Two steps forward, and one step backwards. This is how the meander of progress is measured for women’s empowerment inSouth Asia. In countries likePakistan, where women’s identities are in a constant state of stressful negotiation with society, the passage of a law penalising sexual harassment of women at the workplace was seen as one step forward.
But if empowerment is seen as the ability to make choices in an environment where it was not previously possible,Pakistan offers a hugely polarised landscape. Today the standard measure of class, or labour participation that correlates to more empowerment, often fails.Pakistantoday is the most urbanised country inSouth Asiaand rapid social change, with enclaves of exception, has paradoxically brought overall degradation in the average woman’s status.
Growing poverty and religious extremism have brought a dual burden of vulnerability. If she is an income-generator, rarely is she a decision-maker. Urban women have better access to information but even as entrepreneurs, if not factory fodder, they remain subordinate to male peers. In contrast, the life of a rural woman is often stereotyped as one at the bottom of the pyramid but, where commercialisation has not broken traditional structures, she still retains some degree of autonomy as compared to the faceless tribal woman, the least empowered in terms of making strategic choices.
Terrorism, militancy and religious extremism ravage all of society, but their long shadow now defines social exclusion for women even in areas where the Taliban have been officially flushed out, such as Swat. These areas were once hospitable to women in public spaces; now as outposts to many tribal regions and agencies, they have been transformed into harsher, gender-hostile realities. According to the World Economic Forum’s task force on gender disparity, Pakistan now ranks third from the bottom, 132 out of 134 countries, better only than Chad and Yemen.
Patriarchal social mores of tribal society have seeped into our most metropolitan environments, creating sub-cultures of restriction.Karachiis home to the largest number of semi-migrant tribal men, with higher demographics thanKabulorPeshawar, lowering the city’s social bandwidth for gender freedoms. In urbanPunjab, sectarian violence and state tolerance for jihadist outfits have expanded the appetite for anti-women discourse and created new inhibitors. In Quetta or Peshawar, the walls close in on women and their opportunities.
A breakdown in the architecture of laws and challenges to state writ mean women’s rights suffer a downslide. According to human rights lawyers, many areas ofPakistanwitness a silent case of honour killing every day; in the most populous province a woman is raped every hour.
What can be done? The state is no match for the creeping Salafism of our society, but it can start to challenge this trend by investing in better governance of social programmes. The only indicator that remains stable in most correlations to empowerment is access to education, not just access to jobs, and better healthcare. On an average, all those who seek to influence policy discourse inPakistancan target traditional social indicators and Millennium Development Goal targets as indices we need to work on, and can safely invest in.
While framing new legislation is critical, laws often provide for little reform on the ground if public knowledge of their utility remains obscure. Women are unable to navigate the programmes on offer, or to seek relief from empowering laws because of lack of information. This is where media initiatives can actually transform the relationship of women with the state, as well as with society.
An effective case in point is an animated public service campaign run by a private channel that iterated the message that women do not have to tolerate harassment, now that the sexual harassment Bill is law, and can start reporting such incidents to the police, courts, an ombudsman, or a mandatory committee if they work in a corporation.
Yet bucking all these trends, we have empowered women like a legislator in the Punjab Assembly squandering women’s rights, probably because she is oblivious to the devastating effect that existing laws on polygamy, in their easy abuse, have on the average woman in urban Pakistan. She forgets that the strict permissions which are rightly required by law inPakistan, are cast aside for thousands of women every year who become half-citizens in a contractual vacuum when their husbands shed them without support, without either Islam’s justice system or the state’s intervention.
The good news is in the nuance. A burgeoning urban youth culture accommodates middle-class aspiration, and provides a gender-neutral public space in the media. Women are serving as role models in traditionally all-male professions. Higher participation of women in the legislatures has redefined the agenda in parliament. In fact, vilified reserved seats have done more in seven years for women’s empowerment laws than anyone in 50 years.
Now it is up to all of us, the executive, civil society, the media, and politicians, to chip away at the social, cultural and economic barriers preventing women from exercising power as full citizens ofPakistan. We hold up half ofPakistan’s sky. No one should be allowed to take that away from us.
The writer is a member of the National Security Committee of Pakistan’s National Assembly and former information minister.