The dismal state of women in Pakistan

Published: June 21, 2011
The writer is an analyst and a former ambassador to Yemen, Nigeria and Italy

The writer is an analyst and a former ambassador to Yemen, Nigeria and Italy

While we have seen phenomenal changes take place across the world in recent decades, the status and fate of women, who have been so badly treated through the centuries in almost all cultures, hasn’t changed much.

But in Pakistan, their situation has become worse and thus it comes as no surprise that we were recently rated as one of the worst countries in the world when it comes to the way we treat women. Already among the ten most corrupt states of this world, Pakistan ranks even higher when it comes to maltreatment of women. Only in war-torn Afghanistan and the Congo is their plight worse and their lives and honour more threatened.

More than 60 years after independence, 80 per cent of Pakistani women are still subject to domestic violence, while one in three has to endure villainy like rape, honour killing, immolation and acid attacks. Being paraded naked before neighbours or being gang-raped is another peculiarly Pakistani punishment, even when there is little evidence of the crime for which these cruel and illegal punishments are meted out, notwithstanding the fact that the deepest sin against the human mind is to believe something without evidence.

Our country is ranked 82 out of 93 countries on the Gender Development Index and 152 out of 156 countries on the Gender Empowerment Measure. We are also among a handful of countries where there is a negative sex ratio of 100 women to 108.5 men.

Extensive research, analysis and field surveys conducted around the world and by the UN itself across a wide spectrum of issues, confirm that empowering women is the most enduring way of accelerating social and economic development and strengthening the values of nonviolence, compassion and diligent work ethics.

Women can be a powerful ‘force multiplier’ for the overall progress of society, and that notably includes the well-being of the family unit, if they are treated as equals in letter and spirit and are able to make their contribution in all fields of human endeavour.

Our commitment to eliminating all forms of discrimination against women (we have signed up to many a global convention including the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women) has not made an iota of difference when it comes to translating words into action. Generally speaking, we find carrying out commitments far too fatiguing. Hence, our solemn and much publicised pledges to protect women have made no difference, just as our anti-terrorism legislation has not deterred terrorism. Actually, laws here are observed mostly in the breach.

There are plenty of ideas about what is needed legally and administratively to make a real difference, but none of those will have the desired impact unless our vision for our nation is a tolerant, modern, liberal and progressive society. Both dogmatic obscurantism and patriarchal values have twisted and distorted our sense of fundamental values, particularly with respect to women and their place in society. Unless a forward-looking vision is adopted by society as a whole, the innate prejudice against women that is so widespread in Pakistan and which our society as a whole seems to blindly pedal, or willfully prefer, will continue to play havoc with the lives of women.

Life is replete with daily examples of injuries and usurpations on part of men against women, so much so that the history of women can be likened to the history of the worst form of tyranny the world has ever seen.

And here in Pakistan, such tyranny, in some form or the other, is visible every day on public buses, in shops and on pavements in our teeming cities and towns, and in the countryside where a majority of women live. Men grope, gawk and leer at women and often accost them in public view. Even a veiled woman invites attention even though her ‘invisible’ presence ought to be mundane.

We only get to hear of the more egregious crimes committed against women but never about the snide comments and insults that women endure in their daily lives. Why should a woman wait and wait until a whole contingent of men have passed through a narrow passage before negotiating it herself merely because she might accidentally brush past some of them? And yet she does wait, as if by instinct and uncomplainingly. Why, when getting into a cab, must a woman so contort herself or arrange her dress that not a sliver of ankle flesh is even accidentally exposed? And yet they do that very self-consciously, and sometimes even in the middle of the road. And the sight of a woman’s hair seems to stir the animalism in man, especially those whose soul starts at the kneecap and ends at the navel.

Exactly at what point of time Pakistanis stand in terms of our attitude towards women can be gauged from the following:

“Men have broad and large chests, small and narrow hips, and more understanding than women, who have but small and narrow chests, and broad hips so that they should remain at home, sit still, keep house and bear and bring up children.”

The above quotation is from what Martin Luther wrote in 1540, in his entirely forgettable treatise titled “Of marriage and celibacy”. The West and, let it be said, some Muslim societies, have moved way beyond that point while we in Pakistan have not reached it as yet, at least en masse.

Most of us here have almost certainly heard a similar cant. Among fundos and their millions of closet supporters, these sentiments are rampant. These views are frankly now the norm; they are an accurate reflection of public thought.

While most societies have conceded that the extension of women’s rights is the basic principle of all social progress, in our case, that is far from true. As the recent international findings on the plight of women show, we are far behind. Complacency, apathy and vestiges of savagery towards women continue to hold sway in our male-dominated society. The fact is that if we really want to make a break with poverty and backwardness, we cannot achieve that without empowering women. Apart from considerations of human dignity of women, there are also compelling social and economic reasons to do this.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 22nd, 2011.

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Reader Comments (16)

  • Jun 21, 2011 - 9:54PM

    An additional factor to consider is injustice and violence inflicted by women on other women. The conditioning of men to believe their own superiority and the co modification of women has in part alot to do with narratives spun by women (mothers, grandmothers, carers) themselves. This is not to take away any blame from men themselves, but just to offer alternative views, as solutions to this travesty requires realignment amongst various factors simultaneously. Recommend

  • Ali
    Jun 21, 2011 - 11:29PM

    With foreign affairs being Mr Hilaly’s specialist field he could have written a more informed composition on Pakistan’s external woes..Recommend

  • Apostate
    Jun 21, 2011 - 11:58PM

    Culture and Religion also plays big role. What we need is more secular schooling and greater enrollment for girl child and to see to it that most of them finish high school.

    First, very few girl children are sent to school. Second, most of them drop out just about puberty age. Recommend

  • Mirza
    Jun 22, 2011 - 2:29AM

    Well said, thanks. I have been saying like a broken record that the solution of most problems of Pakistan is woman’s education. Educated (normal school not madarsa) women do not raise suicide bombers. The same mother, who is the best thing that can happen to a child, would be better equipped to raise her/him. Do you notice that I have her before him in my last line? These are small examples of teachings and practices by educated parents. Once women are respected starting at their birth, the whole attitude would change.
    I have convinced some of my elder relatives to give equal share to their sons and daughters. I asked them, did you ever give half the amount of food or money on Eid to your daughters? They said no I treated them as equal. I convinced them why start now or leave hatred among your kids, after you die? My wife and I gave our shares to respective sisters to bring them at par with the brothers. We made sure that we just do not leave it so that brothers can increase their share. Even Islam allows that equality but most mullahs do not even talk about it. A man can only give 1/3 of his wealth to anybody if he wants, but not more than that. It means that 1/3 can be used to bring daughter’s share at par. It is ironic that men who have not done anything Islamic want the inheritance according to Islamic laws!
    My mother made sure that I get education even though it was in the yellow color govt schools sitting on the floor. She made sure that when I grow up, I can make a difference. My only complaint for the author is that why did he wait till after his retirement to talk about this major problem in our society? These issues are not new, but people are too busy exploiting this situation for their own good. Recommend

  • deedee
    Jun 22, 2011 - 5:41AM

    excellent article! very well written!Recommend

  • Ahmed
    Jun 22, 2011 - 7:48AM

    Good basic article. Did not go in details. I want to give a personal experience. I am an apparel specialist (from Karach, now settled in USA). In the late 1990s i used to fly from USA to Lahore to develop strategies for the textile tycoons. One of the tycoons had two drivers. One was an intermediate from College whose wife had intermediate education also. Other was from Waziristan or some other backward area.. Not more than 8th grade education. The educated driver was always positive and happy. I used to give them $20 tip for drving me whole day. the Wazisitan driver always complained about inflation and his low wage and would always ask for more money. The Lahore based driver after a few days refused to take the money and said I had already given him enough. Being curious I asked why? He said he has only two children. His boss has provided him free living quarters and he gets food allowance and his wife also works. He has saved enough money to send his kids to college. Then next day when I got the waziristan driver, I asked him what was his problem. He said he did not want to bring his wife and young female children (4 out of his 7 children) to Lahore as they would become immoral. Being single in Lahore he has to manage two households one in Waziristan and one in Lahore. He said God gave him seven children and now his wife is not in good health and he has to look for another younger wife to satisfy his needs and hopefully God will give him additional stronger children.. I told him bluntly that he is the reason his family is not only poor but will remain poor. Good government will never make him rich because he is stupid and ignorant. Next day when I got the other Lahore based driver, I gave him a hug and told him I am sure one of children would become a lawyer or a doctor or an engineer or a Phd. Pakistan does not need Waziristan thinking. Pakistan needs poor men married to educated women so that together they can make sound decisions. Pakistanis stop blaming the goverment and governance. China was also extremely corrupt. But poor people made good choices like marrying educated women and educating their children.. Do not blame everyone. Just blame these Men from Jhelum, Waziristan, Sanghar, Sibi, Dera Ghazi Khan and other backward places.. Start calling them what they are, ingorant and drain on society and empower women in those areas. They will put these idiots back into their place and start having less children like Bangladeshi women. No need for Imran Taliban (PTI leader). We need more women in work force and in high schools. Everything would change in a short time. Recommend

  • Jun 22, 2011 - 9:28AM

    ‘Why, when getting into a cab, must a woman so contort herself or arrange her dress that not a sliver of ankle flesh is even accidentally exposed? And yet they do that very self-consciously, and sometimes even in the middle of the road. And the sight of a woman’s hair seems to stir the animalism in man, especially those whose soul starts at the kneecap and ends at the navel.’

    Well put. Comes straight from my heart. And what to say of the craning necks (wish could just break them) when a woman is sitting in a taxi or a rickshaw, even if all covered; her colourul dupatta is like a dope for the sick minds. And what to say of the glaring eye balls which seem to pop up and burst with hunger at the sight of a lone woman traveller. And why exactly should the woman remove all her make up and jewelery and prefer to travel “saada” in order to avoid the unwanted dirt. And travel is just one aspect from the hundreds of others; aspects which make one feel vulnerable, frustrated, week. Unjust. Recommend

  • Irshad Khan
    Jun 22, 2011 - 10:04AM

    Mirza`s comments excellent. But do you Know views of our law makers, who are mostly sardars, peers,mullahs etc.and who do not treat woman equal to them rather treat them as animals. Did you hear speeches in Parliament when four girls were buried alive, some where in Balochistan? It was reported in newspapers that one said and claimed that it was his culture and nobody has right to interfere! Recommend

  • Sharif Lone
    Jun 22, 2011 - 11:35AM

    West has progressed in relation to women by giving them more rights and respect. Laws protect them against abuse and highhandedness of men. It is because west has left religion in the church and made laws which are based on human rights. I think that is the way to go. have written my thoughts on the subject in a letter. crying for Justice, published on Sunday in tribune.Recommend

  • adeel najam
    Jun 22, 2011 - 11:39AM

    our women won’t improve their status in our society until they start considering themselves to be equal in worth as men.our girls still possess the mentality that they will sit at home and waste their lives instead of having life long careers.I’ve had college ,university female friends whose parents were spending lakhs of rupees to get them educated at private universities but all these girls aimed to do in life was to land some rich guy off whose tankhwa these bimbos could then free ride for the rest of their lives instead of working and earning for themselves.I have a cousin who’s MBBS pass but hasn’t worked a day in her life as a doctor.When i asked why did she waste taxpayer’s money by getting subsidised medical education,her mother replied ” lady doctor ko rishtay achay miltay hain,sab larkay daktarni say shaadi karna chahtay hain kyunkay daktarni bannay say status barthta hai””.

    i mean,come one, doing MBBS only for the sake of getting rishtas from rich guys is just plain that your only aim ladies,why don’t you do mbbs to become brain surgeons or perhaps find the cure for AIDS? our women first of all have to change their own attitudes about themselves only then will the men improve their thinking.Recommend

  • Hasan
    Jun 22, 2011 - 12:33PM

    “While we have seen phenomenal changes take place across the world in recent decades, the status and fate of women, who have been so badly treated through the centuries in almost all cultures, hasn’t changed much.”

    This statement is absolute nonsense and the author has obviously failed to qualify his statement; surely he is referring to the status of women in developing countries.

    In fact, even in some developing Muslim countries, such as Jordan, women activists have praised the tangible improvements in women’s rights in the Kingdom with major changes in the attitudes of the society and government towards certain sensitive issues that were rarely discussed in the past. Issues, such as violence against women and children and so-called honour crimes, are now out in the open. Issues that were once taboo are now discussed openly and maturely both by the government and civil society organisations.

    As for modern western societies, there has been considerable progress towards equality with men and women enjoy liberties and opportunities that there mothers and grandmothers would’ve never have thought possible.


    Excellent comments from both regarding the role of education in improving the status of women. Improved levels of education participation will provide women with the skills, knowledge and self-confidence to proceed and make there mark in the community. Furthermore, education of children begins in the home and teachers cannot be expected to shoulder the entire social burden that comes from uneducated parents. It is worth remembering that a mother who has been educated is in a position to provide her children (the future generation) with a sound foundation to future learning. The simple answer is to education your women! Recommend

  • Alsahdiq
    Jun 22, 2011 - 3:22PM

    But who is free in our Brahmanistan? Who?
    I will recommend Ahmed’s very well documented experience for all to read and practice. Mirza also made good contribution apart from all others.Recommend

  • Jun 22, 2011 - 7:05PM

    I think TightDhoti has a very valid point. Some of the worst injustices done to wives by their husbands are at the instigation (or at least, support) of the mother-in-law or sisters-in-law. This happens regardless of education, or class, and seems to be a cultural flaw.Recommend

  • Abdur Rehman
    Jun 22, 2011 - 10:02PM

    I find it disgusting that most of the women(including my own dadi) themselves justify atrocities on other women by saying that “SHOHAR MIJAAZ E KDUDA HAI” (husband’s position is just below that of Allah).
    I feel like crying when I hear such statements. YOU CAN NOT BEING CHANGE UNLESS WOMEN THEMSELVES WONT STAND UP FOR THEIR RIGHTS. No matter how much I,Zafar Hillaly and other men cry, we will be labelled as “sissy men” and “amreeki ghulam”

    Its women who should shout, cry, threaten and kick some a** to earn their what their truly is.Recommend

  • Colleen
    Jun 22, 2011 - 11:48PM

    That’s right ladies! Get out there and kick some a**!! It’s time for all women of the world to stand up and demand respect and equality. Men seem to not realize that without women… they wouldn’t be here!Recommend

  • Shabazz X
    Jun 24, 2011 - 1:05AM

    I don’t think Pakistan is really that bad for women, especially in most rural areas, as far as violence against them. There’s plenty of abuse of women in western countries, mainly because couples live alone, their neighbors are strangers, there’s more private moments and so it’s easier to abuse your wife/daughter/gf/etc. in secrecy. Nevermind the factor of alcohol. Going back to my ancestral village near Rawalpindi in Pakistan, I see relatively few cases of domestic abuse. I think this is mainly because you are surrounded by people all of the time, by family, and there’s little opportunity for such violence to occur. Also because your wife’s brothers are likely to be related to you and live nearby to offer protection against any abusive husband. IMO to act as if abuse of women is so frequent in Pakistan is absurd and unfounded. I think it’s a lot less than it is in Western countries.Recommend

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