Unsung Heroes: Women From Religious Minorities In Pakistan

Unsung Heroes: Women From Religious Minorities In Pakistan
It felt like just another day in school when Zeph, a 7th grader, from a village of mainly landless laborers in District Gujranwala was fervently making preparations for passing the cooking class exam. That is until the teacher came to her table, looked at Zeph with a furrowed brow, pursed lips and flared nostrils. Then, the teacher whispered “Christian girl” in that hateful moment, and turned towards the Muslim girls without even touching or tasting Zeph’s decorated plate of food. Tears gushed from Zeph’s eyes in response to the extreme humiliation, sadness and desolation she had experienced.

Zeph came home crying, feeling fearful and insulted. It took her months to reimagine herself. She decided not only to continue her education, but also teach other students without discrimination. Consequently, she started a school in the courtyard of her home and since then, she has been struggling to fight against all odds including religious discrimination, child labor, early marriages, corporal punishment, cultural biases and patriarchal values which impede girls’ access to education. She has since earned two Masters degrees and received widespread international recognition for her work in the field of girls’ education. Channel News Asia Singapore made a documentary “Flight of the Falcons” to display her life and work. The documentary won a gold medal at the New York festivals.

To honor such unsung heroes in Pakistan, on March 6, 2023, the first-ever women’s leadership conference was exclusively organized for Christian women in commemoration of International Women’s Day at Governor House Punjab, as a joint initiative by Pakistan Partnership Initiative (PPI) and Life for Guardians’ Foundation (LGF). Muhammad Baligh Ur Rehman, Governor of Punjab, said, “today we have opened the doors of our historical Durbar Hall - Governor's House Lahore for minority women in the honor of their demonstrated leadership and commitment towards women’s rights. The government of Punjab has taken number of initiatives to promote and protect the rights of minority women,” he further said.

Revisiting the Concept of Minority

Women may be considered a minority group, not because they are fewer in number, but because they do not share the same privileges, rights, and opportunities as men. Paradoxically, in a country like Pakistan, the concept of minority is further convoluted, particularly relative to women. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) defined minorities in 2021 as, “an ethnic, religious or linguistic minority is any group of persons which constitutes less than half of the population in the entire territory of a State, whose members share common characteristics of culture, religion or language, or a combination of any of these.” The UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons belonging to National, Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities (1992) reiterates in Article 4/1 that, “States shall take measures where required to ensure that persons belonging to minorities exercise fully and effectively all their human rights and fundamental freedoms without any discrimination and in full equality before the law.”

This cautions that minority status is not only a statistical concept; it is an identity which takes account of both objective and subjective characteristics of the minority group: the undeniable reality of discrimination and awareness of that discrimination.

The Constitution of Pakistan (1973) classifies religious minorities both as non-Muslim and minorities. Article 260 defines minorities as "non-Muslim," which include Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Parsis, Qadianis, Bahais and a person belonging to any of the Scheduled Castes. Article 36 of the Constitution uses term minority, “The State shall safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of minorities, including their due representation in the Federal and Provincial services.” It is worth noting that the Constitution of Pakistan delimits the definition merely to religious minorities and does not include linguistic or ethnic minorities. Therefore, in the concluding observations of UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (UNCERD) on the combined twenty-first to twenty-third periodic reports of Pakistan, the committee expressed its concerns at the narrow interpretation of the concept of minorities consisting exclusively of religious minorities.

The intersectionality of gender, class and religion are three most important organizing principles in development of the cultural ideology in Pakistan in relation to the women of religious minorities.

Minority Women in Pakistan

The Constitution of Pakistan (1973) explicitly provides a proactive, focused and affirmative policy framework for empowering marginalized groups and discouraging discrimination in various manifestations. Articles 20, 21, 22, 25, 26 and 27, specifically prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, religion, caste, sex, residence or place of birth. Furthermore, various governments have taken some concrete steps such as the creation of a Ministry of National Harmony, minority representation in Senate and reservation of 5% job quota for religious minorities, 2% quota in higher education in Punjab to safeguard their rights.

Nevertheless, the minority women are the unfortunate victims of both a male dominated society and a Muslim dominated country. They face discrimination on the basis of gender and religion, which is further multiplied by the generally prevailing poor socio-economic conditions. The intersectionality of gender, class and religion are three most important organizing principles in development of the cultural ideology in Pakistan in relation to the women of religious minorities. Recent surveys have revealed for instance, that 87% of scheduled caste Hindu women were illiterate compared to 63.5% of males of their community, given that the national illiteracy rate among Pakistani women reaches 58%.

The number of minority women in a leadership role is virtually zero because of women’s low socio-economic and political status. Article 106 of the Constitution provides that each Provincial Assembly shall consist of general seats and seats reserved only for women and non-Muslims. It specifies that the Provincial Assembly of Punjab will have a total of 371 seats: 297 general seats, 66 reserved for women, and eight reserved for minorities. However, in the last Punjab assembly, only one Christian woman was the representative in the house of 371, while no Hindu woman was there. The invisibility of minority women is astounding. Minority women were totally missing at an investiture ceremony held at the Aiwan-e-Sadr in Islamabad on Pakistan Day on March 23, 2023, when President Dr. Arif Alvi conferred Pakistan’s civil awards on 135 citizens in recognition of their excellence and gallantry in their respective fields.

This context concludes three key challenges of minority women: a dearth of statistical data on the socioeconomic situation of Minority Women, the invisibility of existing minority women in leadership and the lack of a second line leadership development of minority women. To address these challenges, it is pertinent to recognize that the nexus of gender, class and religion plays a key role in nurturing religious minority leadership in Pakistan. This social hierarchy develops mindsets which subjugate minority women in socio political and religious spheres.

Ms. Asiya Nasir, a former Member of the National Assembly of Pakistan and a renounced Christian politician said that Christian women leaders are unique and have abilities of doing wonders by their work but they lack recognition and space as a leader due to bigotries against women.

Despite the dearth of data on how minority women shape their families, communities and Pakistani society, a number of examples show that not only do minority women play a central role in crafting the destiny of their families, but their role and effectiveness is in part determined by the environment in which they work. For instance, Ms. Kashoon Leeza, a young Christian scholar and a policy analyst with her focus on technology and foreign policy in the South Asia region worked with the Prime Minister Office on matters of national security and foreign policy. She has worked on Pakistan’s policy with Kashmir, Afghanistan, India and the US. While working as Advocacy Specialist at Islamabad Policy Research Institute, a think tank affiliated with the Prime Minister’s Office, she led numerous policy dialogues such as Track 1.5 with United States Institute of Peace and other leading think tanks in Washington DC. However, she cautioned that Christian women have no representation in national security bodies that undermine their abilities and status as equal citizens of Pakistan.

The Way Forward

With respect to the status of minority women in Pakistan in relation to their strengths and challenges, some concrete measures are needed to be taken into consideration by the government for their protection and development.

Firstly, the term minority is better to use than non-Muslim, since it protects the rights of minority women within the constitution of Pakistan, as well as international human rights instruments. Secondly, to honor the recommendations and observations made by international treaty bodies, it is strongly recommended that collecting and revealing statistical data on the socioeconomic situation of minority women ought to be treated as a priority measure by the state. Thirdly, discriminatory laws against minority women should be repealed; their personal laws must be updated, new laws for their protection and development must be promulgated and the implementation should be assured. Fourthly, special measures are needed to be taken to ensure the representation of minority women in decision making structures in both non-profit and public sectors such as boards of statutory organizations, public sector companies and committees as well as special purpose task forces and committees in process.

The writer is a human rights activist and a leadership consultant, and a visiting fellow at Stanford University. She is a former member of the National Commission on the Rights of the Child. She earned her doctorate in Leadership Studies from the University of San Diego, California.