Every Pakistani should be proud of the mountaineer Samina Baig’s remarkable achievement of becoming the first woman from Pakistan to reach the top of K-2, which is the second-highest mountain in the world and one of the most dangerous summits. While the news of this feat caught national headlines and was reported by international channels, it deserves to be viewed and appreciated from a broader perspective. In Pakistan’s male-dominated society this was no ordinary accomplishment and reaffirms that our women if provided the right opportunities and support are as good if not better achievers than men.
It is important to recall that Samina has several accomplishments to her credit. In 2013, she climbed Mount Everest and by 2014 she had the distinction of climbing all seven summits. The credit for her success also goes to her family and her fellow mountaineers that have been a source of strength and support for her.
Malala Yousafzai is another example of how women are excelling in different fields and her contributions to education equality have been phenomenal. She is prominent as she is the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize. She continues her mission and remains engaged in multiple activities including the establishment of the Malala Fund. It has helped secure $2.9 billion from the World Bank and G7 countries to put more girls in school. This is no ordinary achievement.
In art, music and even science and information technology (IT), our women have made their mark. Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, Laraib Atta, Mahira Khan, and the list goes on with women who have excelled in their fields. In parliament, despite their small numbers, the contribution of women in legislation and debates on serious national and international issues stands out. Presently, thousands of women are engaged in the field of education, medicine, and hi-tech and their contribution is significant. What is generally overlooked is that in the countryside women work in the fields and attend to chores at home.
In education, the performance of girls has been consistently better than the boys despite facing several social and economic constraints. Both score similarly on intelligence quotient (IQ) tests. The reason is girls study diligently, are more attentive and put in more hard work, which are attributes that give them an advantage. Regrettably, the feudal and tribal influence and male-dominated culture in Baluchistan, parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and rural Sindh have discouraged girls from attending schools. According to their warped thinking, educated girls become too independent and self-assured. The resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the presence of outlawed groups such as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan have been negative factors in spreading education in border areas. Even though Islam promotes and encourages seeking knowledge, unfortunately, its devotees today are lagging in practically every field.
In Pakistan, most women still face social, economic, and political discrimination, in defiance of the constitution that supports democratic principles and guarantees the fundamental rights of all citizens. Despite serious drawbacks and social taboos their achievement in varied fields only confirms that government and society have failed to actualise the full potential of nearly 50% of the population.
If the ruling elite itself is not educated and progressive in its outlook, the country is bound to suffer, particularly in terms of education. For the elite, an educated society is a threat to their power. Thus, successive Pakistani governments’ efforts have been tardy in promoting education, especially for girls. It is a common adage that if you educate a girl, it facilitates the education of the entire family. Other countries’ experience shows that educated women’s contribution to raising the country’s GDP is significant along with other beneficial outcomes.
Currently, there are several countries where women are either prime minister or president and hold key positions in parliament and the Senate or House of Representatives. Pakistan too can take pride in having a female prime minister. In the past and presently, several influential and competent women are politicians, lawyers, doctors, IT specialists, ambassadors and in high government positions. The most glaring example of female political leadership in Pakistan is the two-time Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. In 1988, Bhutto won the elections and had the privilege to become the first woman to head an Islamic state government. In 1993 again she was elected as the Prime Minister and stayed in office until 1996. However, there are many women in Pakistan, especially in rural areas who face social, economic, and political hurdles that prevent them from exercising their political rights. It is a major reason why their voting percentage is less compared to men. This has adverse consequences on governance and weakens the country’s development. It is also disconcerting that generally female ministers, with a few exceptions, do not get the same opportunities as their male counterparts to exercise power.
In the private sector, Pakistani women have excelled in many areas like setting up and managing education facilities, hospitals, and IT entrepreneurs. If the government facilitates and simplifies procedures for establishing businesses, much more can be achieved.
In outdoor games and athletics, our girls have fallen behind because of the lack of sports facilities in schools, colleges, and cities. The government and the private sector have been complacent and generally neglected this area. Social taboos are another factor that prevents girls from fully participating in outdoor activities. Despite these challenges, many Pakistani families, especially in the conservative tribal belt and in many cities and rural areas who can afford to send their girls to other provinces for education do so.
However, we simply cannot escape the harsh reality that as a society we have not done enough for our womenfolk and have to do a lot of catching up, especially in education, healthcare, and the general well-being of women. This has to be a national goal and provinces irrespective of which party is in power should work towards it. This will only be possible if the leadership pursues the right priorities and values the enormous potential of our women.
Source: The express tribune (editorial) (writer: Talat Masood)