LAHORE: Stripped naked, burnt to death and criticised for participating in a sports festival, it is not easy to be a woman in Pakistan. Being a woman and from a minority community only makes matters worse.
It is, then, little surprise that more than 60% of Christian and Hindu women in Pakistan believe that in times of religious disturbance in the country, majority Muslims will not stand up for them.
This is the finding of a study conducted by the Lahore-based National Commission of Justice and Peace, an independent human rights advocacy organisation and an organ of the Catholic Church in Pakistan.
The study, titled “Life on the margins” maps the lives of women belonging to minority communities and states that these women feel that although in the social sphere members of the majority community are friendly, decreased tolerance in society means they are likely to be abandoned in times of religious tension.
As 90% of Pakistan’s minuscule minority population lives in Sindh and Punjab, the commission interviewed 1,000 Christian and Hindu women from these provinces, asking them 17 questions each. One half of the women were from 18 districts of Sindh, while the other were from eight districts of Punjab. The commission said that the study focused on the Christian and Hindu religions because over 90% of Pakistan’s minorities belong to these faiths.
The study, which carried out scientific assessment of obstacles faced by minority women based on socio-economic indicators, is a pioneering concept. “No comparative gender based data is available on minorities, so this study is presumably one of the few attempts to study women from the religious minorities in Pakistan,” Peter Jacobs, the commission’s executive director, told The Express Tribune.
The commission has begun to launch the study across Pakistan in the hope that it will help legislators understand the issues faced specifically by women from religious minority communities in Pakistan. The study also recommends the need to conduct gender-based census in the country and calls on provincial governments to collect data related to minorities.
A high proportion of the women interviewed (42.5%) stopped short of replying to specific questions on faith-based discrimination, for fear of undesirable consequences if the issue was discussed.
Nevertheless, 43.2% of the respondents said that they or a member of their family had been discriminated against while 14.3% said they never faced such discrimination.
Hate speech appeared to be the most rampant form of discrimination faced by the women, with 32% of them saying they had suffered such instances. Twenty-seven per cent of the women said they had faced difficult and derogatory questions and 19% said that Muslim majority members had disallowed them from eating with them.
A half of the women questioned said they had not come across any discrimination regarding their religious rituals, rites or wearing a symbol of their faith. But over a third of total respondents said that they were “looked down upon” if they wore religious symbols or practiced faith-based rituals.
Minority women and laws
The report criticises the Pakistani constitution for giving rights to minority members only “on paper”, saying that “religious discrimination” is part of the constitution. It states that if a person converts to another religion from Islam, he or she is considered an apostate and a blasphemer, which makes discrimination “de-facto” in the country.
It moves on to examine Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws, which are notorious for their use and abuse to blackmail minorities. In the past 20 years, 34 blasphemy related deaths have occurred despite the absence of convictions by the Federal Shariat Court, the report states.
The report notes that while minority laws have not been reviewed since 1947, Islamic legislation such as the Hudood Laws applies to religious minorities, contradicting their personal laws and at times infringing on their freedom as well. It cites the Christian Divorce Act 1869, according to which a Christian woman is not treated equally, as still being in place.
The study also finds that according to the law of evidence, the testimony of a non-Muslim man, like that of a Muslim woman, carries half the weight of that of a Muslim man. Therefore, a non-Muslim woman’s testimony only has one-fourth the weight of a Muslim man’s.
Laying emphasis on the need for legislation on civil rights of minorities, the report recommends the law and justice department to take on the matter as the small representation of minorities in parliament isn’t powerful enough. At present, four seats are reserved for minorities in Pakistan’s 104-member Senate and 10 in the 342-member National Assembly.
The report also calls for enactment of family laws for members of Hindu, Sikh and Kalash communities, including registration and certification of marriages. It also asks for introduction of a mechanism to avoid conversions in interfaith marriages and recommends awareness campaigns for faith-based sensitisation in government departments.
It also suggests police reforms to help control rights violation of religious minorities in the country. As many as 24% of the respondents had experienced court and police stations, most of whom defined it as a “disappointing” encounter. Only 1% said the police was polite to them.
Circumstances aren’t any easier in educational institutions. When asked about instances of religious discrimination by teachers, 71% of the respondents chose not to reply. The 29% who did reply betrayed fear. They said they were often asked to convert to Islam, an experience that is common to both male and female students from minority communities.
When asked if teachers actively tried to discourage discriminatory attitudes, 64% of the interviewees again chose not to respond. However, 46% of the respondents said that teachers encouraged the intermingling of students from different faiths.
At the time of admission, merit appears to take some precedence of religion as 47% of the respondents said they had faced no hurdles due to their faith at the time of seeking admission to an academic institution. However, 27% said they had faced hindrances and 26% chose not to reply.
But despite this and the fact that respondents were residents of cities or suburbs of urban hubs, only four women were doctors, nine per cent had undergraduate degrees and five per cent had graduate degrees. A total of 32% of the respondents had completed their matriculation and gone on to further study.
The report puts strong emphasis on revising text books to eradicate discriminatory passages.
Workplace attitudes and income security
In the workplace, where women are frequently targeted for their gender, those from the minorities have it even tougher. Forty-seven per cent of the interviewees said that they had been discriminated against in the workplace in the form of a refusal of a holiday, being made to work on a holiday, paid lower wages, denied increments and sudden terminations and transfers.
A large majority of the respondents (76%) were working women and 30% of them said that they had been sexually harassed in the workplace. While a whopping 92% chose not to reply when asked if the harassment was due to their minority status, three per cent said that it was.
The report states that the disturbing silence on the matter hints at fear of speaking up lest shame is brought on families of respondents or they may end up losing their jobs.
About 75% of the respondents said they had no savings to fall back on, indicating severe economic insecurity. Twenty-nine per cent of the women belonged to families where monthly income of all family members was between Rs12,000 and Rs25,000 and 22% came from households with total income between Rs8,000 to Rs12,000. Rs4,000 was the family income of 8.4% of the respondents.
An alarming majority (82%) had no other business or investments, indicating their vulnerability in times of soaring inflation.
Among the primary reasons for conducting the study was increasing public participation of women from Pakistan’s minority communities, allowing them greater say in policies that affect their lives as women as well as minority members.
Although the study found that the respondents were not sensitised for political participation or to rally for social change and rights, 74% of them were registered to vote and 65% had exercised that right.
However, 30% of the women had never voted and only 19% had participated in rallies or protests. The primary reason for low attendance was a lack of awareness. Some also cited family restrictions, but 62% of the women interviewed said they had never been coerced by a family member to vote for a specific political party of candidate.
The study said understanding of the political process needed significant improvement. Three per cent of the respondents said they were satisfied with the current political set-up while 4% said democracy is good.
Health, sanitation and housing
The women interviewed said they had access to satisfactory medical facilities, which could be due to the fact that most respondents live in cities and suburbs with such amenities. Thirty-seven per cent said they faced problems in childbirth, particularly the birth of a weak baby. Six per cent of the respondents said their babies died at birth.
More than 60% of the respondents had access to water but 58% said they had suffered from water-borne health problems. Eleven per cent of the women said they did not have access to proper toilet facilities.
The study recommended that minority women needed to be made more aware of their health rights.
Sixty-five per cent of the respondents said they lived in brick houses which they owned and 16% said they lived in three-bedroom houses, indicating that most of them belonged to the middle-income class.
The report cautioned that housing concerns will continue to be a problem for minorities as urbanisation in the communities is on the rise. One million Christians live only in Lahore while their population is steadily increasing in Karachi, Rawalpindi and Gujranwala.
Mobility and personal freedom
Mobility is an issue informed by socio-cultural traditions faced by Muslim women as well.
Just like Muslim women, their Christian and Hindu sisters said they had to travel with a male member of the family in most situations. Even the 56% who stated that they travel alone said they felt insecure and sought help from male family members. For more than 70% of the women, travelling out of station was only possible with the help of a male family member.
Again like for Muslim women, marriages are traditionally arranged within minority communities as well. The study found that 66% of the respondents were not allowed to choose a life partner and their parents or families would not seek their opinion in the matter.
(EDITED BY ZAINAB IMAM)