Despite our best efforts, it is not hard to stereotype the key brokers in the Islamabad spectacle. These days it is hard to find anything ‘new’ about those who send thunderbolts in speeches and those who are trying to find a solution. They are almost exclusively from a single province, often very well-off and have been inside the political circles for quite sometime, often in the guise of other parties and interests. And of course, almost all of them are men.
I agree that there are some exceptions, but these exceptions are usually on the sidelines. While there is a healthy number of women in the dharnas, and there is an open call, night after night, for them to come and fill the ranks of protestors, we are uncomfortable with them making any key decisions about the future. They can be our Twitter representatives, explain endlessly the party position on talk shows, but are sidelined when it comes to the decisions. Even the party that does have women in some of its higher ranks, chooses its reliable men to negotiate for a solution. If the recent events are a reflection of our society, it is not hard to see that we have a ‘women problem’ in our society.
It would have been one thing if the problem was only in politics. It would have been bad on its own, but the pervasive and widespread nature of the problem makes it much worse. I have previously argued that while the number of female students at institutions of higher education is rising and they often outperform their male counterparts, when it comes to key posts in decision-making at the level of deans, vice-chancellors and other executive roles, they are sidelined. Other professions are no different. We want women in our lower ranks, and we want them to stay there.
Our national statistics for enrolling girls in education are horrifying and seldom discussed. Even parties, such as the PPP, that are supposedly reaching out to the liberal left, when entrusted with governance in a province like Sindh, have a miserable record on female literacy. Similarly, we rarely find champions of deeply-rooted problems in maternal health, and create systematic barriers for them to move up the ranks. Pakistan’s maternal health indicators are nothing to be proud of, and those who may be most vested in the problem are hardly given a chance to change the status quo.
There is an even darker side to this reality. Due to poor representation in positions of decision-making and authority, the problems facing women are sidelined, ignored or sometimes simply labeled as outside conspiracy against our core cultural values. Those who stand up for women’s rights to equality in society and education are labeled as foreign agents, attacked in broad daylight. Even when their attackers are captured by the army we brush it aside as a giant conspiracy against the law-abiding, respectful of women, citizens of the country.
People may say that there are many exceptions to our current status quo. First, in a country of 180 million, the exceptions are not many, they are shockingly low. Second, the exceptions are there because of the will and determination of the remarkable women, not because we did anything to lower the barriers. More importantly, there comes a point, when exceptions are no longer sufficient, when we can no longer look only at the margins. The other argument often stated is that this is a worldwide problem and we are no different, is even more pathetic. The absolutes in right or wrong do not, and should not, depend on what other nations do. And frankly, the argument that we are no different is also factually wrong. There are plenty of countries, even poor countries, which do much more to ensure social justice and equality than us.
In the end, our efforts to bring a new dawn will be a lot more successful if we bring a revolution within our own attitudes towards all the citizens, regardless of gender, ethnicity and sect.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 16th, 2014.