Reli­gious ex­trem­ism has bru­tally cur­tailed free­dom of women in Pak­istan

India Today - - SIGNATURE - Shehrbano Taseer The au­thor works with Newsweek Pak­istan. She re­ceived a hu­man rights award from the pres­ti­gious Hu­man Rights First last year.

Ican’t re­call a time when I felt that be­ing a woman would stop me from do­ing any­thing I set out to do. But I live in a so­ci­ety where most women are deemed sec­ond­class cit­i­zens, where women are ob­jec­ti­fied, hu­mil­i­ated and abused ev­ery day.

This In­de­pen­dence Day, I re­mind my­self that free­dom is not a gift. It has to be fought for.

Un­for­tu­nately, for the vast ma­jor­ity of women in Pak­istan, the road ahead is filled with mine­fields. Many are vic­tims of ar­chaic cul­tural prac­tices like hon­our killings, bride burn­ing, mar­riage to the Qu­ran, watta satta, acid vi­o­lence, do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, and rape. Do­mes­tic vi­o­lence is not ex­plic­itly pro­hib­ited in Pak­istani do­mes­tic law and most acts of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence are en­com­passed by the Qisas and Diyat Or­di­nance. The po­lice and judges of­ten tend to treat do­mes­tic vi­o­lence as a non­jus­ti­cia­ble, pri­vate or fam­ily mat­ter or, an is­sue for civil rather than crim­i­nal courts. A study con­ducted by the Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion of Pak­istan sug­gests that do­mes­tic vi­o­lence takes place in ap­prox­i­mately 80 per cent of the house­holds in the coun­try.

I meet brave women in Pak­istan who are putting their fears be­hind them ev­ery­day. Un­sung heroes, they are dy­namic and de­ter­mined, fight­ing prej­u­dice and con­stric­tions to put them­selves out there. They work dou­ble that of men and are still con­sid­ered only half as good.

That doesn’t hold them back. Pak­istani women are as­sum­ing po­si­tions of lawyers, doc­tors, pi­lots, writ­ers, mu­si­cians, bankers, en­trepreneurs, politi­cians, de­sign­ers, teach­ers, artists, ac­tors, phi­lan-

PAK­ISTAN WAS THE FIRST MUS­LIM coun­try to have a woman prime min­is­ter. In pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties, fe­male en­rol­ment is much higher than that of men.

thropists and ath­letes. Pak­istan was the first Mus­lim coun­try to have a woman prime min­is­ter. The speaker of the Na­tional Assem­bly, the for­eign min­is­ter, the in­for­ma­tion min­is­ter, the am­bas­sador to the US, and the act­ing de­fence sec­re­tary are all women. We now have a woman ma­jor- gen­eral and a woman Os­car win­ner. Over 22 per cent of the lower house of Par­lia­ment and over 16 per cent in the up­per house con­sist of women— higher than In­dia, the UK and the US. In pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties, fe­male en­rol­ment is much higher than that of men. Pak­istani women play a ma­jor role in agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion, livestock rais­ing and cottage in­dus­tries; the last agri­cul­tural cen­sus stated that 73 per cent of women par­tic­i­pate in agri­cul­ture.

Our lo­cal and fed­eral gov­ern­ments are dis­play- ing a re­newed com­mit­ment to women’s rights and causes. As Pak­istan braces for elec­tions next year, a record 43 per cent of Pak­istan’s 83.28 mil­lion reg­is­tered vot­ers are women. The Pak­istan Mus­lim League ( N)- led Pun­jab gov­ern­ment in­tro­duced the Pun­jab Women Em­pow­er­ment Pack­age this April. The Mut­tahida Qaumi Move­ment’s women’s em­pow­er­ment rally held ear­lier this year in Karachi was the world’s largest all- women gath­er­ing, ac­cord­ing to the BBC. And the fed­eral gov­ern­ment— led by Pres­i­dent Asif Ali Zar­dari— has passed a raft of new laws to pro­tect women from acid crimes, harass­ment at the work­place, hon­our killings, and forced mar­riage. Zar­dari be­came the mil­lionth sig­na­tory of the ‘ One Mil­lion Sig­na­tures’ cam­paign to stop vi­o­lence against women last month and has an­nounced that the gov­ern­ment will ap­point fe­male judges.

Vi­o­lence against women is not con­fined to any par­tic­u­lar re­gion or cul­ture and is cer­tainly not an is­sue lim­ited to Pak­istan. Lots of coun­tries in the de­vel­op­ing world have high crimes and Pak­istan, too, will learn to cope. But the dark un­der­cur­rent of reli­gious ex­trem­ism and how it af­fects women is what wor­ries me.

Al­though nor­malcy has re­turned to Swat, girls schools in Khy­ber Pakhtunkhwa and FATA, and some­times Pun­jab, are be­ing bombed fre­quently ( over 1,200 have been de­mol­ished by the Tal­iban in Pak­istan the last decade). Ter­ror­ists and reli­gious ex­trem­ists have crip­pled the fe­male pop­u­la­tion with their dra­co­nian way of life. Women are not al­lowed to leave their house with­out a male es­cort, are not al­lowed to hold jobs, lis­ten to mu­sic or wear beauty prod­ucts, and there have been in­ci­dents of pub­lic pu­n­ish­ment. The ten­ta­cles of ex­trem­ism have spread to cities too: In Au­gust last year, a po­lice of­fi­cer burst into Lahore’s quaint Nairang Art Gallery and beat up a fe­male cu­ra­tor be­cause she was wear­ing a sleeve­less dress.

Rather than speak­ing out for such women— or women like Aa­sia Bibi and Fakhra Yunus— our na­tional ob­ses­sion with hon­our and ‘ ghairat’, funded and en­cour­aged by the reli­gious right and the no­to­ri­ous agen­cies, has led to the pop­u­la­tion cham­pi­oning ter­ror­ists like Aafia Sid­diqui and Ume- Has­san in­stead.

While the right reg­u­la­tory frame­work is nec­es­sary, it is only a be­gin­ning. The truth is, so­ci­ety as a whole must un­dergo a par­a­digm shift to en­cour­age fe­male in­te­gra­tion in pub­lic and pri­vate sec­tors. To do this, women must be ready to learn fast, and men must be ready to un­learn fast to rec­tify the cur­rent gen­der im­bal­ance.

The most im­por­tant el­e­ment of this rev­o­lu­tion­ary trans­for­ma­tion is ed­u­ca­tion. True em­pow­er­ment is the abil­ity to make choices and ed­u­ca­tion pro­vides us with bet­ter op­por­tu­ni­ties to do so. Ed­u­ca­tion is key not only to gen­der equal­ity, a more se­cure and just so­ci­ety but also to higher wages, re­duced ma­ter­nal and child mor­tal­ity, and bet­ter health and hap­pi­ness and well- be­ing for the en­tire community. De­spite the im­prove­ment in Pak­istan’s lit­er­acy rate since its in­de­pen­dence, the ed­u­ca­tional sta­tus of Pak­istani women is among the low­est in the world. For Pak­istan, and for all so­ci­eties, ed­u­cat­ing girls must re­main a high pri­or­ity.

The road ahead is long and hard, and we are of­ten forced two steps back to move four steps for­ward. But I have never doubted the power that women can ex­er­cise to­gether, and as in­di­vid­u­als, to over­come their cir­cum­stances and break through these glass ceil­ings.





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