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The dismal state of women in Pakistan

By Zafar Hilaly

The writer is an analyst and a former ambassador to Yemen, Nigeria and Italy

While we have seen phenomenal changes take place across the world in recent decades, the status and fate of women, who have been so badly treated through the centuries in almost all cultures, hasn’t changed much.

But in Pakistan, their situation has become worse and thus it comes as no surprise that we were recently rated as one of the worst countries in the world when it comes to the way we treat women. Already among the ten most corrupt states of this world, Pakistan ranks even higher when it comes to maltreatment of women. Only in war-torn Afghanistan and the Congo is their plight worse and their lives and honour more threatened.

More than 60 years after independence, 80 per cent of Pakistani women are still subject to domestic violence, while one in three has to endure villainy like rape, honour killing, immolation and acid attacks. Being paraded naked before neighbours or being gang-raped is another peculiarly Pakistani punishment, even when there is little evidence of the crime for which these cruel and illegal punishments are meted out, notwithstanding the fact that the deepest sin against the human mind is to believe something without evidence.

Our country is ranked 82 out of 93 countries on the Gender Development Index and 152 out of 156 countries on the Gender Empowerment Measure. We are also among a handful of countries where there is a negative sex ratio of 100 women to 108.5 men.

Extensive research, analysis and field surveys conducted around the world and by the UN itself across a wide spectrum of issues, confirm that empowering women is the most enduring way of accelerating social and economic development and strengthening the values of nonviolence, compassion and diligent work ethics.

Women can be a powerful ‘force multiplier’ for the overall progress of society, and that notably includes the well-being of the family unit, if they are treated as equals in letter and spirit and are able to make their contribution in all fields of human endeavour.

Our commitment to eliminating all forms of discrimination against women (we have signed up to many a global convention including the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women) has not made an iota of difference when it comes to translating words into action. Generally speaking, we find carrying out commitments far too fatiguing. Hence, our solemn and much publicised pledges to protect women have made no difference, just as our anti-terrorism legislation has not deterred terrorism. Actually, laws here are observed mostly in the breach.

There are plenty of ideas about what is needed legally and administratively to make a real difference, but none of those will have the desired impact unless our vision for our nation is a tolerant, modern, liberal and progressive society. Both dogmatic obscurantism and patriarchal values have twisted and distorted our sense of fundamental values, particularly with respect to women and their place in society. Unless a forward-looking vision is adopted by society as a whole, the innate prejudice against women that is so widespread in Pakistan and which our society as a whole seems to blindly pedal, or willfully prefer, will continue to play havoc with the lives of women.

Life is replete with daily examples of injuries and usurpations on part of men against women, so much so that the history of women can be likened to the history of the worst form of tyranny the world has ever seen.

And here in Pakistan, such tyranny, in some form or the other, is visible every day on public buses, in shops and on pavements in our teeming cities and towns, and in the countryside where a majority of women live. Men grope, gawk and leer at women and often accost them in public view. Even a veiled woman invites attention even though her ‘invisible’ presence ought to be mundane.

We only get to hear of the more egregious crimes committed against women but never about the snide comments and insults have that women endured in their daily lives. Why should a woman wait and wait until a whole contingent of men have passed through a narrow passage before negotiating it herself merely because she might accidentally brush past some of them? And yet she does wait, as if by instinct and uncomplainingly. Why, when getting into a cab, must a woman so contort herself or arrange her dress that not a sliver of ankle flesh is even accidentally exposed? And yet they do that very self-consciously, and sometimes even in the middle of the road. And the sight of a woman’s hair seems to stir the animalism in man, especially those whose soul starts at the kneecap and ends at the navel.

Exactly at what point of time Pakistanis stand in terms of our attitude towards women can be gauged from the following:

“Men have broad and large chests, small and narrow hips, and more understanding than women, who have but small and narrow chests, and broad hips so that they should remain at home, sit still, keep house and bear and bring up children.”

The above quotation is from what Martin Luther wrote in 1540, in his entirely forgettable treatise titled “Of marriage and celibacy”. The West and, let it be said, some Muslim societies, have moved way beyond that point while we in Pakistan have not reached it as yet, at least en masse.

Most of us here have almost certainly heard a similar cant. Among fundos and their millions of closet supporters, these sentiments are rampant. These views are frankly now the norm; they are an accurate reflection of public thought.

While most societies have conceded that the extension of women’s rights is the basic principle of all social progress, in our case, that is far from true. As the recent international findings on the plight of women show, we are far behind. Complacency, apathy and vestiges of savagery towards women continue to hold sway in our male-dominated society. The fact is that if we really want to make a break with poverty and backwardness, we cannot achieve that without empowering women. Apart from considerations of human dignity of women, there are also compelling social and economic reasons to do this.

Source: The Express Tribune