The latest diplomatic kerfuffle involving the Land of the Pure relates to the release of the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) latest report on gender disparity around the world in which Pakistan has been ranked second-to-last. The WEF Gender Gap report is not simply a collection of different indicators that provides an absolute picture of what life is like for women; instead, it measures the disparity between men and women in the areas of economic empowerment, political participation, health, and education. Thus, it evaluates the empowerment of women on a relative scale; while Saudi Arabia may (surprisingly enough) have decent scores when it comes to traditional measures of human development, the methodology adopted by WEF gauges the position of women by comparing them to men in the same society, thereby demonstrating that while Saudi women may be reasonably well-off in absolute terms (when looking at things like years of schooling and life expectancy), their access to opportunity lags far behind that of their male counterparts. By emphasising political participation as one of its areas of concern, the WEF Gender Gap report also highlights how access to the public sphere, in terms of having a voice and participating in the process through while collective decision-making is done for society, is a crucial component of empowerment.
Shireen Mazari, the Minister for Human Rights in the PTI government, has rubbished the low ranking given to Pakistan in the latest WEF report, claiming that the data used by the WEF to create its ranking was out dated and false. There is probably some truth to this; as Dr. Mazari pointed out, the report seems to have failed to include some obvious data points, like the fact that several women were ministers during the previous government’s tenure. However, even a cursory glance at WEF Gender Gap reports over the past few years would demonstrate a depressing fact; no matter how you cut it, and no matter what you might have to say about the data and methodology, Pakistan continually shows up as one of the worst performers in the world when it comes to gender equality and female empowerment. Indeed, the WEF’s Gender Gap ranking is just one of several measures that shows this; for example, the UNDP’s Gender Inequality and Gender Development Indices, both of which also look at healthcare, education, political participation, and economic activity, rank Pakistan at 150 out of 189 countries. There are also more obvious indicators of the lack of progress Pakistan has made when it comes to improving the lives of women; literacy rates for women lag far behind those for men, female labour force participation remain abysmally low, property ownership by women is virtually non-existent, rates of maternal mortality are amongst the highest in the world even as women are typically given little control over their own bodies and reproductive health, domestic violence is rampant, honour killing exists, and so on. Perhaps most damning of all is the sex ratio of 1.05 men to 1.0 women compared to 1.01 men to 1.0 women globally, 0.95 men to 1.0 women in Japan, 0.97 men to 1.0 women in Denmark, and 0.99 men to 1.0 women in the United Kingdom. As the Nobel Prizewinning economist Amartya Sen famously argued about Pakistan (and countries with similar sex ratios like India and China), female infanticide, as well as the inadequate provision of healthcare and nutrition, account for the millions of ‘missing women’ who might otherwise be alive in these countries.
As Minister for Human Rights, Dr. Mazari has thus far taken an interesting approach to responding to allegations of rights abuses in Pakistan. Whenever confronted by a report or story that suggests Pakistan does not treat its women, minorities, or other marginalised groups well, Dr. Mazari’s formula is to first attack the credibility of those making such claims and then quickly pivot to a different area of concern altogether in a classic display of what-aboutery. Thus, for example, when told by the United States that Pakistan has a poor track record when it comes to protecting Ahmadis, Dr. Mazari might accuse the US of being motivated by purely political considerations when making such pronouncements, might suggest that the US lacks the moral authority to make such accusations when its own president is busy fanning the flames of Islamophobia, and might also attack the US for having double-standards by not addressing rights abuses in Kashmir.
In her defence, Dr. Mazari is not wrong when she says these things. However, in addition to how her attacks on Pakistan’s critics follow a well-worn routine that has been deployed repeatedly over the years, the simple fact is that they ultimately amount to little more than apologia for the indefensible. Yes, the US may have cynical motives for threatening Pakistan with sanctions due to the discrimination faced by minorities, but that does not change the fact that this discrimination is real, just as the flawed data allegedly used by the WEF in its Gender Gap report does not invalidate the broader claim that Pakistan needs to do much more to improve the lives of its women. The approach taken by the government to responding to all of this simply betrays a lack of concern for actually tackling the very real issues confronted by disempowered groups in Pakistan, once again focusing on style and rhetoric that impresses the PTI’s political base over substantive reforms and policy that would truly render criticism of Pakistan meaningless. I am sure Dr. Mazari would agree that instead of defending Pakistan by questioning the motives and credentials of its critics, it would be better to not give such actors the ammunition with which they could attack the country in the first place and the best way to do that would be to undertake the structural reform needed to make Pakistan a fairer and more equitable society.