Let them wear bangles
You can show me as many female legislators as you want – but are they ever taken seriously in the assemblies?
Has life for women in Pakistan improved or deteriorated over the past decade? This question is being hotly debated in the wake of a report that listed Pakistan as the ‘third-worst country in the world for women’.
Now, I am not one to say that some Pakistani women have not made great strides in the past ten years or so. When critics of reports like the one I mentioned above rattle off names of prominent women politicians, educationalists, intellectuals and social workers as proof of women’s success in Pakistan, I agree wholeheartedly that these women have effectively contributed to society, and serve as role models to women who wish to do the same.
But the fact is, these women, whose faces we all know well, have managed to make a difference despite existing social and political structures – not because of them.
And this one word, “despite,” and this condition – whether or not women have the support of the institutions around them - is the key factor that will determine whether women in Pakistan will live a better or worse life in the years to come.
The truth is that the institutions that can play a key role in freeing women from the restrictions that cultural expectations, social norms and physical insecurity place on them, have failed to do their jobs. Here I speak of institutions like the judiciary (and no, I do not mean just the Supreme Court, in fact the lower courts play a larger role in defending a woman’s right’s than the higher judiciary), law enforcement agencies, the federal government, and the provincial government.
The problem is not one of a lack of resources, or even a realigning of priorities – the problem is that mostly, the people who head these institutions just don’t think a problem exists in the first place.
This deep-rooted cultural bias against women, which causes most to view women as afterthoughts, not equal citizens, is the real reason why we don’t see change in our society. You can show me as many female legislators as you want – but are they ever taken seriously in the National Assembly, or in the provincial assemblies where they handle insignificant portfolios? This point is neatly illustrated by a squabble that occurred in the National Assembly a few days ago. Legislator Mehreen Anwar Raja protested against politically incorrect language used by PML-N’s Khwaja Saad Rafiq: as a reference to cowardice, he said, “we are not wearing bangles.” In one fell swoop, he disassociated himself from lesser members of society – women, of course. But when Raja attempted to move a resolution against the use of such terms, some lawmakers left the assembly, resulting in a lack of quorum and a defeat of Raja’s motion.
Let this serve as an example to people who think enough is being done for women in Pakistan. You must remember that even though you see more women in the public eye these days, in the majority of cases, and in the majority Pakistani institutions, a woman’s desire to participate in everyday life is, at best, humoured.
Until we replace our ‘good-humoured tolerance’ for women’s participation in all spheres of life with a fervent belief that the world will be better off with women having an equal say in its management, I promise you – we will keep moving up that list of places that are hell for women.