The Status of Women in Pakistan: A Ray of Hope

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Talat Farooq[1]

The Aurat Foundation’s recent report shows a sharp increase in violence against women in Pakistan. From April to June 2008 it was as high as 1,705 cases as compared to 1,321 for the previous quarter. The incidents include  murder, rape, abduction, honour killing, gang rape, custodial assault, domestic violence, burning and acid throwing. These outrages, according to the police, were prompted by accusations of illicit relations, domestic quarrels, blood feuds, land and property disputes and personal enmity. However, the Aurat Foundation’s report identifies deep-rooted gender bias and intolerance toward women as the real causes.  It further warns that suicides among women, 66 in the first quarter of the current year, will almost double to 126 in the second. These statistics, grim as they are, fall short in depicting the enormity of the problem as they do not include unreported cases of violence or those pertaining to emotional abuse.

The findings of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) are no less morbid. Since 2005, the perpetration of violence, particularly against married women, has risen alarmingly. The HRCP studies show that acid throwing has become the third most common method used in these criminal acts alongside burning from stove-related incidents. These result   in grievous corporal injuries and even coincidental death.

The figures on the violence against women, so painstakingly collated by human rights groups, affirm the truth but not the whole truth. Statistics, by definition, are cold-blood and can never adequately portray the suffering and anguish inflicted on the victims. The persistent violation of their fundamental rights is nothing short of a crime against humanity. It is not enough to merely condemn these infringements, remedial measures are required.

The phenomenal increase in violence against females in Pakistan is abhorrent and indicative of the degeneration of the society. However, there could be a silver lining to this dark cloud of oppression because it symbolises a reaction to the growing awareness of women about their inalienable rights. Violence, it is said, is the last refuge of the incompetent, and in the face of resistance on the part of the victim, it is the sole recourse of the perpetrator.

The civil society in Pakistan is yet to display the missionary zeal so desperately needed for female emancipation. It lacks a comprehensive strategy to combat the repression of a sizeable portion of its population. However, despite the absence of an organized movement there has been a discernable change in as much as women are increasingly becoming rights-conscious and have availed of empowerment opportunities whenever these arise. They are now beginning to play a more assertive role in such areas of national endeavour as politics, information technology, economics and the media. This needs to be deepened and broadened.

On a parallel track, since the 1990s there is a growing urge among Pakistani women to acquire religious education. This is a welcome development because men have hitherto monopolized the interpretation of scriptural texts. Although the existing courses in academic institutions are intellectually inadequate and do not question the narrow-minded approach of commentators on female rights in Islam, women’s involvement in the interpretation of dogma will undoubtedly enable them to determine the truth and form independent opinions. Their victimization, as during the Zia-ul-Haq era, on the false pretext of religious doctrine will no longer be possible.

Zia-ul-Haq’s Hudood laws, promulgated in 1979 and enforced the following year consisted of five criminal laws which were collectively known as the Hudood Ordinances. Two of these placed women at an enormous disadvantage. The first, was titled the “Offense of Zina Ordinance” and the second the “Offence of Qazf Ordinance.” The former concerned rape, abduction, adultery and fornication while the latter with false accusation of zina which is defined as including both adultery and fornication. Female rape victims thus became liable for punishment under zina unless they were able to produce four first-hand witnesses. As a consequence a large number of women languished in prison without trial.

Furthermore, under these draconian ordinances, women’s testimony became unacceptable in cases involving the imposition of hudd i.e.,  the maximum punishment under Islamic law and consequently females could not become judges. Yet another facet of these stern laws was that the age of majority for females was reduced from 16 to the age of puberty. Thus a girl child as young as between 9 and 13 became liable to the sane severe punishment awarded to adults.

So powerful was the hold of self-anointed obscurantist clerics that virtually nothing was done to strike down the iniquities of the Hudood Ordinances till the adoption of the Women’s Protection Act in 2006 which, though deficient in many aspects, shattered the myth that the Hudood laws are sacrosanct and immutable. This has led to the decline in zina related cases registered against women and proved that if the state possesses the political will to protect its citizens, it can take on the forces of bigotry and intolerance.

Unfortunately little has changed within the basic unit of society namely, the family. It is here that gender discrimination begins and thrives because of the stranglehold of tradition which is rarely, if ever, challenged by the victims. Nonetheless, minor breakthroughs have occurred, primarily because of the increasing number of females entering the legal profession. Even more significant is the willingness of women to seek legal recourse and resort to litigation. This change, though yet incipient, is important in that it signifies a departure from well-entrenched social norms under which submission and unquestioning obedience are expected from the woman.

Through history women have been exploited, repressed and relegated to pariah status. Primitive warring tribes, in the face of recurring hostilities, excluded women from the war effort. She was to be protected because her primary role was that of procreation. Male offspring were required to secure the military advantage in the wars of the future. The social implications of warfare resulted in division of labour which gradually crystallized into women’s exclusion from public participation. As physical strength was indispensible for the tribal wars, the male’s dominant role in primitive tribal society was soon established and consolidated. Furthermore, the post-natal incapacitation of women compelled them to depend on the male for survival. Gradually, the helplessness of females and their subordination to male authority made them increasingly vulnerable to exploitation. Male domination of society through the ages thus came to be viewed as natural. It is one of the baser traits of human nature to exploit the economic needs of weaker segments of the society. The Machiavellian scheme of manipulation and coercion is employed by the strong to attain and maintain power. This phenomenon holds true not only between men and women, but also between men and men. Those who can successfully monopolize the sources of economic empowerment invariably use the advantage for controlling others.

The relegation of the female to the social backwaters in the earlier societies had its impact on later times and undermined her standing in the eyes of the religious theocracy. The male dominated priesthood increasingly equated her biological make-up to her perceived spiritual weakness and thereby accorded her an inferior position to males. Thus organized religion has been instrumental in perpetuating the dynamics of male power play and the continued subjugation of women. The Bible establishes a woman’s inferior status and her subservience to man as divinely ordained. The New Testament declares:

“Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in transgression.”  2:11-14

According to the 19th century feminist, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the church and Bible have proved to be “the greatest stumbling blocks in the way of women’s emancipation.” The western feminist activism that focuses on gender politics and power relations is a reaction to church-sanctioned discrimination against women.

The Indian Constitution gives equal rights to all citizens but-female related abuse, regularly reported in the newspapers, is a reflection of continued gender bias at various levels of the society. This particular societal attitude has its roots in Hindu religious doctrines. The oldest Hindu religious scriptures contain discriminatory passages concerning women. The religious doctrine outlined in the Vedas encourages female infanticide, child marriage and the burning of the widow (sati). It relegates them to the position of serfs who do not possess an identity of their own and are completely dependent on the male for protection. Females, according to Hindu sacred texts, cannot own property and are unfit to study the Vedas. Girls can only marry within their caste, have no right to divorce and infidelity on their part carries the death sentence. The widow cannot enjoy life in public again nor can she remarry, while a widower has no such restrictions. The ideal role model is Sita, Ram’s wife, who proved her fidelity to her husband by passing through flames.

Buddhism and Jainism that emerged as protests against the Hindu Vedic system did oppose the custom of Sati. However because they professed asceticism, women were considered as deviant. Buddha is said to have warned his disciples to stay away from females and to avoid even looking at them.

While conventional Islam claims to foster an avant-garde approach toward women’s rights and her rightful place in society, Muslim women remain among the most oppressed. This state of affairs has arisen due to a variety of causes, the most significant of which pertains to misconstruing Arab culture as Islamic. In Pakistan the effects of Hindu culture, based on Hindu religious decrees, are visible in the societal attitude toward women. Conventional Islam is interpreted by closed and conditioned male minds that put their faith in the books of Tradition and the narrow interpretations of the Quran. They maintain a stubborn belief in the infallibility of the early compilers and writers who have, at times, mixed Islamic thought with Judeo-Christian beliefs. Consequently, orthodox Islam continues to preserve and nurture misconceptions pertaining to gender parity. The female is seen as dependent on male supervision in matters of property, marriage, divorce and sustenance. She is considered emotionally imbalanced and deficient in rational decision making skills.

The Quran declares in unambiguous terms that men and women have equal rights and that men cannot own women as their property:

“Oh people! Abide by your Sustainer’s law, who created you from one being; from that created its partner and from them made males and females in abundance.” 4:1

“…to men is allotted what they earn and to women is allotted what they earn…” 4:32

“..It is not allowed to you (men) to inherit women against their will.” 4:19

“In case of a breach between the two of them, appoint two arbiters from his family and two arbiters from her family…” 4:35

Contrary to traditional beliefs in Pakistan, both the genders are accountable with regard to modesty. It is not the sole responsibility of the female:

“Say to the convinced men to lower their gaze and guard their chastity.” 24:30.

“And say to the convinced women to lower their gaze and guard their chastity.” 24:31

The Quran does not give a separate value system for males. Both men and women constitute   human society and equally possess the capacity to grow as balanced human beings:

“Verily, (for) the Muslim men and women, the convinced men and women, the devoted men and women, the true men and women, the steadfast men and women, the submissive (to the will of God) men and women, the truthful men and women, the self-controlling men and women, the guarding men and women of their chastity, and those men and women who remember God in abundance, Allah has prepared great reward and protection.” -33-35

Since men and women are equal, the Quran does not differentiate between males and females with regard to retribution or reward:

“And whoever does good deeds – be it male or female – and has conviction, they will enter Paradise.” 4:124

“The fornicator – male as well as female – flog each of them with a hundred lashes.” 24:2.

In the Arabic language the masculine plural includes the feminine as well. Therefore, the Quranic decrees addressed to Muslims in general are aimed at both men and women. It is their joint responsibility to establish a just and equitable social system for collective benefit, and to hone and utilize their individual potential for personal growth. During the time of the first Islamic state in Medina, women were not barred from participation in public affairs. Some even fought in battles alongside Muslim male soldiers. During the prophet’s time, women did not encounter oppression or discrimination. It was a few generations after Mohammad that the patriarchal societies adapted Islam to their own peculiar requirements. According to Karen Armstrong, the women-specific discriminatory customs were adopted by the later Muslims under the influence of the Greek Christians of Byzantine who believed in gender segregation. Despite clear Quranic injunctions and historical examples, however, Muslim women remain chained in tradition and culture-based social expectations.

The lesson of history is that the human race clings to the status quo and vehemently opposes change. All prophets and revolutionaries alike have encountered stern opposition because they sought the transformation of the society in which they lived.  Familiarity breeds a sense of security; resistance to change, therefore, is the oldest phenomenon in human history. The Quran points out:

“When it is said to them:”Follow what Allah has revealed.” They say:” Nay! We shall follow the ways of our fathers.”What! Even when their fathers were void of wisdom and guidance?” 2:170.

The fundamentalists of the modern era are disenchanted with modernity and abhor change. They erroneously link the emancipation of women to western, secular culture and insist on conformist, traditional roles for females in clear breach of the Quranic pronouncements. The majority of religious scholars do not openly denounce the inhumane customary practices against women in the tribal areas of Pakistan as well as in its settled but feudal regions. These practices include offering young females in marriage to the enemy clan to settle family feuds or debts. Thus, to a large extent, their hypocrisy, fear of change and chauvinism are responsible for the misery of the Pakistani women.

Social justice is integral to good governance and a legitimate state protects the fundamental human rights of the citizens, of which human dignity, independent of gender, religion, caste, and colour, is indispensible. The Constitution of Pakistan grants equal protection to all citizens and does not allow gender discrimination. On 6 February 1996 Pakistan also became a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Article 10 0f CEDAW specifies equal opportunity in female education. Having said that, local and foreign surveys reveal the backwardness of the educational system of Pakistan where 42 percent of women cannot read because access to education is denied to them. Female emancipation depends largely on education leading to changes in attitudes and mindsets. The women themselves need to understand the injustices inflicted on them in the name of religion and cultural traditions. Social behaviour is dictated by social expectations. The importance of introducing a socially intelligent model of power sharing between genders, through enlightened, holistic education, cannot be overemphasized. Unless myths and misconceptions, founded largely on distortions of religion, regarding women are eliminated it will not be possible to build    a healthy society. The government must ensure that discriminatory material and stereotypes are expunged from school and madrassah curricula right from the primary level. The madrassah system must be brought under state control by implementing the provisions of the Madrassah Ordinance.

Reports and surveys cite married women to be the most vulnerable to physical and emotional abuse. Abuse directed at the mother is bound to have far-reaching negative psychological consequences on her children, the future generation of Pakistan. Conversely, there is strong evidence that social uplift and economic empowerment of women translate into happier families. The institution of marriage is meant to complement the partners and help them grow into productive members of the society. The state, with the help of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the medical community, should develop and facilitate community development programs. Such programs should include family counselling sessions for both males and females to ensure social behavioural reforms and gender parity. Gender-related education aimed at enlightening the females and sensitizing the male is of fundamental importance. Governmental and private organizations working for female emancipation should join hands to involve different sections of the civil society and help formulate a comprehensive strategy to ensure women’s rights.

It is the duty of the Pakistan government to ensure that the complex issue of women’s rights is debated in the parliament, followed by balanced and forward looking legislations. It is even more important that laws, new and existing, are enforced with a focus on women protection. An independent judiciary is vital to ensure the implementation of the policies and curtailment of police corruption. Awareness measures, including door to door campaigns, must be undertaken by the government and the NGOs.

The electronic and print media, especially the vernacular press inclusive of newspapers and periodicals, can play a pivotal role in highlighting the plight of the downtrodden. They must focus on the female predicament, especially in the far flung areas. The government should facilitate their access to the tribal and feudal regions and give them protection against reprisal. The tribal and feudal structures of Pakistan are relics of the past and reminders of the pre-Islam jahaliyya period. Unless the writ of the state becomes all encompassing, these structures cannot be dismantled. The problem is complex and multi-layered and there are no easy solutions in sight. Yet, history tells us that a strong political will has the capacity to introduce meaningful changes. A long term strategy along with swift, surgical measures can bear fruit if public support is gained through awareness, debates and media campaigns. Human attitudes can change through awareness as well as law and policy enforcement. Both must work hand in hand.

The government should take decisive measures to initiate and facilitate the process of ijtehad to ensure that the universal principles at the heart of Quranic laws are not compromised. Selective verses that can be manipulated to the advantage of an unjust male member of the society must be reviewed within contextual parameters and in conformity with the true spirit of Islam. Many Traditions emerge from specific historical contexts, narrated by unreliable sources that confuse the universal values of the Book with socio-cultural and religious values of their own time. Such time and place bound Traditions must be re-evaluated to minimize prejudice and ensure justice for all.

Technological advancement has accelerated the momentum of change resulting in renovation of social structures. The ongoing process of globalization is a truth that cannot be wished away. The electronic media and the internet are facilitating integration of ideas and awareness of human rights at the grass root levels. Ideas and traditions that are inflexible and resistant to growth eventually wither away. The Quran is for all times to come precisely because its immeasurable potential is conducive to multiple interpretations without distorting its permanent value system. The early scholars of Islam were aware of the Quranic potential and were unafraid to resort to ijtehad. It is therefore the duty of the Pakistan government as well as all Muslim men and women to demand a fresh review of the Traditions and the reassessment of the Quranic injunctions pertaining to women’s status in Islam. While the permanent values of the Quran are immutable, their implementation in the contemporary socio-economic environment must be debated and re-examined to the benefit of the weaker segments of the society in accordance with the Quranic vision of social justice for all mankind. The implementation procedures relevant to a tribal society several centuries ago surely require unbiased and objective reviewing keeping in view the linguistic intricacies of the Arabic language.

Theocracy has no place in Islam; legitimizing it gives privileged status to a social class in contravention of Islamic principles. Women themselves must be proactive and demand gender equality based on both rights and duties. Females in the legal profession as well as women scholars of the Quran and Islamic jurisprudence must become a viable part of the process of ijtehad to assist female self-determination. The government should consult the representatives of diverse sections of the society to gain insight into the nature of the complexities involved.

Scientific progress has transformed many long held traditional concepts including the concept of warfare. Brute male force is no longer an indispensible social and military asset. Female soldiers, pilots and sailors in the US military, for example, are well equipped to fight wars by using modern weapon systems. American female pilots were actively involved in the post-9/11 bombing missions to Afghanistan along with their male counterpart. The knowledge revolution of the 21st century focuses on human mental and intellectual capabilities. In an increasingly competitive world, genderless knowledge-based services are required. In order for the human race to survive in the face of emerging global economic realities it will be suicidal to imprison the potential of a substantial number of human beings. The change is bound to happen; it would be sensible to learn from history and apply a visionary approach to resolve the issue. A well planned and state supervised transformation in the status of Pakistani women pertaining to their physical, psychological, emotional and economic uplift will obviate societal turmoil that accompanies cataclysmic natural changes in the society. By fulfilling her biological function of reproduction and physically sharing her sustenance with her unborn child a female provides the human race with the greatest example of sharing and responsibility. Powerful humans must learn from her and apply this model of sacrifice to inter-gender power sharing based on mutual respect and individual dignity.

[1] Talat Farooq teaches at the Bahria University, Islamabad. She is also a poet and a social worker.