By Amna Imam
“WHY has Pakistan not seen a strong feminist movement that is at par with that seen in the West?” a friend asked me. “After all, the country`s women are routinely subjugated, humiliated, violated or killed. Why have we not been able to produce and sustain a strong movement?”
It is true that on the one hand, tradition, culture and religion together served to relegate women to serfdom. Yet on the other hand, they have also empowered Pakistani women.
Pakistani society lives with this apparent contradiction day in and day out. This contradiction, perhaps, is the key to understanding the absence of a strong, unified feminist movement in the country. Though predominantly Muslim, Pakistan is extremely diverse not only in its ethnicities, languages and cultures but also in its norms and value systems. The lines demarcating the value system of empowered women from subjugated women might at times, but not always, correspond to the urban-rural divide in Pakistan.
Public policy in Pakistan under liberal regimes has attempted to provide some relief and rights to women. The laws regarding child marriage, divorce, men`s second or subsequent marriages, the First Women`s Bank, women`s seats in parliament, and the recent bill regarding the protection of women against harassment while at work have all been well-intentioned steps aimed at enhancing the status of Pakistani women.
Although it is still too early to say anything about effectiveness of the anti-harassment law, other laws and public policy initiatives have so far been largely ineffective. Policy implementation, although dependent on policy formulation, is also a function of interpretation. In the generally devout Pakistani society, which values its Islamic identity, the respective positions of women in various Pakistani cultures can be attributed to the various interpretations of Islam as well as various levels of implementation of Islamic tenets within diverse communities. Although there are differences of opinion about how much a Muslim woman can inherit, for example, Islamic scholars agree unanimously that they do have that right.
The level of implementation of this key empowering right in predominantly Muslim Pakistan varies from community to community, tribe to tribe, and family to family. Muslim women in some Pakistani communities enjoy this right to the fullest, in others women are given this right partially, and in still others, women are not given this right at all. The same applies to a woman`s right to choose her husband. In some Pakistani communities, women enjoy this right while in others the choice of a husband for a Muslim woman rests with her closest male relatives. This diversity of interpretation can at least partially be attributed to the lack of implementation of pro-women public policies in Pakistan. While these two rights of choice and inheritance do not guarantee equal status for women in society, arguably they do bestow enough power on women to quiet the flames of intense dissatisfaction with their status. In a society where the body of women is as diverse as in Pakistan, it is highly unlikely that all women will be similarly motivated to start or support a strong, unified feminist movement.
Unlike the West, where once none of the women had the right of inheritance, and where no woman could own property in her name, Pakistani society is a mosaic of rights and obligations. Some women have power, others do not. This explains, at least to some extent, the inception of strong sisterhood and feminism in the West and other homogeneous cultures, and the relative absence of the same unified force in Pakistan.
We cannot expect a highly educated, middle-class woman from Karachi or Islamabad who chose her husband, probably works, and will inherit property to have the same level of intense feeling of deprivation as a poor, rural Pakistani woman. The latter would in all probability not be free to choose her partner, would not receive any education, and would be subjected to her community`s laws and regulations about property rights. If religion can on the one hand be held responsible for such subjugation, then it can also be seen as the empowering element preventing other, more empowered women from whole-heartedly joining their suffering sisters.
It is, therefore, no surprise that Pakistan can simultaneously lay claim to Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah, Begum Rana Liaquat Ali Khan, Lady Abdullah Haroon, Begum Shaista Ikramullah, and to Mukhtaran Mai, Samia Sarwar, and Safia Bibi. The cultural divide is in most cases a manifestation of the socio-economic divide. However, this is not always the case. The roots of these differences lie deeper, in family and community practices, interpretations and beliefs.
Due to this diversity, it is perhaps mistaken to expect a strong, unified feminist movement in Pakistan. It is also a mistake for Pakistan to look to either Islam or national-level public policies to uplift the status of its female citizens. National policy, civic organisations and NGOs dedicated to the cause of women`s rights in Pakistan can spend ages trying to modify the laws; however, those laws cannot be implemented at the grassroots level until they gain local acceptance. The law regarding child marriage is an example. Although a woman cannot be married until she is at least 16 years of age, it is a well-known fact that underage marriages are still a norm in many communities, tribes and families of Pakistan.
Policy makers and NGOs in Pakistan might benefit from a slight shift in how they view this issue. Feminism in Pakistan is a local issue of local communities. Only empowered women and progressive men from within those communities can be expected to make a difference. The change would have to come with education and awareness from within.
The writer is an assistant professor of public administration at the State University of New York and a board member for the Women`s Interfaith Institute of the Finger Lakes, NY.