WHERE EVERY DAY IS A BATTLE
Religious extremism has brutally curtailed freedom of women in Pakistan
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.
PAKISTANI ACID ATTACK SURVIVOR AZIM MAI WITH DAUGHTER SHAZIYA, IN ISLAMABAD IN DECEMBER 2011
WOMEN COMMANDOS KEEP GUARD DURING FRIDAY PRAYERS IN MULTAN