Pakistan: Women's emancipation urgently awaits politics & sociology purged of religion & patriarchy Print E-mail
 Pakistan ~ June 19, 2016 Ramzan 13, 1437 A.H.

Special Report:

What needs to change

Editorial
Making an attempt to see what needs to be changed for women (Graphic by Naseem ur Rehman)

This is not a token Special Report routinely done around women's day. Sitting in today's Pakistan, you cannot imagine anything else more important and worthy of discussion. The events of the last month or two have raised some serious questions about the status of women. The most pertinent ones that come to mind are: what is it that needs to change the mindsets and how will that come about.

The incidents are bizarre to say the least. The photograph of 16 year old Ambreen's charred body in a burnt van in Doongagali was followed by two more incidents of burning of young women in the name of honour. Alongside came the instances of two parliamentarians who insulted their women addressees in a manner that left one bewildered if this was better or worse than being burnt alive. In between came the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) with its own "light beating" solutions for wives and other similar nonsense.

That's how botched up our attitudes are towards women, where harassment and violence feed into each other. For each progressive and women-friendly law that is passed, there is the CII issuing most retrogressive directives to the parliament. Somehow, the discussion is centred more on the CII's controversial statements that are understood to have religious sanction, putting the state and the governments on the defensive.

Clearly, something must change, in the attitudes, in mindsets, that is. The laws are there but nobody seems to care. Do we need to change something in the law to address this impunity for killing in the name of honour? Will that law still be bypassed or misused, and the perpetrator let free by entering into a compromise?

One particular institution that we have focused on is that of political parties. Ironical as it may seem, considering the level of insults hurled by the parliamentarians themselves (at least one of whom belongs to a party that is presumably going to be headed by a woman) we still think the change has to come at the level of political parties.

We have also tried to look at the contribution of women rights movement in the country and what more could it do. This movement was spearheaded by women who raised their voice against victimisation, discrimination and violence when the odds weren't in their favour. They effected laws, they raised voices against discriminatory laws, they tried to change attitudes and yet these seem like two steps back.

Something needs to change. This Special Report is an attempt to just bring the people to realise this.

"The religious character of the constitution will have to give way to secular inclusivity of rights, equality, and equity," concurs Rehmat adding, "An aggressive affirmative action streak in favour of women should underline all laws and curriculum, government policies and legal languages of the constitution and laws be "purged of the image of subservience between genders".

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 Pakistan ~ June 19, 2016 Ramzan 13, 1437 A.H.

What needs to change

By Zofeen T. Ebrahim

"With religion as their worldview and feudalism and patriarchy as their systems of delivery, Pakistan's politics and sociology are rigged against the emancipation of women," analysts share their views

Why do Pakistani men hate their female counterparts so much? They hate them at home, in the market place, on TV and even in the air conditioned sanctum of the parliament? "And they hate them with an intensity that borders on the passionate," says media and political analyst, Adnan Rehmat.

They dole out the most horrendous and barbaric punishment anyone can imagine ­ from acid attacks to forcing them to marry, to handing them over as retribution in the form of vani and swara. They may be stoned or flogged; even raped and gang-raped and if that is not enough then murdered but before that burnt alive.

Side-by-side these "real" world crimes committed against the women is the technology related violence meted out on them which is not on the radar. They are stalked, bullied and blackmailed.

Add to that the daily fare of a volley of verbal sexist abuse thrown at them by husbands, brothers, fathers and now even political leaders, that too, in full public view.

"The spate of violence ­ both physical and verbal ­ against women in Pakistan reported over the last few weeks is bad even by Pakistani standards," says Rehmat, pointing to the recent "burning" of women for wanting to marry of free will; "misogyny in statements" by members of the cabinet; "catcalling" fellow women legislators and use of "uncouth language by a religious party senator" as well as attempted physical assault on a woman panelist on a talk show.

Why did young Zeenat Rafiq of Lahore have to fall in love and elope to get married to a person her family did not approve of? She had to be made an example by being burnt alive; a week before 19-year old Maria Sadaqat, was murdered in Murree by a group of men for refusing to marry the son of the owner of a school where she taught.

Then Khawaja Asif, the Defence Minister of Pakistan who is also the minister of water and power, put his mask down when he ridiculed Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf leader, Dr Shireen Mazari, for her appearance and voice in front of the parliament.

The heat had not even settled on Asif‘s unwarranted ranting when Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam's (Fazl) senator, Hafiz Hamdullah, attacked rights activist Marvi Sirmed in a talk show in what nuclear physicist Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy termed a language "laced with sexual filth".

"When even parliamentarians can do this publicly, it underscores the decreased dignity accorded to women in today's hyper-religious environment," says Hoodbhoy, a public intellectual.

To classical dancer, Sheema Kirmani, one way to end violence against women is to make Pakistan a secular society. "Remove religion from public life and the state and make religion a private matter," she says emphatically.

But many say violence against women in Pakistan is nothing new. Between 2014 and 2015, nearly 933 people, mostly women, were killed for honour in the country, according to official figures provided by the Ministry of Human Rights in 2015. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) reported 1,096 cases of honour killing during the same period.

There is a growing display of "callous disregard for the rights of women and downright maleficent behaviour by senior representatives of government and parliament," says Rehmat.

"Despite gallant movements by women to resist this tide of misogyny, the country's overtly patriarchal character is being reinforced by indirect support from the government's indifference to suffering of women," he says.


"With religion as their worldview and feudalism and patriarchy as their systems of delivery, Pakistan's politics and sociology in their current forms are rigged against the emancipation of women," he explains.

"It is difficult to end this violence as it suits men and women will continue to suffer," laments Dr Shershah Syed, renowned obstetrician and gynecologist.

"Religious leaders believe that women are there to serve and please men and no other role is acceptable," says Syed, who often treats young girls brought to him with severe injuries to their genitalia and pregnant women beaten up blue and black.

"And it's in keeping with Council of Islamic Ideology and other Islamist thought ­ that women cannot have a role in public sphere. They must be wives only ­ and that too obedient to men else they'll be beaten," says Afiya Zia, a feminist researcher-scholar.

"Little wonder then that the average person believes that giving equal rights to women will overturn the status quo and to counter this they resort to their comfort-zone influence over women's futures and fates as arbiters instead of facilitators," says Rehmat.

But associate professor, Kausar S. Khan, who heads the Division of Behavioural and Social Sciences at Karachi's Aga Khan University, finds hope in the ongoing protests by the civil society.

Protests there may be, but where are the Pakistani men? asks Zia. "Why don't masses of men come out saying they condemn the idea of beating wives or boycott the channel on which women are abused," she says, referring to the recent Marvi Sirmed vs Hamdullah altercation.

Zia also has problem with armchair protestors who "only tweet or issue statements" from the safety of their living rooms.


"Where is their presence and why aren't they challenging these criminals?" she asks, adding, "Simply venting on social media is beyond ineffective ­ it's self indulgent." She mourns that Pakistani women have "very few defenders".

"We must not allow ourselves to be dragged into the quagmire of despair and lament," says Khan. She believes there is a need to assess the psyche of the perpetrators to understand them before violence can be stopped.

"Those who abuse, kill and maim women have a peculiar psychology that needs to be fathomed in order to curtail it."

The Pakistani law may allow a woman to marry of her choice, Islam may give the woman a right to choose her spouse, but cultural norms and traditions do not. So, while the world may be in the 21st century, in the mind of Pakistani men, women must continue to lead the life as in the 18th century.

"People are confused that, on the one hand, there is progressive legislation and, on the other, such horrific brutality," says Zia, but adds that it is not a contradiction, it's complimentary.

"Women break boundaries now ­ more working, more marrying of their own will, more vocal in the parliament and defying male rules and codes in homes and communities. And the state is legally bound to protect them. So the only way men can deal with controlling women like in the past or regaining control is by punishing defiant women themselves," she explains, citing American author and journalist Susan Faludis' warning of a "backlash" (incidentally also the title of one of her books).

"This violence is to send the message that women who don't fall into line will be punished by men as representatives of God even if the state won't take action," says Zia.

Zohra Yusuf, chairperson of the HRCP agrees with Zia. "I believe patriarchy is feeling threatened by the progress (even if slow) that women are making and the courage they are showing in asserting some rights (such as the right to choose a marriage partner)."

But what Yusuf finds beyond shocking is mothers' involvement in killing of daughters.

To add insult to injury, Pakistan government's official religious council ­ the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) that enjoys financial favour with the government which allocates a whopping Rs100 million annually has fanned violence perpetrated against women by coming up with misogynistic recommendations on the role of women in society.

The latest suggestion being that it is alright for husbands to "lightly" beat their wives if they turn down sex. They even want the minimum age of marriage to be lowered to as young as nine if a girls shows "visible" signs of puberty.

Zia finds such pronouncements "extremely dangerous" because they "offer moral impunity". "Those who say these statements are innocuous or redundant or are in denial," she warns.

Hoodbhoy, on the other hand, has observed that while Pakistan's English-speaking elite may have responded with "righteous indignation" to the bill sanctioning the "light" beating of "wayward" wives, with the focus of its ire as CII's chairman, Maulana Muhammad Khan Sherani, they have "studiously stayed clear of interpreting those verses of the Quran that apparently justify such punishment".

Further, he observes, that CII's proclamations have not evinced a particular negative reaction from either Urdu newspapers or ordinary people. "This suggests that Sherani's views are scarcely different from those commonly accepted," he says and concludes, "Clearly, the premises behind today's patriarchal society are not under significant challenge."

To classical dancer, Sheema Kirmani, whose theatre and dance company promotes the plight of women and suppressed minorities, one way to end violence against women is to make Pakistan a secular society. "Remove religion from public life and the state and make religion a private matter," she says emphatically.

"The religious character of the constitution will have to give way to secular inclusivity of rights, equality, and equity," concurs Rehmat adding, "An aggressive affirmative action streak in favour of women should underline all laws and curriculum, government policies and legal languages of the constitution and laws be "purged of the image of subservience between genders".

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 Pakistan ~ June 19, 2016 Ramzan 13, 1437 A.H.

Chronicle of a movement

By Enum Naseer

While legislation in favour of women is the result of continuous hard work of women's rights organisations, a lot remains to be done
 
Protesting for a just cause.

In just a matter of days, in addition to a display of misogynistic attitudes both in the parliament and on national television, there have been incidents of horrific violence against women in Murree, Lahore, and Kasur. Completely out of touch with the changing environment ­ the dynamics of urbanisation and globalisation that have increased women's mobility and participation in the public sphere ­ are the conservative rightwing.

"When it comes to violence against women, the state has had a history of being complicit. Why have we gotten to this point? It is because the state has provided men impunity and all of a sudden, that is being challenged," says Nabiha Meher Shaikh, a member of Women's Action Forum.

"Having said that, it would be unrealistic to expect NGOs to do all the work," she adds.

"I think Shirkat Gah has been the most successful. They have been around for so long and they were probably the first proper ‘feminist' organisation and a sort of mother organisation. Women's Action Forum was born later and was very successful too in Sindh and Hyderabad," she points out.

"At the moment, the organisation is still actively engaged in bringing about change. Then there is Aurat Foundation which is now more or less engaging the media through numbers and statistics (this leaves a lot more to be desired). Simorgh, [another women's rights NGO] has been working on textbooks and education and gender sensitivity," she adds.

"It is only in the past 10 years or so that the focus has been on changing mindsets which is a great change in itself. The impact of this has been quite massive," she says.

"It was during the PML-N's government in the 1990s when a huge number of honour killings took place and it is during the same party's tenure that we are now condemning honour killings after Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy's documentary film. I think the movement has been very successful in changing people's minds and motivating women to stand up for themselves even in the face of violence," she comments.

Sonia Qadir, Legal Advisor for Punjab Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW), agrees that there has been a change in society's mindset. "We are definitely seeing change in attitudes, in the echelons of government, amongst civil society organisations and activists as well as ordinary women," she says.

Justice (retd) Majida Rizvi, former chairperson of the National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW), adds that the changing attitudes are also the result of international pressures.

"After being awarded the GSP Plus status, for instance, Pakistan has to comply with 27 international conventions and among them, 2 deal with human rights ­ ensuring women's rights are protected is important, for many reasons," she says.

But, according to her, that is just one aspect of the situation.

"The results you see today in the form of Criminal Amendment Act of 2006, legislation against acid-throwing, Hindu Marriage Bill, and even the fact that cases related to hudood (despite the myth that these laws could not be touched) are almost disappearing is the result of the hard work of MPAs, women's rights activists and women's rights organisations," she argues.

"While things did slow down after the Hudood laws were implemented, women have, by and large, been alert about protecting their rights," she believes.

Qadir seconds the notion that women are increasingly showing "a willingness to come forward and speak up, and be informed about remedies available to women." In fact, she says, "it is not just women who reach out to the commission ­ often it is male relatives, and sometimes neighbours or other acquaintances, who do so when they see violence against women."

Fauzia Viqar, chairperson of PCSW, recalls that compared to when the commission started its helpline, the number of calls today has shot up considerably. "It all depends on the capacity of the organisation and word-of-mouth referrals that give people confidence. It seems like a no-brainer but in experience you feel that dedicated institutions and dedicated positions do have a huge role in women's empowerment agenda in the government and in the society at large," she says.

Whenever there are institutions for redressal ­ both men and women end up using them. By virtue of our mandate, this is what we are supposed to do ­ for the commission, for instance, it's not just policy and legislative review but also about changing perceptions," asserts Viqar.

Commenting on the violent backlash that victims face after they seek help, Qadir says, "Fear of backlash (especially harassment from perpetrators and their families) is substantial, and for this there are few remedies in our legal system. If women take a case to court, they have to be able to afford the fee, face mobility issues, social stigma, and harassment from police and lawyers, besides harassment from the accused." She understands that "hesitance to report is not only a factor of traditional values, but a practical observation of the hurdles women face."

She underlines the importance of having "government infrastructure, and civil society organisations, available for the protection of women. Because women often do not have other kinds of support networks readily available".

Differences in mindsets and leanings can even be seen from the disparity between provinces as they legislate on women's rights. In provinces like Sindh, that has seen the most progressive reforms on women's rights, "there is a strong, progressive and secular element" according to Justice Rizvi as opposed to provinces like Punjab and KP. Change is imminent, she believes, but it will take time and a combined effort.

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 Pakistan ~ June 19, 2016 Ramzan 13, 1437 A.H.

Misunderstanding women, deliberately

By Adnan Rehmat

For no good reason, the events of the past few months suggest a wider acceptability of women as legitimate objects to disregard, disrepute and denigrate

Women generally have it bad in Pakistan but there is a growing display of callous disregard for the rights of women and downright maleficent behaviour by senior representatives of government and parliament that can only result in – indeed is resulting in – wider acceptability of women as legitimate objects to disregard, disrepute and denigrate. Almost as if women were offenders rather than victims.

And, yet, according to the government's own figures, three out of four girls don't get schooling beyond primary level. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has for several years now been reporting hundreds of women killed every year in the name of honour. Men's honour of course, never women's.

And the news in Pakistan these past few months have been especially bleak. Several instances of girls burnt alive by their families for marrying for love and awarded as compensation by communities for sins of their male family members. A noted rights activist, a woman, shockingly browbeaten and cussed at on television by a male senator belonging to a religious party allied with the government. Two male ministers of the federal government unabashedly caricaturising – in the National Assembly and at a press conference later – an opposition parliamentarian, also a woman. Several religious parties successfully obstructing a law passed by Punjab Assembly from being activated to shield women against violence at home. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government seeking the help of Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) for advice on a similar law and being advised to tone it down and accepting it. The CII proclaiming that beating up wives is kosher, that scientific method of using DNA to determine culpability of rapists is haram and that legislating against child marriages is a conspiracy against Islam because girls as young as nine are eligible for matrimony.

It is shocking how much Pakistani men in particular and the patriarchal society, the urban macho legislatures and the virtually gender-blind policymaking echelons of the governments and state in general hate women. Perhaps nothing shocks more than what has been happening in the country's bicameral national parliament, which is perhaps the best barometer of what the country and its representatives think and prioritise.

In many ways, the performance of parliament, supposedly the check on a wayward government, has been found wanting when it comes to defending, strengthening and enforcing the rights of women. Worse, the parliament is guilty of being dismissive of the role that women in the House have played in furthering the agenda of human rights in the country. It is the same house where ministers deride women with almost gleeful abandon – Sheikh Rashid commenting on Benazir Bhutto, Khawaja Asif on Shireen Mazari and Mahnaz Rafi, Talal Chaudhry on Shireen Mazari, Abid Sher and Shaikh Aftab on Shazia Marri, and so on.

Currently there are 70 women MNAs making up for 20 per cent of the total representation in the House of 342. In the Upper House there are 19 women senators making up for 18 per cent of the total representation in the House of 104. Overall, 89 women make up for 18 per cent of the total membership in bicameral parliament. According to data from Free and Fair Election Network (Fafen), in the last completed parliamentary year for National Assembly (June 2015 to February 2016) and Senate (March 2015 to March 2016), women legislators constituting 18 per cent of the combined members of both houses accounted for 44 per cent of the agenda of both houses ­ a whopping three times the proportion of their representation.

With religion as their worldview and feudalism and patriarchy as their systems of delivery, Pakistan's politics and sociology in their current forms are rigged against the emancipation of women.

Considered in the context of how the social, political and economic systems are inherently rigged against emancipation of women in Pakistan, this performance in the parliament by them more than negates any assertions of pretentions by the state and its polity at who delivers more when opportunities present themselves ­ men or women.

The stated agendas of development and progress outlined in the manifestos of political parties ring hollow when measured up to translated gains. The yawning gap between promise (at the elections) and performance (three years in power for PML-N and JUI in Centre, PML-N in Punjab and Balochistan, PPP in Sindh and PTI and JI in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) is precisely because emancipation and empowerment of women have never been part of policymaking and governance.

Among many reasons for this is perhaps the fact that women do not constitute even five per cent of the memberships of the central executive committees of these political parties, or even three per cent of the memberships of the federal and provincial cabinets. Or the fact that, in general, the leadership of the political parties feel they are not obliged to attend parliament ­ their day job!

According to Pakistan Institute for Legislative Development and Training (Pildat), in the last completed calendar year (2015), the PM attended only 20 per cent of the National Assembly sittings and Imran Khan only two per cent. With their leaders not even showing up for work, what would you expect from their male colleagues, in general?

In the provincial assemblies, shockingly Punjab CM attended only two sittings (less than 1 per cent), KP CM only 34 per cent while Balochistan CM Dr Malik faring only somewhat better at 63 per cent and Sindh CM at 71 per cent. In short, almost no one is interested in making women part of the development policies ­ either as practitioners or beneficiaries.

Media – while not part of the government – is also part of the problem. This is the chicken and egg situation. Which came first – negative portrayal of women by media or negative treatment of women by society? Theoretically media is the guardian of public interest and is supposed to serve as the voice of the voiceless and supposed to bring to account government policies and state priorities to ensure the marginalised communities and underdogs have protections against discrimination.

Women are not a minority and yet they are marginalised wantonly and widely.

It is hard to discern any exceptional efforts made by media in Pakistan to promote women's rights as priorities to focus on even though the media never shies away from reporting the subjugation and strident discrimination against women and sensationalising the discourse around it. If the media cannot aggressively champion the cause of women, it is failing in its primary duty. It does not help that less than 750 of the 18,000 journalists in Pakistan are women, according to Freedom Network, Pakistan. This is too insignificant a ratio to address gender bias in news and opinion perspectives since male journalists, in general, are simply not interested in championing women's interests.

As for why Pakistani men hate women with an intensity that seem to border on the passionate? With religion as their worldview and feudalism and patriarchy as their systems of delivery, Pakistan's politics and sociology in their current forms are rigged against the emancipation of women. With both state religion and cultural sociology regarding women on the basis of their biological functions rather than their sociological rights, both the legal framework and its attendant implementation mechanisms make sure women remain second-class citizens at best.

Little wonder then that men believe that effectively giving equal rights to women will overturn the status quo to their peril and to counter this they resort to their comfort-zone influence over women's futures and fates as arbiters instead of facilitators.