It is probably no exaggeration to say that millions of Pakistani women will be unaware of International Women’s Day and it will pass them by unremarked. Those that have TV or radio will probably hear it referred to at some point during the day but its relevance to them will be something they are but dimly aware of. The offices of governance at local and federal levels will have done their duty and organised events to celebrate International Women’s Day and attract the media for yet another photo-opportunity. Art galleries will hold exhibitions of women’s art, and there will be photographs in the newspapers the next day captioned “Women admiring the art of the women of….” Schools may organise events in celebration, with mothers and their children pushed to the fore and at the end of the day, there will be hearty congratulations all around on a job well done — followed by a ringing silence and a lack of activity that would make the Sphinx look positively dynamic.
Speaking before the roundtable discussion ‘Womens Empowerment — Myths and Realities’ on March 6, Senate Chairman Nayyar Hussain Bukhari was very clear. Despite the fact that women have made and will continue to make major contributions to national development, they face a wall of social, cultural and legal constraints that prevents them from fulfilling their own aspirations and potential individually, and collectively and becoming a force for change. Senator Bukhari said the presence of women in government structures alone does not ensure their empowerment. He is right. Women parliamentarians often struggle to get their voices heard, or their draft legislation turned into law.
Women are trapped in anything but a virtuous circle. Their lot would be improved by pro-women legislation but there are few men who would put their political careers on the line to push through a bill that would ensure that DNA evidence was admissible in a rape case. All too many women in the legislatures are there courtesy of their family ties and there are few who make it to the assemblies from the grass roots — one has only to look at the ridicule and harassment suffered by poor women candidates from Sindh and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa in the last elections to see the truth of this. The route to political power is paved with wealth, and there are few independently wealthy women of liberal inclination who would wish to dip their feet in the political ordure.
Senator Bukhari urged the people to stand up against ‘the forces of darkness’ that were seeking to impose their retrograde paradigm on the entire country. Women and children have become more vulnerable as society has become increasingly radicalised in the last decade, a radicalisation that is currently in the ascendant, there being no countervailing narrative. Women are the victims of a pernicious patriarchy, a social construct that has their disempowerment at its very heart. Jirgas and panchayats frequently order women to be raped or even killed on the most specious of pretexts, but usually for having impugned (in the male mind) the ‘honour’ of the family, tribe or baradri. Attempts to curtail such activities are half-hearted at best.
The headline gains that women have made in the last decades represent a tiny fraction of what needs to be done to truly bring anything approaching gender equality in Pakistan. The current talks with extremists may have an element relating to the limiting of the rights of women within them. It will be up to civil society groups to monitor what is on the table for women in these talks, and to raise a hue and cry if the rights of women are compromised any further than they already are. Given the lack of political muscle and street-corner traction that civil society groups have, this is a faint hope indeed. But we must continue to make efforts to improve the lot of women in society and to work towards equal rights for this vulnerable section of society — an uphill struggle but one that is worth it.