I come from a family with no male head of household. After my father’s passing in 2005, it has been my mother, my sisters and me. I have been privileged enough to make my own choices about how to live my life, but I have to admit that living in Pakistan in a family with no men has not been easy. Official documents require me to state who my father or husband is. No matter how carefully I dress, I always run the risk of being groped by some man in a busy marketplace. I cannot walk through a street without feeling lecherous eyes boring into my body, making me feel unclothed even though my dupatta is carefully wrapped around me. People will always assume that my mother has to (or should) ask a male relative for his permission before making important decisions for her daughters. I will be regarded with pity when people find out I do not have a brother to protect me. The pity will increase when they are informed that my mother has two other ‘burdens’ apart from me.
By most standards, I do not represent the average Pakistani woman. I have been more sheltered than most women my age. However, the sexism I have encountered in the 19 years of my life that I spent in Pakistan has been unparalleled even in my sheltered experience, and I am reminded of it every time I am home for the summer. Yes, things could be worse. I could be born in a place where women fare even worse than they do in Pakistan, but this is not an exercise in comparison. A cousin once told my mother that he would have helped her find a scholarship to finance my college education had I been a son, but alas, I was merely a daughter. This gentleman, who was educated at a reputable foreign university, subscribed to the commonly held social belief that investing in daughters’ education is a waste of financial resources. I encounter these views almost everywhere I go in Pakistan.
Conversations with other South Asian women at college have not only served to reinforce my perceptions of misogyny within Pakistani society, but also the fact that it isn’t just limited to us. The problem is pervasive, and it is regional. The infamous Delhi rape case was an extreme example, but there are alarming similarities in the way women are treated in their everyday lives across the board. We talk about changing social mindsets, but when patriarchal structures and oppression are so embedded in our social fabric, where does one start? According to the Aurat Foundation, 4,585 cases of violence against women were reported in the Pakistani media within the first six months of 2012. That’s hardly the complete picture. How many cases go unreported? How many women suffer silently on a daily basis? The high rate of honour killings in Pakistan should be indicative of that much. In India, a debate rages on about whether recognising the existence of marital rape will jeopardise the institution of marriage. In Pakistan, we pretend that marital rape doesn’t even exist.
Before arguing that women are increasingly playing a larger role in the Pakistani government and economic life, we must ask ourselves if the complacency is truly warranted. Granted, women hold some prominent positions in the government. Our foreign minister, ambassador to the US, and speaker of the National Assembly are all women. However, they represent a tiny sliver of the population and we still face a long, hard battle in fighting for equality and the simple acknowledgement that women are also human beings. Much has been said and written in praise of the Prevention of Anti-Women Practices Act passed November 2011 by the National Assembly, after the persistence of many female members finally paid off and the bill was pushed through. The Act had previously been shelved on two occasions. Women joined hands across party lines in order to ensure it would not fail to pass a third time. The resistance faced by those trying to advance a bill, which sought to protect (at least in theory) half of Pakistan’s population, showed how many of our politicians and policymakers cared not in the least for the women of their country. Over a year later, has the Act managed to make its mark in terms of implementation? Some would argue that it’s quite premature to expect anything to take effect immediately. True as that may be, it is equally important that this Bill isn’t merely remembered as a ‘landmark’ event in the history of Pakistan, but seen as a step in the right direction that should lead to more women feeling safe in their own country.
Change has to start with us. We can begin by treating the women in our lives with respect and equality, by considering women to be autonomous beings, and by speaking out when we witness any kind of violence and discrimination against women, especially if it is in our power to do so. It can be as small as calling someone out for making misogynistic remarks, for cracking rape jokes, or for claiming that women deserve to be harassed if they dress a certain way, amongst other things. It can be as challenging as speaking up when we see examples of inequality within our own families and having difficult conversations about why women should not be treated as subordinates. But we must start somewhere, because that’s the most important thing.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 14th, 2013.