By Atle Hetland
Even if the cultural, social, economic and other beliefs about how to organise a society are the same or very similar, the implementation of it all may vary much from one geographic area to another, and certainly over time. We may belong to the same religion and read the same holy book, but the way we interpret and practice our faith may be different in different communities at the same time and certainly at different times. Yet, the similarities may constitute more than the differences; the visible and invisible parallels and interconnections may be more than what divides.
Today, the day after the International Women’s Day, March 8, was celebrated worldwide, we may reflect on gender equality in different societies, indeed where we live, especially if inequalities are big, such as in Pakistan. The term feminism simply means that we believe that every woman and man should have the same rights and opportunities in society, without any discrimination. Usually, girls and women still experience lack of equality in most, if not all societies, indeed in Pakistan.
People may believe that God created all human beings equal, yet, there are huge variations in how this is understood and practiced from country to country, and between sub-groups within countries. Religion, as interpreted by men, is often a conservative factor in society, making change slower than it could otherwise have been, and if the religious leaders had supported new standards and values, such as gender equality. In the Catholic Church, women are not allowed into the priesthood, and male priests must remain celibate (unmarried) and at a distance from family life. But isn’t it a contradiction that women cannot be priests and bishops in life, but can become saints after they have passed on, such as Mother Theresa of Calcutta, who was canonised to become a Saint Theresa in 2016?
In Norway, which is historically a Christian-majority country, it is only in the last couple of generations that women have been accepted into priesthood. Today, out of the eleven bishops, four are women; a woman is preses (head) of the community of bishops. But it took a full generation from when the first priest/pastor was ordained to when the first woman became bishop in 1993.
I believe it is important that there are both women and men as preachers in a church, mosque or temple. But even if we agree on that, it takes time to get it, and there are always many social and theological issues to consider – and, of course, political and employment issues, too, since men don’t want to give away privileges and status.
If we look at gender equality historically in different countries, we will see that there have been huge changes over time, in politics, social and economic fields. In the West, the first country allowing women to vote was New Zealand (then a British colony) in 1893, and most countries followed over the next two or three decades; Norway in 1913. In America, women have had the right to vote from 1920. There were several latecomers in Europe; Spain has had universal suffrage since 1931, France, since 1944, Italy since 1946, Greece since 1952, and Switzerland as late as 1971. Pakistan has had full voting rights for men and women since independence in 1947.
The superstructure in a society must allow equality; cultural, religious and legal rights must allow equality for men and women. In addition, it is important that the economic rights are equal and just for both genders since we know that class differences in a society are always paired with other inequalities. We also know that reduction of class differences takes time, and reduction of gender differences does indeed take time.
The end-goals may be the same in all countries and societies, but there are different paths to change, when and what people prioritise. In Pakistan, for many development reasons, but also to achieve greater gender equality, I would give first priority to improvement in education for both boys and girls, and especially for girls. Girls do better than boys at exams if given the opportunity, in Pakistan and worldwide.
At this year’s International Women’s Day, the United Nations focuses on women in the changing world of work, with the equality goal ‘Planet 50-50 by 2030’. A conference entitled ‘Women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work’, will be held at the UN headquarters in New York from 13-24 March to discuss how more women can enter the labour force; today only 50 percent of adult women are in the formal labour force, as against 76 percent of men. In addition, an overwhelming majority of women are in the informal sector, subsidising care and domestic work, and in lower-pay and lower-skill occupations, with little or no social protection. The UN Women’s statement says: “Achieving gender equality in the world of work is imperative for sustainable development”.
To some extent, this may be based on Western thinking, but it may be as relevant in the Global South. I should stress that I don’t believe the West can prescribe how change should take place in a country like Pakistan. I don’t think I as a Norwegian either, with an excellent ‘government-regulated welfare state’, should say how people in Pakistan, or anywhere else should develop. I may, for example, not understand the Pakistan ‘family welfare state’, and I cannot say much about how Pakistan can achieve greater gender and economic equality. I can say a lot about goals and what I believe is fair and needed. But I must also realise that there are many positive aspects of the Pakistani traditions. Perhaps the West can also learn from them? In addition, it is important also for Pakistan to study how the West succeeded in greatly decreasing the gender gap over a hundred years or so. One reason is that there was economic growth and a need for women in the formal labour force. Not all was done by choice and opportunity; it was also a demand pushed on women and men by outside factors, and women were willing to do what was expected of them in education, work and public life in the new times. Often though, women got extra burdens, too, true, along with opportunities. In the West, there is still need for adjustments in order to create more harmonious daily lives for all when it is a goal that everyone works in the formal sector.
I have an American friend who says that she has never felt there was any inequality in the family she grew up in; everyone was expected to do as well as he or she could, irrespective of gender. That is probably how many people feel it is, especially in the West. In Pakistan, I believe many women feel there are many visible and invisible restrictions, including early marriages to partners they hardly choose themselves; there are demands on women as for what education she should take, and her husband may decide if she can work outside the home; and many other issues.
My American friend also says that she believes Pakistan’s Prime Minister is gender-blind, at least in his family. It may ‘just’ be that it is the route to greater gender equality that is difficult? And then, is Pakistan en route to achieve greater equality, or is it still not a politically defined field, with priorities? Maybe the goals within the land’s superstructure have not yet been defined either? And if that is the case, I was also not right when I, in my more philosophical introduction to the article, said that we have the same or similar goals, but that the implementation plans and timelines vary.