MARCH 8 is International Women’s Day. It should not be made into a day of lamentation decrying the plight of women in Pakistan. No doubt it saddens one’s heart to see the honour killings, the rapes and the domestic violence that women suffer.
Then there is the prevalent gender bias in society combined with the fact that unequal opportunities marginalise women. It makes one ask, how far do we still have to go?
But there is another question that begs to be asked. How far have the women of Pakistan come? They have certainly come a long way. And this answer makes March 8 an occasion for celebration. The women’s movement which has been scoffed at by cynics deserves a pat on the back for effecting a change in attitudes. It has succeeded in creating enough public awareness about the status of women to put the women’s issue squarely on the national agenda. No political party can afford to ignore it and every government feels compelled to address it.
The greatest compliment for the women’s movement in Pakistan came from an Indian activist, Dr Roop Rekha Verma, whose principled stand cost her her job as the vice-chancellor of Lucknow University and head of the philosophy department. She is today the secretary of Saajhi Duniya, an NGO working for social justice and peace. She told me in a meeting I had with her recently in Lucknow that she and her colleagues admire the women activists in Pakistan for their courage. “In any religious state — be it Islamic, Hindu or Christian — many constraints exist within the religious framework in which one operates. It is not easy to raise many of the issues that the women activists in Pakistan have been focusing on. They have achieved a lot.”
That is most encouraging for those struggling for women’s rights in conditions that are quite frustrating. Dr Verma talked to me about the pro-women laws that have been passed recently in India — the latest being the act on domestic violence adopted by the Lok Sabha in 2005 that came into effect in the closing months of 2006. Dr Verma is not happy with the slow pace of implementation. The mechanism needed to provide relief to women has not been created in every Indian state and is not always effective where it does exist.
In Pakistan, the women’s movement is still struggling to undo the anti-women laws imposed on the country by the military dictatorship of Ziaul Haq. Women achieved partial success in 2006 when the infamous Hudood Ordinances were modified — but not repealed as demanded by women — by the Protection of Women Act. Laws, such as the one on domestic violence — are still a distant dream, concerted efforts by PPPP MNA Sherry Rehman notwithstanding.
A momentum for change would be created if laws illegalising violence against women and recognising their right to gender equality were enacted. But to be really effective and durable, the change must come from below. Why has there been little change in the attitudes of women at the grassroots level in Pakistan? WAF has itself conceded that there is need to address its mobilisation strategy to make it more effective.
Explaining her modus operandi, Dr Verma informed me that Saajhi Duniya was launched informally several decades ago as a group to promote inter-communal peace and harmony. She would visit areas where Hindus and Muslims lived in close proximity. Such localities became powder kegs waiting to explode when tensions were running high. She and her colleagues would meet people individually or in small groups at corner sides or in their homes and talk to them. It was a kind of therapy and thus they spread their message of peace.
There came a stage when the people who began to see her point of view would hold meetings themselves and invite Dr Verma to come and address bigger gatherings. To penetrate any community she would invariably approach it through a community activist to win its confidence.
Dr Verma extended her field of work to gender issues when she observed that any problem that she addressed had a strong gender dimension.
If the women’s movement in Pakistan has failed to mobilise women sufficiently at the grassroots level it is because its communication strategy has not been directed at women at the grassroots. At this level only a one-to-one strategy works as the relative success of the NGOs working for the population programme has demonstrated. The women’s groups have still to do that on a large scale. That is how religious parties operate and therein lies the secret of their success in indoctrinating people.
Take the case of WAF. It has served as a powerful pressure group that has effectively lobbied for the women’s cause. It has also taken up individually the cases of women who have fallen victim to violence or have been under threat. But it still has to reach out to the grassroots women — and also men — in normal course so that their mindset begins to change subtly and they internalise the new approach.
Rather than wait for a crisis to erupt when the women activists react and play their conflict-resolution or relief-providing role, the time has come for the movement to be more proactive and reach out to women on a one-to-one level on a regular basis. Some of them might already be doing it but the practice is not widespread enough to make an impact. As Dr Roop Rekha Verma did more than 30 years ago and is still doing, activists must go out and meet the women — those children of a lesser god — who would benefit from interacting with them.
This is the kind of mobilising Gloria Steinem, the American feminist icon I met in New Delhi, advocates. She writes in her book Doing Sixty and Seventy that she has been travelling around the US for the last 25 years working with women, and some men, in “the kind of direct action organising” that she first saw in India and was magnetised by. It involved what a team leader in India during her stay there in the sixties had counselled. “You have to listen, you have to know, you have to sit down eye-to-eye.”