- Beyond symbolism
March 8 as International Women’s Day (IWD) is celebrated across the globe to pay homage to the great women who have left their mark on world history and to call for the empowerment of women. Special shows, documentaries and programmes to mark Women’s Day were again aired on domestic and international media with Pakistani channels also attributing much of the airtime to the stories of women heroes. In 70 years of its existence, women in Pakistan have, no doubt, been empowered substantially but there are still gaps left largely unfilled.
According to census 2017, women comprise 48.76pc of the total population of the country which means almost half the people in Pakistan are women. Imagine if the 50pc of this population is brought into workforce, how development in Pakistan will increase manifold. But figures present quite a grim picture. The Women, Peace and Security Index ranks Pakistan as 4thamongst the countries termed worst for women in terms of their peace, security, inclusion and justice. According to the study, 73 percent of Pakistani men do not find it acceptable for their women to work outside of homes while 27 percent women suffer lifetime intimate partner violence or domestic violence.
This is the reason why the ratio of women, despite being the major segment of the population, is still far less in the mainstream. The patriarchal structure and societal bindings keep the women from utilising their full potential. Women are expected to abide by their home-making roles while glass ceilings await them as they step outside of homes in search of employment and amour-propre. The economic sector in Pakistan still sees women as the worthless gender as there are still a number of professions where women’s participation is minimal. Although we are seeing more and more female journalists, publicists, graphic designers, artists, etc, the gaps in these professions cannot be ignored as women hardly hold any administrative positions and the same fields of medicine and teaching are still considered the best for women. In education, the engineering and telecommunication departments in Pakistani universities also see a lesser ratio of girls to boys. No wonder the Global Gender Gap report 2017, issued by the World Economic Forum, ranks Pakistan at 143 out of the 144 countries, leaving behind only Yemen.
When Benazir contested elections the religious parties stood against her for she, being a ‘woman’, was not suitable for the highest office
The political inclusion of women in Pakistan also remains limited. The recent Senate elections is one case study where only one woman Kanwal Shauzab contested for a general seat. Out of the 342 National Assembly seats, only 60 of them are reserved for women while the upper house of 104 seats has only 17 seats reserved for women. In 2013 elections, there was only 17 percent representation of women in the Parliament which is far less as compared to the population of women.
Women, considered as a fragile entity, are always expected to be protected by the male members of the society, sometimes in the pretext of ‘care’ and sometimes as ‘suppression’. In such a case, when women – breaking gender stereotypes and challenging societal norms – come out of their comfort zones to fight for their empowerment and equality, they tend to come into the limelight as is seen in the election of Thari Hindu woman Krishna Kumari to Senate which is termed ‘historic’. We have got a long way to go until we consider such an election of a Hindu woman normal and that is when women would be actually empowered.
When a woman figure emerges in the socio-political scenario of the country, there is always a mixed reception – the progressives hail them while the misogynists continue to criticise them. Whether it is Benazir Bhutto, Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, Malala Yousafzai, Muniba Mazari or Asma Jahangir, all these have to face condemnation and hatred as they possess personalities strong enough to speak out for themselves and we, Pakistanis, cannot simply praise someone for their achievements. This attitude has always prevailed in the country, thanks to the liberal-conservative divide that still continues to confuse the nation.
When Benazir contested elections the religious parties stood against her for she, being a ‘woman’, was not suitable for the highest office. No matter how she was acknowledged for being the first woman prime minister in the Muslim world, her two terms as prime minister were afflicted by this opposition. When Sharmeen Obaid brought Oscar home for her documentary, she was criticised for promoting ‘negative image’ of Pakistan. When Malala won the Nobel peace prize, it was denounced as some called her a ‘western agent’ but it is the same Malala who was declared the most famous Pakistani on Wikipedia in 2017. Similarly, Muniba Mazari, Pakistan’s ambassador to UN Women, was judged for her divorce while Asma Jahangir was branded as a ‘traitor’. All these women heroes are celebrated and deplored at the same time.
It is about time that we root out our prevailing gendered attitudes and give women enough space and confidence so they can prove to be a fruitful assets for the country’s development. Only their primary and strategic needs fulfilled together can pave the way to their empowerment; otherwise, this idea will only remain a myth and IWD will keep repeating the same slogans each year.