by women have become the sartorial choice of many women in Pakistan. Such essentialising fits in well with the stereotypes which abound about a supposedly Talibanised Pakistan.


Transformation despite odds

Yet despite such images and happenings, much has changed in the social, cultural and demographic position, and lives, of women in Pakistan over the last two decades. Despite patriarchy, institutional and state prejudices and restrictions, even something called ‘culture’ and ‘religion’, women are changing their condition, and redefining social sensibilities.

Two facts from the data are surprising. One, that in some key categories women perform unexpectedly better than men. And two, that the rate of change in women’s improvement is faster/higher than that it is for men — that is, women are improving their situation faster than are men. Data from girls’ and boys’ enrolment also show that girls’ enrolment at the primary school level, while still less than it is for boys, is rising faster than it is for boys. Girls enrolment at the primary school level increased by 34% between 2002-03 and 2011-12, while in the same period, it increased only 13.5% for boys. What is even more surprising is that this pattern is reinforced even for middle level education, where there has been an increase of as much of girls education by 54%, compared to that for boys by 26%. At the secondary level, again unexpectedly, girls participation has increased 53% over the decade, about the same as it has for boys.

At higher levels of education, at universities and at professional colleges too, the increase in the participation rates for boys far exceeds that for girls. A quite astonishing figure is for university education enrolment between 2003-04 and 2014-15. Boys’ enrolment at university level had increased by 258% over this decade, but for girls the increase in these ten years had been 432%! Girls were 42% of total university enrolment in 2003-04 — in 2014-15, it is estimated that there are more girls enrolled in Pakistan’s universities than boys, 52% compared to 48%. In fact, by 2011-12, there were more girls enrolled in universities than boys.

Political inclusion

In 2001 and 2005, in an earlier model of elected local government under the then President, General Parvez Musharraf, 35,000 and 25,000 women, respectively, were elected and nominated to Pakistan’s third tier of government — local bodies — even from so-called remote regions, giving women a public and political status and identity for the first time ever in such large numbers.

Moreover, numerous laws aimed at protecting Pakistani women have been passed in Parliament over the last five years, perhaps most surprisingly in the supposedly conservative province of the Punjab. These include laws such as the Protection of Women Against Violence Act, laws against harassment, the provision of safe houses for women, raising the marriage age for girls, the setting up of provincial Commissions on the Status of Women, and many more. The Benazir Income Support Programme, an unconditional cash transfer scheme to poorer women, has also helped provide some financial relief to over 5.4 million women. While there has been much justifiable criticism of many of these interventions by feminists and women’s groups since they do not go far enough and are not always implementable, one cannot deny the fact that some changes have been made. The fact that clerics and large sections of the male public have protested vehemently against many of these laws, suggests that they do provide a possible opportunity to address, if not alter, some of the huge structural and attitudinal biases against Pakistani women.

Other initiatives, such as the ‘Women on Wheels’ (women riding scooters provided by the Punjab Government at heavily subsidised rates), women taxi drivers, women’s marathons, are perhaps more symbolic and affect a small section of women, but the fact that they have been actively supported by provincial governments despite considerable male conservative opposition, are also trends which suggest some small attitudinal shifts. Feminist scholar Afiya Shehrbano Zia has argued that such interventions have “challenged the gendered social order and feminised the landscape of public spaces in unexpected and secular ways”.

There are other changes taking place as well, and concern the growing mobility of women to enter public spaces as employed working women, to be activists, to leave their patriarchal homes for some hours to face different types of challenges and social constraints. The electronic media and access to mobile phones and communication, has also cut across gendered and class barriers, although still highly gendered and inequitable, they allow girls and women access to means of social engagement (even with men) which did not exist a few years ago. The emergence of women as role-models depicted on urban billboards and in social media — from cricketers, to scientists, academics, writers of fiction, mountaineers, pilots even of fighter jets, an Oscar-winning film-maker, to a young girl receiving the Nobel Peace Prize — help in breaking the older stereotypes of women being relegated to domesticity.

Absence of left politics

While there is much to celebrate in how women are moving into public spaces and confronting and overcoming the huge male conservative backlash, these are as yet unfinished and hard fought struggles. Many of these developments have taken place due to the process of unstoppable modernity, bringing in its own new and different contradictions, while some, such as the secular struggle for fair compensation by lady health workers, have relied on collective action, a rare phenomenon in our age. Agentive forces have played a critical role in key battles. However, with the middle classes now dominating Pakistan’s political and social spaces, their focus and agenda remains issues which matter to such groups — governance, corruption, religious revivalism, electoral reform. And with the absence of any sort of left politics in Pakistan, must any meaningful and substantive gender equality be left to inevitable capitalist development? Clearly, without challenging the consequences of a despotic capitalism and religiously-construed social and gendered identity, any sort of emancipation for working people, and for women in particular, will remain, at best, partial.

S. Akbar Zaidi is a political economist based in Karachi. He teaches at Columbia University in New York, and at the IBA in Karachi

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Printable version | Mar 29, 2020 6:54:34 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/counting-the-strides/article19156125.ece

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