By: SAHER BALOCH
KARACHI: Among the many issues discussed at a workshop on Global View on Challenges for Women Rights on Thursday, religious fundamentalism and the differing cultural views restricting women’s rights evoked interesting comments and questions.
Shagufta Alizai, a gender specialist, said that for years Pakistan had taken “two steps forward and one step backward” when it comes to working on issues related to women. “The challenges that we face pertain to a very simple question, do we have the capacity to implement our national or international commitments? And more importantly, which one of them comes first?” She said in Pakistan policies regarding women owed much more to political expediency and, at times, leadership. “Also, when will and commitment is present, the empowerment agenda is stronger, resulting in the establishment of institutions. For instance, the Ministry of Women Development, Fatima Jinnah University and National Commission on the Status of Women, are a few examples of times when the institutions decided to do something.” Ms Alizai said that “we have women in the armed forces, courts and media, there are still instances where a three-year-old gets violated, which is an indicator that we have a long way to go”.
Retired Justice Nasira Iqbal said religious fundamentalism and patriarchy were the main causes of the treatment meted out to women that affected the entire debate on their rights. “Fundos, all over the world, quote a few carefully selected verses from the holy book that restricts and prevents women from playing an equal role. The view that a woman is subservient to a man costs millions of girls control over their own bodies, health and future.”
Dr Tabinda Sarosh, the head of a women resource centre, Shirkat Gah, quoted the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2013 in which Pakistan ranked 135th of the countries surveyed. That point alone generated a lot of debate.
A member from the audience asked whether such surveys could be trusted. Also, he said when he saw around he found women in enviable positions professionally and otherwise.
Dr Sarosh said: “We need to look at the reality around us. Reality is that apart from a small percentage of urban women, most live and work in rural areas of Pakistan. There are areas, like Jacobabad, where the average age of marriage for a girl is 13. There’s a 17 per cent representation of women in parliament. At times being patriotic is not required when it might hurt our own country.”
Former senator Javed Jabbar, who was the guest speaker at the workshop, after patiently listening to the presentations, he said: “The argument that 90 per cent of women are living and working in rural areas of Pakistan, doesn’t cut it anymore.” He added that having worked very closely with the population department, he was sure that the average age of marriage for a woman had increased over the years. “There are still a few pockets, like Jacobabad, but there’s been a great change over the years as far as women are concerned.”
He said the main hurdle is: “Overbearing religiosity — tagging anyone with a different view as a godless person — is something which needs social engineering. There’s a bigger need to keep fighting the extreme view of anyone, including women, as faithless, that justifies crime. Malala’s case is a terrible example of how the mindset shifted over the time.”
Winding up the session, Mr Jabbar raised four points which he said were “lessons to be learnt”. First he spoke about power restructure. Explaining, he said: “The year 2013 saw a major turnout of women voters. Many voted for the first time, most others chose to contest elections on independent seats. I think that is power. This represents the change that is taking place in Pakistan.”
Social engineering he said was needed most at the moment. “But it needs the will and writ of the state. A state that is weak can’t work on bringing in social change. We can’t negotiate with people who blow up schools, and are scared of girls.”
Ideological shift from left to far right over the years, he said, weakened a lot of things. “You can’t have a discussion nowadays before anyone branding you a kafir or secular, though secular doesn’t mean a lack of faith. Civil society needs to strengthen and back the left, for women empowerment, and for people to follow Ijtehad which has been done away with.”