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Women and Pakistan-(Part I)

Huzaima Bukhari

“Give me an educated mother, I shall promise you the birth of a civilized, educated nation”—Napoleon Bonaparte.

Whether a woman is good, bad or evil has nothing to do with the faith she professes, the stratum of society she belongs to, her ethnic origin, the language she speaks, her cultural background, her looks, her qualifications, her status in society or her profession. The goodness, the meanness or the evil manifests itself in the society through acts performed by individuals, which have a direct bearing on the attributes and behavior of other individuals that eventually reflects in the overall character of a nation.

If Pakistan, a nuclear state, is today on the brink of economic and political disaster and the society is fast becoming morally bankrupt, it is not on account of the men folk alone but even women who comprise almost half of the population, are equally responsible, if not more. Undoubtedly, in the creation of this country, women, along with the founding fathers have played a pivotal role not only in political movements but also in sacrificing their lives and honour on the altar of establishing a free nation state, but subsequent to that, history began taking bizarre twists and turns. Seventy years of Pakistan’s existence have not been a smooth transformation from subjugation to liberty and from acquired liberty to acquired subjugation where at every stage the role of women has been prominent both consciously and unconsciously.

There is a general tendency in the society to either highly venerate or severely downplay characteristics, abilities and achievements of women. On the one hand, they are vilified and depicted as vamps who have nothing better to do than conspire and cause disorder while on the other her image is worshipped as a goddess in some religions. This is usually ascribed to our society being patriarchal where males dominate all spheres of life, In this situation majority of the women have to really struggle hard to make their way through life as men are less supportive and more prone to hurling obstacles. What is perhaps most disturbing is the cultural and more dangerous, religious card that is used to justify preventing women from a more active participation in society.

In their treatise titled “Gender discrimination and the role of women in Pakistan” Dr.Syed Shameem Ejaz and Ms. Anjum Ara have rightly pointed out: “Societies pay a heavy toll when discrimination takes the shape of a rule merely depending upon mischievous motives. It distorts the social and religious policies and transforms them into tools to yield what is required from the people….This has been the practice for centuries and now people see nothing strange in manipulation of their social and religious rights in the name of beliefs, rules, policies, and laws. This internalization makes it enormously difficult to make people conscious about the facts and put the derailed again on the track.”

Interestingly, not just men but even women are easily convinced in forming hard line notions about various matters, especially when these are related to religion or cultural norms. In doing so, they sometimes fail to realize their detrimental effects on their own kind. The common understanding is that women are the biggest enemies of women, especially in our traditional family systems where from their childhood, women are treated as unwanted, a burden, much inferior to their brothers, not entitled to either education, good food or self-determination, made to recognize that their job is strictly related to household chores, taking meticulous care of their men folk and above all, guard their honour with their lives. Even the most innocent of slips is admonished with great intensity. On the other hand, they see their brothers being raised as princes even in the poorest of households and trained to view females as chattels whom they can exploit according to their will. The males are taught that they are the heads of the families and their only job is to provide for its members and they need not participate in domestic tasks or take care of children. Since they are the earning hands, they have every right to dictate their terms and impose their decisions, particularly on matters concerning their females.

Undoubtedly, women have had to undergo immense torture even at the hands of women because of this mindset but despite continued suffering necessary lessons have yet not been learnt. Rather, over the last few decades, many things seem to have become unlearnt instead of there being positive changes. One wonders what happened to those feisty females who were at the forefront of struggle for independence and later on continued to inspire, motivate and who dedicated their lives for the emancipation of the young women of this new-born state. They believed in the famous quote of Nina Shaw: “If you want to be a woman in power, then empower other women.” They were politicians, social workers, teachers, sportspersons, artists, musicians, dancers, singers, actresses, professionals and even housewives who were fully geared to set this country’s wheels in motion but then just as it was time to take off, there came a moment when the sands of time began falling backwards. Intense political upheavals had highly damaging effects on the nation with the rise of fundamentalism, open ethnic prejudice, wave of intolerance and most of all severe censorship on freedom to profess ideologies or speak candidly. Some of these very dynamic women fell into a cultural warp only to lose track from a progressive path onto a muddy terrain of confused beliefs and ideas.

The seventies and eighties witnessed the conflict between what was, what is and what should be seeping into every walk of life and instead of there being improvement, the entire society became hostage to vested interests, political vacuum, unrest, religious bigotry, economic depression and overall feeling of discontent with an even more treacherous emotion of diminishing sense of patriotism. Every citizen of this country was affected in multiple ways but the women, being easy targets were the ones to suffer most. Whether it was the concept of chadar and chaar diwari or the infamous Hudood Ordinances of 1976, women found themselves in the oddest of positions, especially with respect to their dress code and familial ties.

At this juncture, it was crucial for women to maintain their sanity and ensure correct training of their children especially their sons. Instead, the Islamic revolution in neighbouring Iran in 1979, the Afghan-Russian war, the rise of Taliban in Afghanistan, the rapid influence of Saudi Arabian Wahhabism along with Islamization movement in Pakistan led many women of the upper echelon of society to overnight transform from ultra modern to ultra antiquity putting the entire country into reverse gear. Shunning progressiveness, they joined the men in recreating a traditional society based on outmoded thinking in which men, especially the orthodox emerged as the supreme beings and women were down-graded to a secondary position with humiliation, punishment and disrespect for those who dared to rebel against the new but antediluvian way of life. In this fast growing modern world with accelerated technological advancements the expectation that the new generation would conform to ancient style of living under the pretext of Islamic code was quite ill-founded. Therefore, in a generally homogenous society, massive fissures between the old and new schools of thought developed that had and still have, caused a bizarre lopsidedness in everyday life. (To be continued)


The writer, lawyer and author, is an Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)

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