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Other women’s priorities: other women’s rights

Other women’s priorities: other women’s rights

By: Najma Sadeque

The road to hell is paved with good intentions – easier to be wiser in hindsight. That goes for political strategies too. Bhutto had good intentions for women. When some people having his ear heard about a group of women (which later evolved into Shirkat Gah, and much later launched WAF), drafting recommended changes in laws pertaining to women, they asked us to send over a copy because he would certainly support it. I don’t doubt he would have, but he didn’t last long enough.

There were no photocopiers in those days, only carbon copies. There were only two copies. We sent the original, the other disappeared. They didn’t even have the courtesy to return when they could no longer use it. Once governments take something, solicited or otherwise, they never give anything back.

General Zia got urban, educated women angry and worked up. Would there have been a women’s movement had there been no Zia, ‘Islamizing’ people who were already Muslims? It is said he legitimized keeping women underfoot to prevent Benazir’s return; at his bidding there were efforts to make woman leadership unIslamic. The movement may have been delayed, but still necessary to deal with the existing sorry social attitudes towards women, male chauvinism, and violence against women – which were not covered in the statute books.

But Zia became a thorn, and it was necessary to take a stand against him. He enabled opportunists and extremists to firm up their positions. Hand-picked religious scholars were given official say, but did not cover the entire spectrum of thought; let alone women’s thoughts. The constitution was sufficiently warped, making it a nightmare for all.

By the time Benazir Bhutto became prime minister a lot of damage had been done. But she was confident. Over confident, some of us thought. Her key party people were mostly feudal, her father was too, even if not a practicing one, and he’d yielded to extremist pressure, giving them muscle by declaring a sect non-Muslim.

It became apparent she was naive too. Shortly before coming into office, she invited two separate, small groups of men and women journalists, four each, to meet with her privately. What was she going to do for women, we asked? Everything that should be, she promised. But that was not the immediate priority; right now, it’s important that we, I, BB, get into power. After that, the rest will be easy.

As it turned out, it wasn’t easy, especially once Zardari came into the picture. He wasn’t working against women, but he was working only for himself, and that became a serious problem.

Just before that General Musharraf overstayed his welcome like military leaders usually do. He wasn’t against women; in fact, like General Ayub Khan who introduced better Family Laws, he was very liberal. But Musharraf was clueless about most economic matters and much else.

Nawaz Sharif wasn’t against women either. But not to the extent of rocking the boat or women getting an upper hand. He is narrowly pro-big business, industry and trade, not for citizens at large.

The activists began to view everything legally. If it was in the constitution, and desirable changes could get into the law books, that would make everything work. Or so we thought. But it didn’t work – except at the international level. Certainly not at the domestic, internal, level. The laws did not comprehensively represent the people.

Founded on the legacy of British colonialism, the constitution needed drastic updating. Some of it was good, but wasn’t enough. It did not take into account the domination of feudals and vested interests who were above the law. Law and order is imposed by implicit force. When that force is entrusted into hands of men who do not believe in nor want women’s equality, women cannot have expectations.

But lawyers also, generally speaking, brought disillusionment. They don’t necessarily serve justice where needed, but where the money is: the highest bidder, government or corporate. Some do pro bono work, but very few. About 15 years ago Shirkat Gah held a conference to which leading lawyers and law firms were invited. The request made: would each firm take up just one pro bono case a year for some deserving but penniless woman? That way, a few dozen such cases highlighted by the media could collectively influence official sense of responsibility and action. All promised to do so. Not a single one did.

The only one who ever helped without being asked was the late Mr. Khalid Ishaq who fought the Fehmida-Allahbuksh case that sparked the creation of WAF in 1981. The lawyer’s movement for Justice Ifthikar Chaudhury initially gave hope. But later it was divided by party politics, and women’s issues were of little interest. In recent times an NGO set up by a retired Justice to provide free legal services to deserving poor, was forced out of its office in the Karachi court premises on the grounds that it took away work from other lawyers! How could the destitute take away business? As long as justice has to be bought, rights will be hard to come by – whether women, minorities or less-privileged men.

Successive governments have perfected a ploy with which to address any issue they have no intention of resolving. They set up a committee or department to look into the matter. It drags on for years or decades until it is forgotten or dissolved. It’s the same for women’s rights and issues.

Activists absorbed into the NGO sector do a lot. Those in healthcare delivery – most and desperately needed – do best, followed by education and other social services. But absence of eco-agro knowledge makes rural schooling irrelevant. Some legal services help the few who can be reached. Land, labour and farming rights are left untouched. Advocacy touches mainly educated urbanites, but excludes the largest sector of all – rural women workers and factory, contract and home-based piece-work labour.

There is no unified women’s front. It is difficult because of entrenched male attitudes among political leaders, feudals and even male labour. Male attitudes can’t be changed by law or ordinance. In fact, some women workers groups are dominated by male leadership where women don’t have a say!

Marginalized women want windows to the world. But they also want tools, such as marketable skills, for improving their own condition. A woman with earnings in hand can cope better in difficult circumstances. Frequently, when men are unemployed, or are addicts or drunks, women and girls are the only breadwinners.

With economic strength, a woman can somewhat assert herself and her rights. Most political and social rights can’t be won without economic rights. For the lowest rung, there needs to be focus on contract-labour rights (which would help men too). Because, women factory workers and piece-wage workers, like peasants, are the most exploited of all, on whose sweat tens of thousands of small industries flourish.

Knowing the family laws doesn’t necessarily help in tightly-knit communities. A woman may win her court-case, but where does she go if ostracized? The state provides no shelter, financial support, or rehabilitation; she cannot relocate as a single woman, especially with young dependants, in a hostile society. A token shelter or two won’t do.

Not all women want to leave home, children or community even though oppressed. They instead want men to stop domestic violence; for government to making violence against women punishable in smaller, quick-justice courts, and make sufficient examples of them to become a deterrent. Instead, the status quo coddles extremists and feudals in upholding ‘the right to beat women’ and maintain control over every aspect of their lives. Government and politicians are complicit in this.

When men remarry or abandon their previous family, there is no protection for the latter that may fall victim to traffickers. Awareness needs to be most spread among men. Women already know they’re getting a raw deal. If economically empowered, they could actively join the struggle for rights.

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