Celebrating women

There are still so many unsung heroines, whose less glamorous yet tougher life struggles, continue to go unnoticed

Sahar Bandial March 14, 2016
The writer is a lawyer and a member of the law faculty at LUMS. She is a graduate of the University of Cambridge

Last week on International Women’s Day, we celebrated the triumph and accomplishments of our women — scientists, artists, activists and entrepreneurs who have won accolades for the country. The celebration, however, was grounded in the acknowledgement of the continuing gender differential in the economy, in governance and in the provision of state services and protection. We therefore called for parity and the closing up of the gender gap. Many of us were rebuked for our apparent self-obsession, self-victimisation, male-bashing and ‘Westernised’ agendas. “How about an International Men’s Day,” we were told, “or a call to work for the benefit of all members of society?”

The reaction is defensive. It amounts to an inability or unwillingness to engage in self-reflection or self-criticism, and turns a valuable social campaign into an unhelpful battle of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. The real object of International Women’s Day is not to draw out swords, assign blame or settle scores. Its object is to recognise women’s daily struggles and to campaign against barriers to their empowerment. To deny that women are victims of violence and exclusion, often perpetrated by men and the State (which is largely male), would be naive. The statistics speak for themselves. Out of the 6,505 cases of violence against women registered in Punjab in 2015, only one per cent of the perpetrators faced punishment. Two-thirds of the female population over 15 years of age in Punjab cannot read, while 35 per cent of girls remain out of school. The maternal mortality ratio stands at 227 deaths per 100,000 births — a lot higher than the targeted ratio. Women’s participation across arenas of governance remains low: women constitute 21 per cent of the membership of the Provincial Assembly; only 14 per cent of the district judiciary is female; 13.55 per cent of grade-18 government officers are women, with the proportion shrinking substantially further up the scale. Women’s ownership of land and other productive resources in comparison to men also remain disproportionately low (Punjab Gender Parity Report, 2016). This scenario holds true across the country. Figures from the other provinces may in fact paint a more dismal picture of the state of our women. There is then reason why Pakistan ranks second last in the countries listed on the Gender Gap Index.

To discard these statistics as farcical numbers concocted to malign and discredit a nation that protects its mothers and sisters would be a disservice to our society. Yet we have a tendency to do exactly this. The reaction to the Oscar win of Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s documentary is a case in point. In order to progress, a society must acknowledge its various imperfections and weaknesses. The oppression of women in our society is an undeniable fact. Instead of taking refuge behind conspiracy theories, we must accept it and commit ourselves to the cause of women empowerment.

It is important, at the same time, to acknowledge the various strides women have, despite the odds, made so far. Pakistani women have reached the summit of the Everest, they fly for the air defence of this nation, they have brought home trophies for excellence in sports, sciences, innovation, arts and much more; they legislate, govern and judge. Pakistani women are strong, vocal and smart and are increasingly gaining ground in politics, enterprise and traditional professions. Many such inspiring women were bestowed awards of recognition last week, some we heard from on television panels and others we read of in newspapers.

There are still so many unsung heroines, whose less glamorous, yet tougher life struggles, continue to go unnoticed: the mother who stood against social pressure and critique so her daughters could follow their dreams, a freedom she was not permitted; the matriarch grandmother who, through her wisdom, continues to hold her family together; the girl who quit an abusive marriage; the amma who toils each day cleaning floors to feed her family; the friend who put her career on hold to raise her children.

To reserve one day in a year to commemorate the lives, sacrifices and accomplishments of these women is not too much to ask. To call for an improvement in women’s access to fundamental rights and protections is a call for a more just society. Let everyone then “Step it up for Gender Equality.”

Published in The Express Tribune, March 15th, 2016.

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