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A culture against women

You just have to look at the roster of our legislatures to understand the dominance of politics by the tribal and the feudal class. Unfortunately, this has been so in spite of the pre-eminence of the professedly ‘awami’ outfit named the Pakistan People’s Party. Indeed, the PPP may have contributed to the survival of the feudals, considering the candidates it has repeatedly chosen for our national elections — including for its cabinets when in power.

The reason I am drawing attention to this abiding and potentially agonising thought is that I was in Multan on Thursday to attend a workshop on media coverage of violence against women and gender issues. As the hub of southern Punjab, an area of darkness in terms of social indicators, Multan was certainly an appropriate location to deliberate on the plight of women in our society.

I attended the concluding session of the three-day workshop that was sponsored by Rozan, a non-governmental organisation based in Islamabad. Rozan has been working on emotional health, gender and violence against women, children and youth. It has launched a project named Munsalik to engage with the media on these issues, with specific emphasis on building the capacity of journalists in provincial cities.

Now, my intention here is not to summarise my intense encounters with journalists and social activists during this hectic, two-night visit. As I have hinted at the outset, this visit greatly enhanced my belief that emancipation of women, mainly in the rural sector, could be the most effective prescription for social change in Pakistan. As an aside, though, I must say that I was very impressed — and a little surprised — by the professional ability and passion of a few women journalists working in Multan. What they are up against may be overwhelming but they do constitute a silver lining on a dark horizon.

Incidentally, the issue of how our feudal culture has primarily persecuted women has been highlighted in a number of reports published during the past two or three days. And let me begin with the apparently unconnected proceedings of the UN Interfaith Conference held in New York. A declaration agreed by participants from 80 nations, as reported in newspapers on Saturday, yesterday, expressed concern over “serious instances of intolerance, discrimination, expressions of hatred and harassment of minority religious communities of all faiths”.

Taken in a wider context, these tendencies of intolerance and discrimination extend in Pakistan to women, prominently in the tribal and feudal strongholds that spread across the entire nation. Religious militants in the northern areas also become a part of this nefarious gang when they bomb girls’ school and allow no freedom to women.

On the day that I was in Multan — Thursday — the National Assembly was told that more than 7,000 cases of rape and murders of women were registered between 2005 and 2007. In addition, there were 1,019 cases of honour killings during this three-year period. Read these figures one more time and try to visualise the extent of this tragedy in human terms. Is this not sufficient evidence to establish our collective indifference to the plight of women? Obviously, major blame in this respect rests on the elected politicians, the government and national institutions concerned with enforcement of law and dispensation of justice. As far as the media is concerned, a growing concern about these matters is very evident but it is not yet sufficient to touch the conscience of our rulers, including the ones who tend to be collaborators in crimes against women.

According to the statistics tabled in the National Assembly, cases of honour killings are rising: 321 in 2005; 339 in 2006 and 359 in 2007. Two major incidents that have shaken us in recent weeks, that of women allegedly buried alive in Balochistan and the brutal killing of Tasleem Solangi in Sindh, confirm the fact that a number of incidents may go unreported, unless discovered accidentally by some intrepid local reporters some time after the crime was committed.

There is more. There World Economic Forum (WEF) released its Gender Gap Report 2008 on Wednesday and it validated the fact that social and economic empowerment of women is very low in Pakistan. Our beloved country has ranked 127th among 130 countries that are listed in the report. One consolation, however, is that Pakistan is 50th in the category of political empowerment of women. This means that more women are now in elected bodies, mainly because of reserved seats.

It is really hard to contend with this inconsistency that at the same time that some of our women are able to rise to very high positions, oppression of women at the grassroots level appears to be increasing. Benazir Bhutto was universally applauded for becoming the first female head of a government in a Muslim country in modern times. Until her immeasurably tragic assassination in December last year, she almost presided over the political scene in the country. But that glory could not percolate to the lower depths of our society.

Let me also refer to an open letter that Women Action Forum (WAF) has written to President Asif Zardari, as reported in this newspaper on Friday. In its letter, WAF demanded that Mir Israrullah Zehri and Mir Hazar Khan Bijarani be dropped from the federal cabinet because their appointment negates the legacy of Benazir Bhutto. At the same time, WAF praised the government for including a number of progressive and forward-looking women in the cabinet.

In its letter, WAF has also quoted from the PPP manifesto which also promised that “the party will take institutional initiatives to prevent crimes against women in the name of tribalism, such as honour killings and forced marriages”. One only hopes that at least some promises are meant to be kept. But it is not certain if this promise was present to the PPP leadership when ministerial slots were being allotted.

To conclude, I have this editorial published in an English daily on Saturday that takes note of the latest report of the United Nations Population Fund that calls for a culturally sensitive approach to development, stressing that this is particularly relevant in the context of women. We are also constantly reminded that a judicious enforcement of fundamental human rights is the basic imperative for a society’s social and economic emancipation.

The message, then, is that women are not less than human. Yes, the tribal and feudal bondage also affects men of the lower class. But primitive values do relegate women to manifestly inhuman subjugation in large areas of Pakistan and this attitude also pervades our urban setting. At the national level, we are surly preoccupied with such dire issues as the economic crunch and the rise of religious militancy. However, the issue of the status of women has a definite bearing on all our major predicaments.
Source: The News

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