Gender Equality in Pakistan: Still A Long Way To Go
Pakistan is a postcolonial nation – a former colony of the British Empire, which came into being as a result of division of the sub-continent into two nation states. Since the country was created in the name of Islam, it retains a strict adherence to Islamic principles. However, at the same time, western feminist ideas have also entered the fabric of the society due to globalization and the advancement of new media.
As Pakistani society is strongly under the hold of patriarchy, women are considered inferior and their ‘honor’ must be protected by the men in their family.
The male members have physical control over women because of which they cannot resist violence from them (Ibrahim, 2005).
There is a strong perception in Pakistani society that a woman can neither be a provider nor a protector. Thus, women have been reduced to the four walls of the house. The notion of chardivari (home) signifies that the women’s place of honor is within the four walls of the house. Therefore, majority of women in Pakistan live a very constrained life and are denied decision-making powers and life choices due to social mores and conservative cultural value systems (Status Report, 2016).
Gender inequality is a creation of persistent prejudice. It is deep rooted in Pakistani society and is borne of disempowerment of women in the social, educational, economic and political sphere.
Pakistani women are farthest world over when it comes to gender equality. Global gender indices reveal Pakistani women act poorly in the field of education and economic participation, which are both interlinked (Status Report, 2016).
In Pakistan, poor indicators for women in the social sphere pose a serious challenge to the government, which has had women’s rights and end to gender discrimination as its highest priorities .To ensure maximum participation of women in the economic field the government has devised gender friendly laws and policies, set up institutions and offices like Ombudspersons and promoted laws such as The protection against harassment of women at the workplace to ensure safety and security of women. However, the uptake on all these initiatives and their implementation leaves much to be desired.
The issue of lack of space for women
Two main practices which marginalize Pakistani women are: an emphasis on women’s role as primary caregivers and home makers and gender based segregation in public life.
The traditional Islamic discourse in Pakistan is based upon gender boundaries which encourages private space for women and public spaces for men. Family is regarded as the essential social unit and women’s role as wife, mother and sister is regarded as essential to the integrity of the family and ‘honour’ of its male members.
Pakistan’s response to sexuality and power is like other Islamic societies, manifested in “a socially sanctioned silence” .There is a vacuum of open discussion on female sex and sexuality. Women’s relationship with their partners, to other women and their reproductive roles are governed by gendered power relations. Marriage is considered as the only legitimate site of sexual relations. Virginity for unmarried girls and fidelity of married women is regarded as the highest virtue.
Interestingly, hymen is regarded as a physical obstruction or natural hindrance to sexual desires/ actions, so it’s up to women to cover up their bodies, restrain their sexual urge and protect their honor. Through such discourses a new vision of a proper woman is built who is an ideal citizen of the Islamic state (Usman, 2002).
By monopolizing cultural production, the state has tried to create a uniform image of an ideal woman as a devoted wife and mother.
The role of mother is regarded as the noblest of all functions of a woman. Within this ideological discourse the woman’s role has been considerably reduced to the domestic sphere through unquestionable and fixed female attributes.
Social acceptance towards violence
In Pakistani society hegemonic discourses of masculinity and femininity are maintained through violence. Actual violence or a threat of violence is a daily reality for majority of women in Pakistan (Ali, 2001). Society being obsessed with female honor, men are considered as the guardians of family honor by exercising their power and control on women‘s bodies especially both in terms of sexuality and reproductive ability. For Pakistani women violence at individual or institutional level is a common phenomenon (UN, 2011).
When a woman’s behavior is found to be threatening to the patriarchal order, it’s her body that is punished by beating, burning and sexual abuse and murder in the name of honor (Noor, 2004).
Violence prevails against women in Pakistan in the form of rape, forced marriages and domestic violence. According to an estimate, 70 to 90 percent women in Pakistan are subjected to domestic violence, including physical, mental, and emotional abuse (Ali & Gavino, 2008). The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s (2008) annual report estimates that 1,019 women were killed in the name of honor that year. Since 2005 around 10,000 women annually are killed under this pretext (Status of Women, 2016). This is a clear violation of the Constitution of Pakistan such as article 10, 14 and article 3,7,16 of the UN charter which ensures the protection of life, liberty, equality and rights of all its citizens.
Education for women has spillover effects on their health, nutrition, financial well-being and even political participation. Education increases employment opportunities for women which in turn gives them involvement in decision-making within the family and community as well. The definition of literacy in Pakistan as adopted in 1998 national census defines a literate person as a person who is ten and above and who “can read a newspaper and write a simple letter, in any language.”
While this definition has set the meaning of literacy to the basic minimum, many students don’t even fulfill that criterion (Alif Ailaan, 2014). Data on enrolment across Pakistan shows that 15.9 million boys between the age of 5 and 16 are enrolled in school, compared to just 11.9 million girls.
As a result, 13.7 million girls and 11.4 million boys are out of school. Almost 25.5 million children between the age of 5 and 16 are deprived of an education, out of which half are girls (Alif Ailaan, 2014).The sharp contrast between primary and middle school enrolment of girls is a great cause for concern. In 2013-14, 60% girls between the ages of 6-10 were enrolled in primary schools, which fell to 32% for girls aged between 11 and 13 in middle school. Only 13% of girls aged 14-15 were enrolled in matriculation (Status Report, 2016). Since education is the primary driver of opportunities in life, this gap is very alarming.
Low literacy rate of women has largely been held responsible for the deplorable condition of women in Pakistan.
Lack of education slows down women’s participation in social, economic as well as political activities due to which they are unable to achieve their rights and compete in the job market. This situation has made women dependent on men economically and socially and strengthened male domination in the society.
The low ration of female enrollment in schools and high dropout rates are mainly due to poverty. Additionally, lower returns of education, discriminatory practices and harassment at workplace also hinder women’s education and progress.
These socio-cultural patterns in Pakistan do not let women enjoy their constitutional rights as equal citizens of the state. Since wealth and resources are unevenly distributed in Pakistan, many families prefer to educate their sons rather than daughters. The expenses spent for sons’ education are measured as an investment which will ensure a care free future of the parents, whereas girls’ education is considered as a burden and consumption with no likely future gains (King & Hill, 1993).
Life altering decisions for women concerning their education, life partner, employment and even health are taken by male family members. Due to the cultural mores associated with a girl’s chastity, parents keep them away from schools to ensure their security.
Girls-only schools are preferred for girls because of social and religious sanctions.
Globalization and women
Globalization has immensely affected the life of women worldwide especially in the Muslim context in which women are struggling for autonomy and struggling to find a place within the market economy. Today many postcolonial Muslim states in the world including Pakistan are renegotiating their traditional foundations, values, legal system and economic policy concerning women’s rights and their place in the social order.
Advancement in communication, transportation and information technology have connected women worldwide, enabling them to learn and interact with each other and subject their governments to accountability.
Pakistani women’s identity is shaped by various social, cultural, linguistic and religious factors. Women in different positions have to encounter different kinds of subjugation and exploitation.
In Pakistan, women’s condition may vary across different stratum or context but this is the general drop back against which Pakistani women’s plight may be understood. The existing gender relations in the society are egalitarian and hierarchical and they use violence as a tool. Since societal transformations of this sort are only beneficial to those who rank low on the power structures in the society, it’s not easy to bring about such changes.