The last two decades have seen big improvements in women’s rights in Pakistan: gains in political representation, integration of women into the labor force, and all kinds of discrimination have been put in the public spotlight. The aim now, say activists, is to enhance women’s image more broadly to see these gains realized at the ground level of Pakistani society—the thing they say is the weakest point now.
“The greatest achievement is that the women’s issue has been put on the national agenda,” says Nighat Khan, executive director of the feminist organization ASR Resource Center, and dean at the Institute of Women’s Studies in Lahore.
“It is so to the point that no political party, even the most right wing, can fight the elections without mentioning women in their manifesto. Because even the right wing says, ‘When we come to power, we will give them rights, we will give education.’ It doesn’t mean they do it, but it means that they have to address it,” says Khan.
Khan says that while in the 1980s and 1990s there were radical movements opposing giving rights to women, now they are more reformist. Moreover, the current coalition government is very progressive, and media and society are very active in promoting women’s rights as well.
Traditionally, women and girls have been viewed as inferior in the patriarchal society of Pakistan—whereas boys are still viewed as a divine gift. Not only will boys carry the family name, but they will also look after the parents in time of need. Girls, by contrast, are to be married off at a younger age with a heavy dowry. They are therefore seen as a burden on parents and are often subjected to abuse. This view is most prevalent in rural Pakistan, but still exists in urban centers as well.
Yet despite strong Islamic beliefs about gender roles, women in Pakistan today hold some of the highest positions in power: Benazir Bhutto paved the way as the first woman to head a Muslim state, twice at that; she was followed by current Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, Speaker of the National Assembly Fehmida Mirza, and the 60 female members in the 342-seat Parliament; there are also women as army generals and air force pilots.
Extra Mile to Walk
While women have certainly come far in Pakistan, there is still an extra mile to walk.
“Women are very much in the higher echelons of decision making. But on the other hand, it doesn’t translate into the actual ground level and therefore there is a disconnection between what we say on top and what we do in the reality below,” says Khan.
According to Khan, Pakistanis are still caught in cultures, traditions, systems, and religious interpretations that don’t allow women’s rights to receive wider implementation.
“So our weakness is the impact of all of this,” she says.For example, although the constitution says education is mandatory for all without differentiating between boys and girls, girls still don’t have an equal chance to go to school.
“There is discrimination in society, not by law. The law and the constitution are good, but culture, tradition, and religion hold them back,” says Khan.
But these hindrances have given Pakistani women even more impetus to validate their social status.