Cost of marginalising women

The burden of womanhood and the fear of catcalling and harassment make them internalise shame.

Aisha Sarwari December 26, 2017
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad. She blogs at www. She can be followed on Twitter @AishaFsarwari

Five hundred thousand girls could be born in Pakistan but they are not. Thanks to the boy bias. Even today regardless of affluence, traditionalism in Pakistan is so endemic from agrarian times that a woman who births only girls is far below the woman who births males, but she is better than the barren women. This society, like a lot of other traditional societies, has been left with archaic mores, even when they are not needed anymore. Girls in the country do better in standardised tests, but the preference for males is stark and ludicrous. As if the only worthwhile role of a woman is her power to give birth to male heirs, even when her own life hangs by a thread or even when there is nothing but poverty to inherit.

If a girl-child makes it to being born, she will likely have only five years of schooling; there is only a 33 per cent chance she’ll be allowed to use a mobile phone; only a 24 per cent chance she’ll be allowed to work and only a marginal chance she makes it into Parliament. With these many odds maybe being part of the ‘500,000 missing girls’ of the country is a less painful option.

No surprise then that the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, in its index, has placed Pakistan at the forth worst in the world. Violence against women is endemic and perhaps because Pakistan has lowest financial inclusion globally. Violence is to blame.

Twenty-seven per cent women in Pakistan are subjected to domestic violence. With oppression endemic against women, both at the workplace and at home, it makes all the more sense that women leave the turf to men. Then, men fault them and punish them for, and because of, their lack of power. Vicious circle.

The problem is not just with the man who gropes a woman on the bus, or the one who makes sexual advances to his coworker, or even to the one who makes his wife birth sons or else he remarries. The problem is with the fact that the power structures have taken up the persona of the male. The state also governs in masculine. Right from the point of a woman bearing only half witness to the point where women are not given the right affirmative action programmes.

When women parliamentarians like Sherry Rehman worked hard to pass the Harassment in the Workplace Act, they found so much resistance. When it was time to vote, male parliamentarians hid in toilets. The right-wing parties called it anti-tradition and even women from other parties opposed it because their own party didn’t table it.

Pakistan has come a long way in terms of women’s rights. It has gone forwards in terms of the laws and provisions and safeguards, but backwards in terms of women’s individual rights. In the ’60s, historical pictures and literature is replete with women dressed for the summers, riding bikes, taking public transport, driving, working and just being out and about. Visible. Unguarded. Chin up.

If you want to see the line of progress notice how women’s backs have arched as they walk in public now compared to how they tread upright before. The burden of womanhood and the fear of catcalling and harassment make them internalise shame.

That a woman will go out her front door and come back unharrassed in the evening is an anomaly. At some point she’ll be considered fair game by men for being outside the protection of their four walls. Women are dressing far more conservatively in public, but just like the four walls of their home don’t guarantee safety, neither does their cloak. All women are harassed.

We are going about this the wrong way. We are not just going to get results empowering women to break the glass ceiling. We are going to need to ask men to stop blocking them. To stop demeaning them. To stop putting them in a grid of chaste women and unchaste women. To stop them from valuing women based on their sexuality status.

In a way, with the sociopolitical context of the nation appeasing a revisionist group of right-wing fundamentalists, women are being used as a negotiating counter. Women and minorities, particularly women with a minority status are being leveraged. As women’s individual freedoms are being bargained away, so are the country’s values of inclusivity and progressiveness. These are non-negotiable on a global context. So it’s a real shame.

If a woman’s ultimate contribution to society is to birth, assuming, the forth worst woman in the world is going to make a mess out of even that job. The fact is women are more than just that. Take women’s agency from patriarchy, which is foreign to both our religion and our traditions and give it back to women. That’s where that agency belongs.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 26th, 2017.

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