It’ll get worse before it gets any better
Women had to fight hard all over the world to gain equal rights. In 19th century Europe, which had passed through the industrial revolution, women from aristocratic and middle class families were required to spend their married lives in the ‘sacred home’ like birds in gilded cages. Ibsen’s Nora in Dolls House caused a stir all over Europe when she left her husband and children because she wanted to discover herself. The bang of Nora’s door was heard all over Europe in 1879. Right at this time thousands of women belonging to families recently ejected from land were required to work for as many as 14 hours a day in Laissez Faire England’s factories. The working class that included women had to struggle for decades to get the law of maximum working hours passed.
Women did not get the right to vote in England, the mother of modern democracy, till the end of the WWI in 1919. Since there was a fear of women domination because the male population had been reduced due to large scale casualties in the war, women were allowed to vote only after the age of 30 as opposed to men who could vote at 21. The credit for this goes to the heroic struggle of the British suffragettes, or women activists, who went on hunger strike and even indulged in extremist actions to publicise their case. Many had to undergo harassment, arrests and incarceration to achieve this basic right. France has the distinction to adopt the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen”, a milestone in the history of human rights. But the women in this country remained disenfranchised till the end of the Second World War in 1945. The French were afraid that on account of women being more religious they might compromise the secular identity of the state
The women in Pakistan carry a much heavier cross than the women in 19th century Europe and the US. The struggle of the Pakistani women will have to be more painful and much longer. They will succeed as those trying to push the wheels of history backwards have failed all over the world.
Women in the feudal-tribal cultural mix are considered inferior to men. Despite claims that the woman is given maximum protection and accorded respect in a Muslim society, the real picture is altogether different in male dominated Pakistan
A large section of Pakistani society is still under the influence of the patriarchal culture of a lethal variety. The feudal and tribal systems have left their deep imprint on the rural population as well as those sections of the urban population which have recently migrated from rural areas. Some of those living for generations in the cities are also infected by the backward culture. It gives one a surprise when a university teacher considered to be a liberal suddenly announces that the solution of the country’s ills is another Khomeini who would hang a few hundred and thus make the country more honest, efficient and progressive.
Women in the feudal-tribal cultural mix are considered inferior to men. Despite claims that the woman is given maximum protection and accorded respect in a Muslim society, the real picture is altogether different in male dominated Pakistan. The woman is subjected to discrimination as a child, as a sister and as a wife. While things have changed a little over the last many decades, the overall picture remains the same. A male child is generally preferred over a girl who is made to realise again and again that she is an unwelcome addition to the family. The boy gets better treatment at home and is freer to move around. The girl is not encouraged to join the school which explains the smaller percentage of school going girls. She often receives no share in inheritance. The woman is subjected to domestic violence by the father and brothers and by the husband and in-laws in her new home.
Usually the parents choose a husband for the daughter and she is supposed to agree with the choice. Child marriage is common. In more backward areas a girl child is married off to settle blood feuds and continues to be humiliated by her he husband and his relatives throughout her life. A girl child is sometime married to an old man to settle an unpaid debt.
In most cases the wife is required to remain confined to her home. In poorer families, though, she has to go out to work. Most of the cotton picking in Pakistan is done by women. This is beside the responsibilities to cook food and wash the clothes of the husband and children. Women also work as house maids.
Divorce remains the husband’s prerogative. A woman is sometimes divorced for failure to produce a male child. A man can throw out his wife without assigning any reason. He is allowed to keep four wives at one time. In case he wants a fifth one, the way out is to divorce one of the wives.
Crimes against women are quite common. These begin with harassment in educational institutions, workplaces, in public transport and as a woman walks to her home. Despite fantastic claims about the high moral values of Pakistan’s society, horrible crimes continue to be committed against women.
The so called honour killings are not confined to tribal areas. They continue to be reported from industrialised Karachi and Lahore, the so called cultural centre of the country. Last week three brothers killed two of their sisters for defiling the family’s honour in Jhang. It was ironical that the crime took place in a district associated with Heer, immortalised by Waris Shah, as a woman who rebelled against outmoded social mores.
The clerics thrive on the cultural backwardness and further promote it. They oppose female education beyond basic religious learning. They oppose men and women working side by side at the work place
Karo kari is often undertaken for no fault of the woman but to justify the subsequent killing of an enemy. And what can be more horrible than an acid attack to deface a young woman who denies to yield to someone’s sexual enticements. The conservative lobby condemned Sharmeen Chinoy for bringing a bad name to Pakistan when she highlighted the horror in a film instead of fighting against the crime.
Burning women alive is another form of domestic violence. The crime is sometimes aimed at victimising the wife who brings lesser dowry than expected. The victims are then reported to have died because an old stove or a pressure cooker had burst.
Women are deprived of their share in jobs and may not receive payment equal to men. They are deprived sometime the right of vote. This has happened in some of the constituencies of KP and Punjab. Interestingly this was done with the connivance of major parties like ANP and PPP who present themselves as champions of women’s rights.
Instead of educating their voters, politicians tend to overlook the excesses committed under the influence of the feudal-tribal cultural mix. They are simply afraid of annoying their voters. The military dictators in search of legitimacy use and promote the cultural backwardness among the masses. Zia-ul-Haq’s anti-women and anti-minorities laws were aimed at winning over the culturally backward sections of the population. Musharraf not only retained these laws but also added to them.
The clerics thrive on the cultural backwardness and further promote it. They oppose female education beyond basic religious learning. They oppose men and women working side by side at the work place. Rape is used as a weapon of revenge against an opponent. It is also used to demean a woman. Gang rapes are quite common in the country. The Council of Islamic Ideology however refuses to accept DNA test as primary evidence in cases of rape thus making the punishment more difficult. Religion is thus used to perpetuate backwardness. Maulana Sherani, the incumbent chief of the council, supports child marriage and opposes punishment for second marriage for being against the teachings of Islam. He was appointed by the PPP government and has been given extension by the PML-N government, in both cases because of political exigencies.
The women will finally win but they will to have to be on the forefront of the struggle themselves. They will however need to join hands with all the forces committed to a just, democratic and caring society in Pakistan.