Every year, International Women’s Day is celebrated through various social and cultural events by the government and civil society organisations, which reiterate the idea of women’s rights and equality. Increasingly, the day has taken on the quality of an annual ritual which, much like annual religious holidays, comes to be marked by platitudes, clichés and trite comments about respecting women’s rights and promoting equality. Seminars, marches and vigils replace direct action on this day of secular piety. Once it passes, women’s rights and empowerment are placed on the back burner until the day obstinately returns the following year. The remaining 364 days of the year, somehow, do not seem to belong to women.
When radical movements are transformed over time into dull traditions, their origin and history tend to be forgotten. The fact that International Women’s Day originated within socialist thought has been relegated to oblivion. It was Clara Zetkin, a leader of the Social Democratic Party in Germany, who first proposed the idea of a women’s day at the Second International Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen, in 1910. The conference was attended by over 100 women from 17 countries and included workers’ unions, socialist political parties and working women’s clubs. Zetkin’s suggestion received unanimous approval and the first International Women’s Day was celebrated in 1911.
The focus was on the rights of women workers. In 1908, around 15,000 women in various industries marched on the streets of New York to press for shorter work hours, better pay and voting rights. They were baton-charged by police who arrived on horseback to suppress the women’s resistance. The ensuing struggle between women workers and the police led to several women being injured and imprisoned for demanding their rights. This incident was one among others that had prompted Clara Zetkin to demand a day that would remember the women’s struggle, with a view towards continuing the resistance.
International Women’s Day initially represented a conflict between the imperative to capital to maximise profits, and the need for workers to demand decent working conditions and social justice. With the passage of time, the meaning of the day was broadened to include all kinds of political, economic and social rights for women. The day now underscores the importance of women’s rights and empowerment in all fields and is a reminder that the agenda of women’s rights must form the core of the agenda of all governments and nations.
In Pakistan, while we have seen an unprecedented number of women entering the economic field, mainly owing to market forces and the economic downturn, their rights remain a distant dream. In some cases, women’s rights have actually seen a reversal. The limited protection they received in the Women’s Protection Act of 2006 was overruled by the Federal Shariat Court, which declared in December 2010 that the Zina Ordinance (a part of the five Hudood Ordinances) had overriding effect, notwithstanding any other law or order. A parallel judicial structure, created by the most obscurantist military ruler, thus moved to deny women the little protection they had won through decades of struggle and mobilisation by women’s groups.
While the government of the day continued to verbalise its commitment to women’s rights over the past three years, it simultaneously appointed ministers like Israrullah Zehri who upheld the burial of five living women in Balochistan in the name of tradition, and Mir Hazar Khan Bijrani, who presided over an Alternative Dispute Resolution mechanism that gave away five girls, aged two to six, as a peace offering to end a feud.
The rights of working women have been curtailed without either the government or civil society taking much note of the matter. The Finance Act 2006 increased the number of working hours from 8 to 12 a day, a factor which discourages women from working because night shifts are hard for women working in an insecure environment. Additionally, the compulsory weekly holiday was abolished through amendments in the Shops and Establishment Ordinance, 1969. Furthermore, provisions of the Factory Act that prevented women from working before sunrise or after sunset were also abolished.
While rights in the formal sector of employment are being steadily dismantled, the informal sector is characterised by insecure employment, harsh working conditions and absence of any of the social protections for which a state is responsible. There is a preponderance of women in the informal sector of employment — is an unregulated, unorganised sector comprising flexible and mobile labour — which fails to receive the few benefits existing in the formal sector of employment. Labour in the informal sector is typically employed on a temporary, casual and contractual basis and can be retrenched at any time without any legal barriers. In this sector, labour normally does not have access to social security, security of employment, health and hazard benefits, regular paid time off, maternity leave or limitation of working hours. Informal labour is the most exploited and vulnerable category of labour in both the rural and urban areas, with a preponderance in the latter.
Globally, roughly four-fifths of all those who are gainfully employed fall within the informal sector, while in Pakistan home-based women workers constitute around 75 per cent of the informal labour force. Pakistan has a very large informal sector in which 20 per cent growth was recorded in 2007. According to a conservative estimate in 2007, out of the country’s $160 billion economy, the informal sector contributes $32 billion.
While the passage of the law on sexual harassment in the workplace was a positive step by the government, the failure to pass the Domestic Violence Bill speaks volumes about the bargaining on women’s issues in return for the support of religious parties. As March 8 came and went this year, with the usual focus on ritual and pious promises, it would be useful to remember its socialist origins and the rights of women workers all year round.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 9th, 2011.
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