Women’s Marches In Pakistan: From Cultural War To Quiet Revolution

Society must perceive that the end result of women’s freedom is the raising of useful and responsible members of society, and not merely the creation of extreme social rebels

Women’s Marches In Pakistan: From Cultural War To Quiet Revolution

Feminist ideas have taken hold of society in educated nations and societies. There are women’s marches around the 8th of March, the designated International Women’s Day. These marches are organised in the Western nations to celebrate the rights and power gained by the women; and in Global South countries to demand emancipation from male dominance and a discriminatory social environment in terms of legal, civic and social inequality.

Pakistan is a conservative, backward and largely uneducated society. Some readers may not approve of these adjectives but given the facility to see as others see us, they would concede that these epithets are correct. Here, these woman’s marches are all too commonly taken as immoral activities leading to corrupting behaviour. A very simple claim, “mera jism meri marzi” (“my body, my discretion/will”) is construed as demand for  sexual license, instead of as a demand for dignity, personal discretion, natural justice and universal human rights.

There are people in this modern world – otherwise well-meaning and decent – who believe that a wife or a daughter should always seek permission of her male guardians before deciding for herself. Till recently, Saudi Arabia had laws that required women travel with their male companion, or be accompanied by a male relative for visiting Makkah. The kingdom also had a legal requirement that a couple registering in a hotel could be asked to produce a marriage certificate; a practice that is sometimes followed in Pakistan too. Women could not drive on the roads of the Kingdom. Luckily, all these restrictions have been lifted and a step towards equality has been taken.

It can be argued in our context that the phrase 'housewife' or it's more honorific compliment 'homemaker' should be considered derogatory. It implies nothing but that a woman has been reduced to being a slave to look after the house and the children of the master. It is a socially camouflaged term for reducing a woman to being a cook, a maid, a wet nurse and a sex-slave. Many such 'housewives' are educated as doctors, engineers, IT specialists, educationist, MBAs or similarly trained and experienced, and are capable of earning more than their husband. However, 'house-husband' would be taken as an outrage by the society and an affront by the patriarchal ego. It would also set our clergy on fire.

On a global level, in our times, sexist behaviour is much derided. In Western societies, especially, even a casual scoffing remark targeting women is called out with demands for apologies and regrets. Public figures, especially politicians who have to go out in public to seek votes, perhaps need a course in using neutral language and to remind them that the old accepted terms and phrases in this context are now off limits. Our Eastern people, including some of the elites in politics, bureaucracy and academia, pass derogatory sexist feminist remarks as jokes. While this behaviour is increasingly becoming a no-go area even in private gatherings, it is completely in bad taste in public settings.

Some of the old trusted and venerated masters, too, do not sound correct in the current social landscape. Take this phrase, for instance, by Shakespeare in The Tempest, "Good wombs have borne bad sons." The honoured Bard rather used a sexist way of saying that good mothers with good mothering intentions have raised rascals of their sons. The Bard could, with equal effect, have said that “Good fathers have begotten bad sons” but a reference to female anatomy was, in his time, more enchanting. It is doubtful that Shakespeare could have used this phrase in the 21st century.

In Pakistan, while the country’s standing on human rights is dismal, there is much wrong in terms of gender equality. Right from childhood, where money is short, girls are fed and clothed poorly as compared to their male siblings. Male education is preferred over female education. Boys are allowed to move to larger towns in search of better vocations while girls are not. The desire of a boy to marry the girl of his choice is entertained, while in a similar situation in the case of a girl, she is treated as a harlot and looked down upon, if not outrightly murdered.

According to the Malala Fund, “Pakistan has made significant progress for girls’ education in the last decade — but 12 million girls are out of school, with only 13% of girls reaching grade nine.” The Global Gender Gap Report states that Pakistan ranks at 153 out of 156 nations evaluated, with 53.6% of women deprived of education, training and employment in Pakistan, compared to only 7.4% of men.

There are genuine issues of religious interpretation that also need to be addressed in the context of gender equality. Reinterpretation of religious injections about polygamy, a woman’s testimony being given half the value of a man’s testimony, equality in inheritance, the right to birth control, access to abortion and equality in politico-economic spheres are some of the concerns that need to be addressed immediately.

It must be acknowledged, however, that Pakistani women have already come a long way in terms of education and career progression. There are entrepreneurs, doctors, sportswomen, educationists, business managers, film producers, artists, fashion designers, journalists, engineers, military officers, academics, religious leaders, writers, journalists, TV anchors, scientists and politicians from Pakistan who have made a name for themselves and have done their nation proud. Most of these women, however, have had the better luck to have supporting parents. Admittedly, there are a few women from our country who have excelled despite their parents’ opposition to their education and career, but that would be true for any nation – developed and civilised, or otherwise.

It is, therefore, essential that awareness be raised about the importance of girls’ education and their ability to pursue a career. There are many single mothers in our society who lost their husbands through death or divorce, but because of their good education and courage, were able to raise their children in an admirable manner. Women should never be at the mercy of men’s goodwill.

An argument can be made, however, that provocative marches under the banner of women’s rights will hinder the goal of their emancipation. Society must perceive that the end result of women’s freedom is the raising of useful and responsible members of society, and not merely the creation of extreme social rebels.

Perhaps, a case could also be made that the struggle for women’s freedom and the Rainbow movement ought not to join hands in Pakistan and other Muslim-majority nations. While both deserve sympathetic treatment, they are separate issues and combining the two can only hurt the cause of both movements. Again, this should be taken as a personal plea – and it must be emphasised this author stands for absolute freedom of choice, without any ifs and buts, and believes that direction of sexual orientation should be left to individuals to decide.

In many ways, the women who organise such events in Pakistan are highly educated, financially independent, socially liberated, well-travelled, career-oriented and, some of them at least, relatively untethered in their personal lives – and that is the way it should be. Society should support complete independence of women and their unfettered right over their life and body. Any laws, social norms or public rules to the contrary stand against human dignity. Men cannot be given monopoly over women’s freedoms and rights.

Walking on the posh streets of metropolitan cities in high-end neighbourhoods by the elites can only antagonise the middle class or those groups who hold conservative middle-class social values. It can also stigmatise those parents from middle and lower socioeconomic strata who already dare to go against the established and accepted cultural conventions of their family members and peers, to give their daughters the freedom and space to let them pursue their dreams.

A quieter revolution is likely to achieve more than a cultural war.

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: parvezmahmood53@gmail.com