Pakistan Won’t Progress Until It Empowers Women

Marchers shout slogans during a rally to mark International Women's Day in Islamabad, Pakistan. Photo: Aamir Qureshi, AFP

Women marching to protest inequality and violence is a touchy subject in Pakistan’s deeply patriarchal and Muslim society. Earlier this month, on International Women’s Day, activists angered the powerful Islamist lobby by taking to the streets and adopting the apt slogan “my body, my choice.”

Islamists quickly dismissed the motto as anti-Islamic vulgarity because it hinted that women could do what they pleased with their bodies. But despite court challenges, threats, and a few violent incidents, the marches in Pakistan’s major cities went off peacefully.

Unfortunately, well-attended women events in urban settings – apart from raising hackles among the unholy band of extremists and chauvinists – do not suggest that the outlook for women empowerment and free choice is becoming brighter in Pakistan.

Women belonging to elite, feudal, and political families are treated vastly different than the less privileged parts of society. Additionally, there is a sizeable gender gap favoring urban over rural women.

Pakistan’s Gender Rights Movement

The gender rights movement in Pakistan faces tough going as many men and women in society view male supremacy as divinely-ordained and unquestionable.

The big problem is that Islamic social and cultural norms are a serious obstacle to the progress of women. A volley of fatwas and references to Islamic strictures oppose any progressive legislation in support of women. It is hard when society at large doesn’t treat women’s empowerment as a fundamental moral and human rights issue.

If that alone wasn’t enough of a challenge, since the 1970s, women have paid a price as Pakistani labor became exposed to the conservative tribal societies in the Middle East. The workers remit valuable foreign exchange to support the country’s ever-struggling economy but bring back regressive attitudes towards women.

Pakistani women have low labor force participation and low contribution to the GDP. This is because a small percentage of women are employed, as a majority of men do not find it acceptable for women to work outside their homes. Another startling negative statistic is that average schooling for Pakistani women is just five years.

Gender Gap

It is little wonder that Pakistan sits nearly at the bottom of the 2020 Global Gender Gap Index, placing 151st out of 153 countries listed. Only Iraq and Yemen ranked worse.

The low literacy rate hinders women’s participation in society. As a result, many females aren’t even aware of the power of their vote or laws that protect their rights.

Gender violence and the state’s failure to provide access to justice further add to the appalling situation of Pakistani women. It’s no secret that acts of honor killings and domestic violence are widespread, under-reported, and mostly go unpunished.

Pakistan faces a ticking population bomb with an annual population growth rate of 2.4 percent, which threatens any improvement in living standards in the poor country. Women with little say in family planning, and not in control of their destinies, are in no position to help change this dismal outlook.

No Priority

Importantly, women’s empowerment doesn’t figure in the priorities of the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan.

Khan said that the women’s marches of earlier this month reflected the existence of different cultures in Pakistani society, meaning that Western ideas of gender equality and women empowerment had infected a few urban women activists. Earlier, he had said that western feminism downgrades the role of the mother.

Khan’s narrow-minded view on women’s rights is in sharp contrast to his Oxford-education but fits his born-again Muslim persona, a cultivated change after a colorful past in the West.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. Photo: Farooq Naeem, AFP

The gloomy statistics cited above confirm that most Pakistani governments have shamefully neglected to advance women’s rights. By caving into religious obscurantism, the state itself has proved to be an obstacle for women to gain their rightful place in society. This has helped to reinforce Pakistan’s negative image as a misogynistic society that allows the oppression of women.

But the important fact is that Pakistan is swimming against the tide. Countries across the world are making a concerted effort to invest in women’s education and assist in their financial empowerment. They realize that the contribution of women is vital to creating prosperous, more secure, and less corrupt societies. To be self-reliant and competitive in a globalized world, Pakistan must do the same.

Saad Hafiz: Analyst and commentator on politics, peace, and security issues