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Clueless : by Dr Masooda Bano

The more the government attempts to demonstrate a commitment to the empowerment of Pakistani women, the more clear it becomes how clueless it is about what women empowerment is all about. To add to it claims of empowering the Pakistani woman, this year again the government organised the mixed international marathon in Lahore for the third consecutive year. Most will remember the controversy that mixed marathons generated prior to institutionalisation of this event. The issue had gained international attention when the government forcefully tried to clamp down on a mixed marathon organised by HRCP where the police manhandled Asma Jehangir. The event got the government much bad press internationally. Not surprisingly, soon after that the government announced mixed marathons in Lahore as an annual event to counter this critique from western quarters.

This fact that the event has been institutionalised in response to western reaction was clear in the speeches made at the event. General Musharraf inaugurated the walk with following remark: “This event has helped in creating a soft image of our country.” Punjab Chief Minister Pervaiz Elahi echoed the same view in his speech saying that the success of the event “had not only highlighted the identity of Lahore, but also promoted an enlightened image of the country at the international level”. In addition, General Musharraf criticised the religious elements in the society for marginalising women. Such views raise important issues.

One, what has women empowerment come to mean to the present government. There are multiple perspectives on what women empowerment is all about. Even western feminism has branched out into multiple streams: at two extremes, some argue for equality purely calculated in terms of economic and political opportunities, others argue for recognizing the maternal instinct within women and acknowledging their primary role as nurturing the family.

Then there are the modern interpretations of Islamic laws as opposed to the more traditional interpretation of gender roles in the traditional Islamic scholarship. Central to western scholarship on feminism are the issues of power, authority and women’s ability to make choices. Central to the traditional interpretation of Islamic laws is the division of roles and responsibilities between the two genders to preserve the family and societal structures. The two thoughts work on different trajectory and do eventually clash.

Therefore, for a government that is claiming to empower women, the first issue to resolve is that ideologically what kind of society it is aiming to develop. Is it aiming for a wholesale replication of the western notions of female empowerment, where there has undoubtedly been immense progress but hand in hand have come many problems like single motherhoods, teenage pregnancies, high divorce rates, and the old age homes? Or, is the aim to pick the good things from the western cultures while retaining what is positive in our own culture: values that have held the family structure together. The current government seems to have no vision on this.

Two, in claiming to empower women what is critical is for the government to identify the institutional hurdles in the way to women empowerment. Within the current government, it is difficult to see either a clear vision of what form of society it wants to develop or what meaningful strategies it is putting in place to make the environment more conducive to women. The benchmark of government commitment to women empowerment has become such superficial activities like the holding of mixed marathons and encouraging media to expose more of women’s bodies. Ironically, in the feminist discourse this is the utmost sign of women’s subjugation because then women are again reduced to being important because of how they can visually please the men rather than for their intellectual or professional abilities.

What the government needs to acknowledge is that it is not the religious elements in the society, which are responsible for suppressing women. Central to the problem is the feudal structure where life of poor men as well as women has no protection against powerful groups. Also, central to it is the lack of education. If most Pakistani women don’t like walking on the city streets, or joining mixed marathon, it is not to do with Islamic values alone; there are many practical reasons for it: no one wants to be stared at and touched by passing men. Now Islam is clearly not preaching men to do these things. Such cultural habits are closely linked to other factors, most importantly lack of education.

The fact is that every society needs to undertake its own analysis of what form of societal values it wants to promote; which groups of women are most vulnerable within the society; and, what are the institutional hurdles impeding development of a progressive society. Clearly, the present government is not doing that. Instead, it is engaging in frivolous activities without a systematic vision or strategy of what needs to be done to develop a more tolerant and progressive society. And the reason for that is clear: its attempts at women empowerment are purely driven by its desire for western approval rather than a genuine commitment to the cause. After all, why should General Musharraf and Pervaiz Elahi both mention projecting a liberal image internationally as an important purpose of hosting the mixed marathon?

Also, unlike their claims, it has to be remembered that hosting such contentious events actually reinforces the conservative image of the country internationally. Mixed marathons are a non-issue for western countries. When in their press an activity like this is reported as a special deal in Pakistan where many were resisting it, it does not give the western audience an image of a liberal Pakistan. What they interpret from the event is that Pakistan is a highly conservative society where such events have to be artificially engineered. So the image that is promoted is of a conservative society, but a liberal government. This clearly helps General Musharraf’s strategy of retaining support within the western capitals, but it does not win Pakistan a soft image. The claims of women empowerment are thus proving to be yet another tactic of General Musharraf to defend his liberal credentials; they seem little to do with actually developing a progressive society.

Source: The News