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Women and security in Pakistan

Muhammad Ismail Khan

In Pakistan, even gender itself is often portrayed through a security lens. For feminists, the killing of an NGO worker might be a direct proof of the stifling of women’s emancipation. Unfortunately, the very presence of pro-women NGOs has been denounced by many as aiming to control the country.

The other day, a group of NGOs announced that they will march for ten days starting on November 25, the international day of violence against women. It would come as no surprise if the news is missed by many readers. Although gender, for its pervasiveness, is an important issue, it is least addressed in Pakistan. On this, reasons from feminist literature might range from the presence of “male chauvinism” to the patriarchal structure of state institutions.

Deliberate or not, largely, it is the state’s own goals that influence institutions. Since Pakistan has remained obsessed with security at all times, it is reasonable to assume that even if the intention is not to stifle social issues including gender, the end result is the prioritising of security. That the security debate is monolithic is another point.

However, the way they have interacted with each other is important despite being overlooked in mainstream discussions. Here, the most common debate has been comparisons between civil and military governments.

The pro-military argument says that the military in Pakistan, despite its security obsession, was noted for increasing the presence of women in decision making at the top level through the reserved seats for women in the legislative assemblies. It is argued that even General Zia, despite his anti-women draconian laws, came up with the Women’s Division; such arguments thus nullify the perception that military regimes are unfavourable to women.

The anti-military argument believes that generally militaries favour a masculine culture, which then erodes the presence of women. In Pakistan’s context, it is reasoned that the positive moves by the military rulers on women’s issues are cosmetic and that a civilian ruler has to look beyond merely the security concerns of the state. Here, the recent passage of pro-women bills, one on domestic violence and the other on sexual harassment, illustrate the point.

Irrespective of the importance of the arguments, both the camps view security’s impact through an individual-centric timeframe; there are related issues that need to be looked into.

One of these is the conflict over what comes first. Anthropologists argue that since gender is the most pervasive identity, as it cuts across ethnicity, race, and religion, it is important to frame every policy through a gender lens. It is for this reason that civil society in Pakistan, despite its varied goals, speaks volumes about gender inequality.

In Pakistan, even gender itself is often portrayed through a security lens. For feminists, the killing of an NGO worker might be a direct proof of the stifling of women’s emancipation. Unfortunately, the very presence of pro-women NGOs has been denounced by many as aiming to control the country.

The debate is not whether gender and security cut each other or not. Since gender is at the micro-level, traditional security is often at a macro- and state-level. There is no reason why they cannot work in their respective spheres. For instance, little is known about the formation of the Pakistan Women’s National Guard, under the army, and Pakistan Women’s Naval Reserves, under the navy, after the first war with India. Formed by Begum Rana Liaquat Ali Khan, these organisations provided military training to women. It was in 1954 that these two organisations were disbanded because of the opposition from certain circles who thought defence is not a woman’s job. Similarly, it was only recently that the Pakistani armed forces inducted women.

The main issue is that of inclusion so that a policy framed is gender-sensitive and there is no mismatch between state and society. It must be kept in mind that the experiences of men, women, and children vary in war and combat. Just read how rape is being exercised as a common tool of subjugation. Even in peacetime, the security sector and its whole structure, such as the law-enforcement agencies, need to be responsive towards women.

Thus it could be implied that it is certainly the absence of the gender element in security matters rather than security per se that results in the military being associated with being an anti-women and masculine affair. In Pakistan, this association is often depicted in the security culture, of which language is an important component.

One of the direct associations is that of cowardice with feminine symbols. Every now and then, there are examples of political leaders either tossing bangles or using the phrase save the ‘honour’ of the country whenever the security of the state is in jeopardy. One of the most noted examples was in 1988 when Benazir Bhutto and her mother were vilified through leaflets.

Similarly, other terms are subtle and stem unintentionally from our patriarchal mindset. Honour is one such word which, in Pakistan’s context, has meant to become an unjustified, revenge-seeking, angry misogynist. Every year hundreds of women in Pakistan are killed in the name of honour.

In Pakistan this debate often relies on words that show a direct borrowing from the vernacular, rooted in the existing social conditions of the country. Additionally, it exposes a dearth on the part of society of not being able to communicate in modern terms. Whatever it is, it further strengthens the masculine notion of security by kicking the other gender out.

The writer is a graduate in International Relations from Boston University and a free lance journalist. He is also the editor of Multipak and can be reached at ismkhan84@gmail.com
Source: Daily Times

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