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From Minerva to Malala

By: Harris Khalique

Believe it or not, the biggest challenge posed to the pre-modern state structures of the republic and the hierarchical, patriarchal and feudal mindset that has dominated us for ages comes from our school girls and young women from lower and middle-income social classes who work or go to college. It is a unique challenge, for this resistance to primordial norms has no nucleus. They may have some human rights defenders or women’s rights activists on their side but there is no political party or a recognised widespread social movement across the country that champions the cause of these girls and young women. And the custodians of the past, reactionaries and zealots, are terribly scared.

While there is an increasing tendency to fight the ideological war on the battleground of an oppressed Pakistani woman’s body and soul, girls and women continue to subvert these machinations in peaceful, non-threatening and sustained ways. I have said this before but when we mark the end of 16 days of activism for ending violence against women, it is important to recount the achievements of women in the face of all odds and remind us of the silver lining they have created for a country and society buckling under the overwhelming pressures of a crumbling economy and religious extremism.

These 16 days of activism are observed to commemorate the sacrifice of the Mirabal sisters in 1960. Out of four sisters, three were killed on November 25, 1960 by the forces of the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo. In 1999, the UN General Assembly declared the date of their murder as the international day of ending violence against women. Since then, from November 25 to December 10 – the international human rights day – 16 days of activism are observed globally by states, human rights groups, civil society organisations and women’s associations. The Mirabal sisters were fighting political oppression and struggling for democracy and freedom. These sisters, along with their husbands were interrogated, imprisoned and tortured on several occasions before being brutally killed.

Minerva was the first to become politically active among the sisters and then converted others to her cause. Organisations and networks across the spectrum have been holding events to mark these days across Pakistan for the past many years. A significant event this year was the coming together of all major networks and institutions in Islamabad on December 6. They organised a moot court where some celebrities questioned parliamentarians on pro-women laws, their enactment and enforcement. The jury comprised women who had been subjected to various forms of violence by their own families, husbands or in-laws. Most heart-wrenching were the accounts of acid burn victims.

But when we see that the extremists in our society fully recognise the threat to their idea of the world, there is need for us to acknowledge, celebrate and support the passion and tenacity of Pakistani girls and women. It is our school girls, heads bare or with scarves wrapped around, in cities, towns and villages who continue to go to their schools to be educated. Some of them walk miles, some take buses and vans and some are dropped off by their fathers or brothers on bicycles and motorbikes. They spend hours just to get to their schools – without boundary walls, toilet facilities, and decent classrooms. The bombing of hundreds of schools in Swat and other areas, the invasion of their school in Rawalpindi, the injuries inflicted upon their sisters like Malala fail to stop them.

They go to their colleges – ridiculed at times by community elders, teased and harassed on the way, sometimes finding no one to instruct them, without access to computers and libraries. These girls have not let a boy top any of the secondary or higher secondary examinations taken by various boards across Pakistan in the last twenty years. Their numbers in universities, medical colleges, architecture and engineering schools, law colleges and accountancy firms are increasing phenomenally. They dominate the student strength in places like Karachi, Punjab and Peshawar universities.

Women in our rural areas have always worked alongside men in farms and reared livestock. This was in addition to bringing potable water from an external source in case there was no water supply, which was usually the case. Raising children and running the household was not even seen as work. In recent years, more women from urban lower middle income families have taken to wage labour. Their work force participation is on the rise. From factories and retail outlets to offices and banks, women have made their presence felt. They continue to bear the full burden of domestic responsibilities in addition to bringing their hard-earned income home. A girl from a village in Nowshera, Khyber Pakhtunhwa, once told me that when she insisted on working in an office after completing her education and succeeded in convincing her father, the whole family was castigated. She said, “We were isolated from the whole family. Our relatives stopped coming to see us. They would tease my brother and called him baighairat (honourless). He would be scorned because his sister worked in an office where men also worked. Sometimes my mother and elder would get angry and frustrated. They wanted me to leave work. But I decided not to stop.”

Women offering domestic help to middle- and high-income families are in many cases sole breadwinners supporting their large families who live in squatters within cities or in villages they have come from. They are treated shabbily in many homes and work for more than 12 hours a day. Their men are either sick, addicted to drugs or have meagre incomes. On the other hand, it must also be recognised that professional women coming from more fortunate backgrounds are playing a more active role in the job market, and are making a mark for themselves in high profile jobs. They do not sit idle like the rich ladies of the past. Without the participation of women from different social strata, the country’s formal and informal economies will come to a standstill. In rural and semi-urban Pakistan, women provide basic services to their communities – whether as lady health workers or primary school teachers.

After decades of martial laws, with intermittent short-term civilian interludes, the democratically-elected parliament is completing its full term. But there is no denying the challenges faced by our economy and polity today. I maintain that there has to be supremacy of the elected parliament if the country is to remain stable. But this will not suffice if a civilian government’s performance is not improved in the areas of economy, governance, accountability and transparency. However, what a total of 22 percent women parliamentarians have achieved and contributed in legislative work over the past four and a half years is highly commendable. Across party divides, they have galvanised support for seven pro-women bills. They have dominated parliamentary proceedings in such a way that more than 70 percent of the total bills that were tabled came from them. They have been vocal in asking for the repeal or amendments to anti-women and anti-minority laws that were made a part of our system under Gen Ziaul Haq.

However, religious extremism is not merely a threat. It is a potent force capable of rolling back whatever women have achieved over the years. It is time for the state of Pakistan to be categorical and decisive in its support to women’s rights to education, employment, political participation and safe private and public spaces. Actions speak louder than words.

The News