Sunday, March 8, 2009
Status of Women in Pakistan
On March 8, 2009, the International Women's Day today, how are women faring in Pakistan? The status of women in Pakistan continues to vary considerably across different classes, regions, and the rural/urban divide due to uneven socioeconomic development and the impact of tribal, feudal, and urban social customs on women's lives. While some women are soaring in the skies as pilots of passenger jets and supersonic fighter planes, others are being buried alive for defying tribal traditions.
In terms of the women's political representation in the nation's parliament, there has clearly never been a better time. The discriminatory laws such as the Hudood ordnance have been repealed or diluted. In addition to dozens of women colleges and universities, some of the co-educational professional institutions of higher learning have 50% or higher enrollment of women. Girls account for 53% of all college students in Pakistan, according to the 2005 Education Census. There are other indicators such as women's growing numbers in the traditional male professions such as engineering, law, medicine, business, the police and the military. Women's ranks have also grown in the nation's entertainment, news and mass media and they are much freer than ever to express themselves in the choice of appearance, speech, clothing, arts, entertainment etc. There have even been performances of The Vagina Monologues in Pakistan. Localized with Urdu and Punjabi words, The Vagina Monologues was first staged in Islamabad in 2003 for an audience of 160, mostly women, followed by performances for mixed audiences in Karachi and Lahore. Organized with AMAL, an NGO working on gender rights in Pakistan, the actresses added information about local incidents of violence against women and honor killings.
Along with the signs of women's progress in Pakistan, there have also been high-profile incidents of violence against women, such as live burial of women in Baba Kot, a village 50 miles from Usta Mohammad town of Jafferabad district in Baluchistan, that rekindled an honest discussion and debate on the status of women in rural and tribal Pakistan. To add insult to injury, Pakistani Senator Mir Israrullah Zehri defended this crime by arguing on the Senate floor that "It is a Baluch tribal tradition and we have to respect it". The Senator was then rewarded by the PPP government with a promotion as a member of the federal cabinet.
While the speaker of Pakistan's parliament is a woman and the representation of women in the legislature has grown dramatically, most of the women representatives are from the same privileged, feudal/tribal class that is largely responsible for discrimination against women in Pakistan. These women in parliament have not been particularly vocal in raising the women's issues and they have not offered any serious legislation other than the Women's Protection Bill that was offered and passed because of President Musharraf's personal intervention in the last parliament. The word "feudal princess" often used to describe late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto applies well to the majority the women members of parliament in Pakistan. There is a continuing large literacy gap of as much as 45 percent between men and women and the opportunities for rural women's education remain elusive.
Media reports indicate that Pakistani Taliban have been enforcing a complete ban on female education in the Swat district. Some 400 private schools enrolling 40,000 girls have been shut down. At least 10 girls' schools that tried to open after the January 15, 2009 deadline by the Taliban were blown up by the militants in the town of Mingora, the headquarters of the Swat district. More than 170 schools have been bombed or burned, along with other government-owned buildings.
According to Dawn newspaper, the 2008 report of violence against women in Pakistan makes horrific reading. In that year alone, 7,733 cases of violence against women were reported in the media. What is shocking is the large number of women who lost their lives in this period — 1,516 were murdered while 472 were killed for reasons of ‘honor’.
Overall, the World Economic Forum ranks South Asia and several Arab nations among the lowest in terms of economic participation, economic opportunity, political empowerment, educational attainment and health and well-being. The WEF 2005 survey shows that India ranks at 53 is just above Korea, Jordan, Pakistan, Turkey and Egypt which occupy the last five positions in that order but below Bangladesh which gets the 39th slot. Seven predominantly Muslim nations covered by the study, Bangladesh (39) and Malaysia (40) outperform Indonesia (46), while Jordan (55), Pakistan (56), Turkey (57) and Egypt (58) occupy the bottom four ranks.
In summary, the Musharraf era saw some measurable progress in improving the status for women, in spite of the high-profile incidents such as the rape of Mukhtaran Mai. But the progress seems to have been halted and even rolled back under the feudal/tribal dominated PPP government. The appointment of the notorious tribal chiefs like Zehri and Bijarani as federal minister has clearly sent terribly wrong signals to the oppressors of women in Pakistan. What is really needed is a fundamental change in social attitudes toward women, particularly in rural and tribal Pakistan. A massive effort is required to make both men and women aware of the need and the benefits of women's empowerment for a better future of Pakistan. Healthy, educated and empowered women can help raise better children to build Pakistan as a modern society that cares for its people.
A number of non-governmental organizations such as AMAL, Aurat, HDF ,Edhi and other similar organizations deserve our support if we care for the enhancement of women's status in Pakistan.
Here's a video showing Pakistan's female commercial pilots:
Are Women Better Off in Pakistan Today?
Growing Insurgency in Swat
Religious Leaders Respond to Domestic Violence
Fighting Agents of Intolerance
A Woman Speaker: Another Token or Real Change
A Tale of Tribal Terror
Mukhtaran Mai-The Movie
World Economic Forum Survey of Gender Gap