In the working women’s assembly on December 22 in Islamabad, women domestic workers to women parliamentarians spoke about how they gained confidence to be where they are. The examples of women’s agency in Pakistan are incredible and need to be acknowledged on the National Working Women’s Day. Despite conservatism that still prevails in society, Pakistan’s working women have consistently made space for themselves, whether it is lady health workers trying to get permanent employment and the benefits they deserve, nurses trying to get provisions and dignity in their short contract-based employment, peasant women reclaiming their right to land and livelihood, power loom workers struggling for their rights or AASHA struggling for the legislation against sexual harassment.
All the movements mentioned have been successful. They achieved results after difficult and long struggles because the resistance for maintaining the status quo is immense. Most of the resistance comes from those whose powerful positions get compromised if the status quo is broken. These can be powerful patriarchs or bureaucrats who take advantage of the lower status of these working women. Even those at relatively junior positions have the tendency of turning into gods.
For example, a low-grade field officer in the health department feels powerful when he blackmails a woman health worker with a temporary contract to do things which are not part of her job. Having these women beg for reimbursement for petrol that is used on official travel and then having the power to say maybe they will pay for only half of what is due, is the kind of pleasure these men do not what to give up. Therefore, although change is taking place and women are struggling for their rights, there are strong elements in the system that resist such change. They do that by stigmatising working women, bad-mouthing the movement and demoralising people in general. However, there can be facilitative or hindering factors outside the movement that can help or curb working women’s efforts. When our media focuses on what is not working rather than what has started working, it is basically taking the side of the resistors and the oppressors who are determined to undermine the brave initiatives and the change that is taking place. When brave stories are highlighted and sparks of change are appreciated, it encourages women and sets examples for what is possible. The results of these movements can be judged by pointing out the new trends of cases where things do get resolved.
Quick judgments and negative attitudes, especially those of the educated middle class including the civil society is one of the biggest hurdles in the process. Mehergarh, an institute for human rights and democracy, gives out awards every year to companies that have complied with anti-sexual harassment laws and have improved their work environment. On the National Working Women’s Day this year, Engro, TPL Holdings, Attock Refinery, Pakistan Banking Council, and an NGO, Lasoona, received awards for their exceptional work. Bushra Khaliq, for her work on the implementation of the harassment law and Bushra Arain, the magnificent leader of lady health workers were also acknowledged for their struggles and successes. This is a way of setting precedents and encouraging those who are taking the lead in changing workplace environment.
The gaps or areas for further change need to be identified while acknowledging breakthrough achievements. When we parrot our pessimism saying ‘nothing can work in this country’ or ‘laws are made but they are never implemented’ or by terming the anti-harassment law ‘a woman’s law that never got implemented’ without knowing the facts, we do a lot of harm to the possibility of change. These laws are setting the foundations of a society that would be proud of their working women. They are transforming working women who are now setting a trend of being more vocal and confident. Let’s save our pessimism for another time and for another issue. Let working women make us proud.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 23rd, 2014.