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Women and power

Rasul Bakhsh Rais

The low social status of women because of the customs of the largely feudal and tribal culture of the society poses the biggest barrier in the way of womenÂ’s involvement in public affairs of society in general and electoral politics in particular.

Gender and politics are today two of the most debated issues worldwide, but have not drawn significant attention in Pakistan. There is now a greater degree of female activism in our country, both in terms of scale and quality, which has yet to acquire a critical mass to change traditional thinking on gender equality and the transformative role women can play in social and economic change.

The fundamental question is how to challenge inequality among sexes, which in our society is rooted in more than one source – tradition, religious beliefs and a social construction of gender roles that doesn’t favour women.

The good thing is that international civil society moments can, and have, influenced social movements, including those concerned with gender and power issues, throughout the world. As feminist activists the world over have begun to question political inequality among the sexes, the issue cannot remain unsettled forever in Pakistan.

Contemporary feminism has raised fundamental questions about the essence of the male-dominated democratic system in which women find themselves formally or informally excluded from political power. In recent decades, they have focused on the vital issues of empowerment, rights, social and political equality, and the end of discrimination in its all forms.

The feminist movement, even in a male-dominated, socially conservative society like Pakistan, has brought into sharp focus more or less the same issues about social status and adequate representation in the political power, as well as participation in politics.

There are similarities in the challenges women face at the structural level, but they have a different sense of issues due to cultural variation. However, the feminist movement around the world startlingly reached the same conclusions on the issue of gender and political power.

Although women in different parts of the world face different problems and confront different challenges and the feminist movement has many shades and strands, all of them, disregarding the nature of the societies they live in, share some common beliefs about the structure of societies: males dominate and control politics and power; women are co-opted and work in subordinate roles; and male dominance is not a natural but cultural thing that must change.

Therefore, how to change gender relationships, empower women and get the first principle of democracy – equality – accepted are some of the questions that are at the centre of women’s political movements. Pakistan is no exception to this global process.

While women in other parts of the world have made great progress, Pakistani women remain greatly disadvantaged mainly due to social and cultural conditions. Their struggle, perhaps as old as the country itself, has not evoked the same responses as elsewhere in the world and not achieved the same results either.

Although they have long way to go, what is heartening is that women in Pakistan are getting more organised; their activists are highly educated, skilled and very articulate. And all women’s groups have a clear vision, a convincing agenda and more forward-looking politics than similar women’s groups in other Muslim societies. Yet, they have to travel a long distance before they get equal rights or increase their share in different professions or in political power.

What holds women in Pakistan back? Why do so few women, compared to their substantial numbers (roughly fifty percent of the population), exercise or seek to exercise political power? These questions have been the subject of many theories, much conjecture and several sociological explanations in different countries.

Many of the factors that work against equality of women in both developed and developing countries are more deeply ingrained in Pakistani society. At a general level, women in politics face similar problems everywhere – cultural and role constraints, and male domination.

But in explaining the low participation of women in the political process of our country, we have to account for variations and relatively greater influence of some factors than others, and look for what is unique and so different from other situations.

In Pakistan’s case, one must fully comprehend the cultural constraints and how they have reinforced the subordinate social role of women. The social structures that are at the base of any type of political process consist of power relations and relative positions of individuals; groups establish identities and determine roles. The larger question about sex and power can only be understood in terms of the social structures and how they distribute values in society.

Looking at the general values, social structures, and cultural orientation of the Pakistani population, one finds Pakistani women as the most oppressed social and political class. Dependence, passivity, low self-esteem and denial of even some basic rights characterise their general status.

At the same time, we find great variations in the status and roles of women depending on their social circumstances. Educated and professional women in urban areas and from the upper classes of the society enjoy much better status and rights than illiterate women in rural areas. Women in the tribal areas of Balochistan, the NWFP and remote areas of southern Punjab and interior Sindh live in more adverse social conditions than women in the urban parts of the country.

In less developed areas, honour killings, domestic violence and discrimination by male members of families are too common, but not confined to these areas alone. Our argument is that exclusion from the political process or even voluntary low participation of women are culturally and socially determined traits; and that the state in the political culture of the traditional male-dominant society of Pakistan has done very little to meaningfully empower women.

The low social status of women because of the customs of the largely feudal and tribal culture of the society poses the biggest barrier in the way of women’s involvement in public affairs of society in general and electoral politics in particular.

So many studies on political participation have repeatedly demonstrated the relationship between social status and participation in electoral politics and engagement in civic and public affairs. The real question then is how to change the status of women, and who will be the agent of that change. Education, and social and economic development takes a longer time. In some areas like protection of rights and empowerment, state policy can be the catalyst.

The formal measures that the democratic government may take to end discrimination against women and protect their rights are the necessary first steps. But real change will come when the social barriers gradually come down.

Dr Rasul Bakhsh Rais is author of Recovering the Frontier State: War, Ethnicity and State in Afghanistan (Oxford University Press, 2008) and a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. He can be reached at
Source: Daily Times