IN its latest report on the state of the world population, the United Nations Population Fund has called for a culturally sensitive approach to development. Nowhere is this more needed than in the context of women. This approach is especially required in patriarchal and conservative societies like ours where women are at the receiving end of a number of socially abominable traditions. A cursory glance at the statistics shows how unequal they appear when compared to men, be it in the field of education, health or employment. They lack choices in life, yet are central to family and tribe honour, often having to pay dearly, sometimes with their lives, if they are perceived to be violating cultural values. Unfortunately, regressive thoughts and practices are not only embedded in our culture, they are boosted by the state’s outlook which is sometimes governed by anti-women legislation but more often by the government’s inability to safeguard the rights of the female population.
At the other end of the spectrum are the progressive societies of the West where women’s contribution is acknowledged and encouraged, where their opinions and choices count. An admirable human rights framework – especially true of Europe – is espoused and followed; one that in theory makes culture subservient to fundamental values. In an ideal world, this perhaps is the framework that all countries should be broadly following, but many deep-rooted, culture-specific practices and ideas fly in the face of such lofty value systems. Even the gradual reversal of such traditions, much less their elimination, appears difficult to achieve in many societies where the state itself is unable to make a distinction between what constitutes the abuse of human rights and the practice which allows it. How is the empowerment of women to be encouraged in such a social milieu, even when there are some attempts to upgrade their position – such as ensuring a reasonably strong female presence in parliament as is the case in Pakistan?
Perhaps the key lies not only in making the implementation of human rights legislation more effective but also in wholeheartedly embracing more universal ideals of basic liberties. The state must not be afraid to be seen at odds with cultural preferences that violate human rights or to actively call for greater decision-making by women in subjects as varied as reproductive health and political liberties. It should also do more to ensure that women at the grassroots are able to reach out for opportunities and that trends like Talibanisation are not allowed to rob them of these. This would entail working around present value systems. But if the commitment to uplift society, especially women, is there, then there is no reason why the state should not be broadening the definition of culture by working with it to achieve its goals.