International Women’s Day


Constructing the counterfactual

At the Second International Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen (1910), Clara Zetkin, a leader of “Women’s Office” for the Social Democratic Party (Germany) proposed 8th March as the International Women’s Day. Zetkin wanted a day on which women can press for their demands and chart the future course. Women’s unions, clubs, and parliamentarians unanimously approved the proposal. Today, International Women’s Day provides us an occasion to celebrate the achievements made towards women’s progress and to take into account the hurdles that remain.

As we know gender focuses on the hierarchical relationship between men and women and their ‘social positioning’ in a given society. Associated with these social positions are certain norms, expectations and ideals. Betty Friedan in her masterpiece The Feminine Mystique (1963) portrayed America’s “bored housewife” who spent time deciding the best available washing detergent and Tupperware in market; existed on Valium to get through the ‘meaninglessness’ of her routine; waited for the husband to return and serve him dinner. Pakistan in 2015 has the “exhausted housewife” who is not only responsible for washing detergent, Tupperware, meals, child care, guest relations – but is also expected to find employment and contribute in household income. Pakistan’s gender norms discourage men to contribute in cooking, cleaning and child care. Feminist movement has long focused on the differentiation and relative positioning of women and of men as an important “ordering principle” that pervades the system and embodiment of power. Both radical and liberal feminism are mature resistances against the domination of sexism and capitalism and are not sudden reactions.

Women’s struggles against forms of exploitation, war and alienation continue. The Government of Pakistan has the political will to improve the status and state of women through better governance structures and mechanisms. Foreign financing partners have sensitised political governments and mentioning gender, minorities, and ‘the marginalized’ is the new professional norm. Ministers speak the same language. ‘Reforms’ has been a buzz word for several years. Regarding women -economic, political, legal and social reforms have been made and these are conveniently navigable on the global Internet. Unfortunately Pakistan’s history of state led gender discriminatory policies has allowed anti-women customary norms and codes to continue unchecked. It is not an easy task to make amends and time is needed for results to appear.

Here, I write about seven issues that are detrimental to the women of Pakistan. Readers can do some serious counterfactual thinking and imagine “what would be the case if this is not the case”?

1) Women, gender and the “casual prism”: I warn against four growing trends that if left unchecked will soon create a ‘conceptual void’ subsequently damaging all future interventions planned for women’s rights and gender issues in Pakistan. First, a growing number of development practitioners in Pakistan continue to operate as gender experts/specialists, without having any formal education and training in gender theory. Second, gender is mostly approached as a unit of analysis (i.e., counting men as opposed to women in a sample), rather than as a subject matter or content of analysis. Methodologies are not scientifically devised often leading to reliability, credibility and validity issues. Third, what I call here as the “eventisation” of women’s rights and trust me this is much worse than the NGO-isation of the Women’s Movement in Pakistan. Fourth, even the Higher Education Commission, public and private universities in Pakistan are not playing any obvious part in organizing intellectual spaces and public spheres that may gradually give rise to ‘original thought’ in the realm of women studies and gender in Pakistan. Establish the counterfactual that is about: informed and not sloganeering activism; greater partnerships between civil society, universities and research institutes in Pakistan; and solid hardwork rather than hollow hype.

2) Body politics and violence against women: Gender based violence can be defined as any form of physical, sexual, psychological oppression of human body that is deliberately aimed at leaving the victim with a sense of being violated and/or relegated fundamentally on the basis of one’s gender. Sexism against women is illustrated in forms of sexual typification where certain roles (for example, making tea)are pasted on women; sexual objectification where women are treated both as ‘subjectified objects’ and ‘objectified subjects’; and sexual harassment where women receive direct/indirect threats. Cultural discourses, (religion included) are instrumental in making women’s bodies into what Foucault notes as the “hysterised bodies” that consequently become vulnerable to assault and violence. Men routinely play out honour politics in order to acquire culturally esteemed positions. Pakistan’s history and its present is clogged with cases of violence against women. The hysteria around female bodies is unmistakable. What would be the case if this is not the case?

3) Brain politics — ‘Dishonouring’ and ‘devaluing’ women’s mental caliber: This is as bad as the body politics already explained. The hysteria existing around women’s brain, their mental faculties and competencies appear prominently in Pakistan’s professional settings. Cultural ideal is for women to be mute. Men here consider being sexist as their birth right. On facing a woman who cannot be sexually typified, objectified and harassed – the radical reaction among men is to belittle her mental competencies and faculties and downplay her professional standing. This provides an immediate relief and helps boost the very fragile Pakistani male ego. I have seen media show hosts and guests addressing Dr Farzana Bari (a Professor and Chair Gender Studies at Quaid-e-Azam University) as Bibi and Dr Fouzia Saeed (a PhD, and Chair, Lok Virsa) as NGO wali. If addressing Prof Bari as Bibi and Dr Saeed as NGO wali is ethical then addressing Dr Ishrat Hussain (former Governor State Bank, Pakistan) as Chaacha or Bank wala should be ethical too. What I state here is not humour. Indeed, gender is an important ‘ordering principle’ – and such blatant disregard of women (and not men’s) professional status and standing is made possible due to this.

Women are employed as cheap hardworking labour and in service of patriarchy and capitalism. Modern Pakistan has many professional women with better educational degrees and trainings than men and yet they receive lesser salaries and fee in comparison to their male counterparts. This becomes possible in set-ups that men head! Having the freedom to prioritise work over family – men manage to maintain a male exclusive camaraderie (ritualised through ‘networking karna’, ‘session lagana’, ‘nashist karna’ or ‘mehfil sajana’) during and beyond office hours. A few group mates may also indulge in granting favours, making financial inaccuracies accurate and labour contracts vague –ultimately protecting their individual and collective money matters. From the start women are not part of the game unless they agree to compromise professional ethic in some way.

4) Self proclaimed incompetent mullahs and women bashing: A growing trend is for men to become Islam-ish and win some symbolic value. Knowledge Production within religious sphere is under threat now that we have several self-proclaimed, youth influencing mullahs with no subject competence, but outreach. Junaid Jamshed’s distasteful commentary on Aisha Sadiqa (ra), the Prophet’s wife, was more misogynous than blasphemous. The group of young men listening to JJ agreed and giggled as he generously denigrated Aisha and the wider womankind. Rising to his defense was Nauman Ali Khan, the American Islamic scholar of Pakistani origin, who despite his impressive levels of religious competence disappointed women viewers for not registering (or perhaps decidedly ignoring for sake of convenience) the unmistakable misogyny reflected in JJ’s tone and words. Trained Islamic scholars such as, Javed Ahmed Ghamidi, Dr Shehzad Saleem, Professor Anees Ahmed, Mufti Akmal Qadri, Shaikh Shujauddin, Dr Mohsin Naqvi and Dr Habib-ur-Rehman Asim etc — never depict women as vain and crooked. It is the self-styled mullahs who often draw such terribly erroneous conclusions about women.

5) Ideological contrariety of state institutions: The Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) is a constitutional body that advises the legislature whether or not a certain law is repugnant to Islam.CII notes Zina Ordinance 1979 & Qanun-e-Shahadat 1984 as its ‘achievements’. Women of Pakistan do not agree. Under Maulana Sherani, CII assertions pertaining to evidence for rape crime, marriageable age, and method for Muslim men to take co-wives challenges Pakistan’s constitution and its formal legal system. For CII laws prohibiting underage marriage and the Women’s Protection Act of 2006, and seeking consent from first spouse before second marriage are all un-Islamic. CII has always denied DNA acceptance as the primary source of evidence in rape cases. When juxtaposed with the National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW) and what it represents in form of women’s protection and empowerment – the CII’s misogynistic posturing should not and cannot be allowed to continue. Making NCSW and CII work together sounds like trying to ride an ambulance with a loud siren, but in reverse gear. At best CII should be abolished – or it should be reformed in a way that women are no longer its subject.

6) Women’s political agency and the regrettable turn: Forces of militant Islamism and terrorism are increasingly engaging women. We know that the Islamic State (IS) is attracting young women as the “IS brides” to serve IS terrorists and give birth to their next generation. It is important to enable Muslim women to own, define and appropriate their agency for achieving goals that are based on principles of human development and pacifism. Pakistan needs to reclaim the role of women’s political agency as contemplated within the realms of human development.

7) Politics and the lightness of being: “PTI-PAT dharna” and “Government – Taliban talks” (2014), are illustrative of the fact that politics in Pakistan remain clearly masculinist despite an obvious increase in women’s representation in political spaces. Women as stakeholders are either entirely missing, or stand marginalised or misemployed. During dharna, men dominated the parliamentary floor and D-chowk containers; vocalising their understanding of democracy, fair election, role of the parliament and state institutions. Women were mainly there to dance and offer marriage proposals to Khan Sahib as if this was the minimum and maximum of their political output. Qadri Sahib’s women were organised, disciplined and very obedient; stereotypical indeed. In this artificially created political chaos – the women parliamentarians did not provide any impressive or original conceptual inputs regarding what state and democracy meant to the women of Pakistan. Drawing upon Dorothy Smith’s ideological assertion, we are not aware if the ‘feminist standpoint’ was entirely nonexistent or deliberately hidden, or it just went missing.

Regarding Government-Taliban talks let me remind that Simone De Beauvoir compiled her seminal work The Second Sex mainly in protest against Aristotelian assumptions of women being “incidental” and “defective” as opposed to men who he considered “absolute”. There are no two opinions regarding Taliban treatment of women and girl children. Taliban shot Malala (who went on to grant Pakistan its second “Nobel” win). Both PPP and PML-N governments have overlooked the fact that any negotiations with the Taliban violate the social contract between the state and all its citizens – unless the state considers women as “incidental” i.e., merely a Second Sex, having naturally “defective” political insights regarding the Taliban.

This 8th March, 2015, your counterfactual thinking will lead you to a Pakistan that is pro-women. A Pakistan where women studies and gender are explored and practiced with a theory and praxis that has integrity and depth; hysteria around women’s bodies and brains has subsided; violence against women has ceased to exist; and women’s bodies and brains are not ‘dishonoured,’ anymore. A Pakistan where women’s salaries are equal to that of men and they are offered financial transparency; no self-proclaimed incompetent mullahs insult women; institutions complement one another to ensure progress, provision of physical and mental safety to all women. A homeland where state and leadership out rightly reject ultra-conservatism, regressive radicalism and obscurantism gurgled out in the name of Islam. A country where women’s political agency is dedicated to development and not destruction. A state where feminist standpoints are fully represented in domains of larger domestic and foreign politics.


  1. Women rights are very important and women should have equal rights with men,but it should not be like USA jahan auraton ko kuch ziada hi chut hasil hai.

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