EVERY year on March 8, International Women’s Day is an opportunity for the global community to come together and celebrate the many achievements by women in various fields, and reflect upon what more needs to be done.

In Pakistan, over the past few years, there has been some forward movement on the legislative front with a slew of pro-women laws that, in theory at least, improved the status of women by criminalising various forms of gender-based violence.

Laws have been enacted or amendments made in existing legislation to address acid attacks, honour killings and sexual harassment.

Three of the four provinces have passed laws to protect women against domestic violence, be it physical or otherwise. Increasingly, there are instances of the state apparatus enforcing legislation, such as the rescue of a nine-year-old girl by police last week from being given in marriage to settle a dispute.

At the same time, there is no shortage of regressive forces whose antediluvian ideas are premised on the subjugation of women; and they have consistently sought to undermine the precious gains made in women’s rights.

Time and again, they have demonstrated their wilful and illogical disdain for the principles of humanity and even the law itself, such as declaring a minimum age for marriage as being against Islam. More recently, the religious parties have been fulminating against the Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act, seeing it as a ‘conspiracy’ to ‘destroy’ the family unit.

The suffering of women in violent, abusive marriages is of no consequence to them as long as the façade of an ‘intact’ family is maintained.

For all their outrageous claims, blatant misogyny is nevertheless expected from such quarters. It is the more obvious manifestation of what is a bigger challenge — the deep vein of chauvinism in a society that objectifies and diminishes women and thwarts their aspirations, even if a large part of it rejects many forms of outright violence against them.

The hostility directed at what should be Pakistani icons — Mukhtar Mai, Malala, among them — is telling. The weight of gender-based historical prejudices and culturally ingrained values remains intact in Pakistan, even as increasing numbers of women find the courage to defy them.

This social conditioning does not only emanate from the pulpit; it can be found in the home, in the classroom, at the workplace and on the street.

It is this mindset that regards anything much more than basic education for women a luxury; denies women the right to have a career, exercise agency in their choice of a life partner and become a mother at a time of their choosing; and it is this sexism that places less value on women in the workplace. Society — even educated segments — needs to examine its closely held biases, and be more proactive in making Pakistan a less hostile place to be a woman.

Published in Dawn, March 8th, 2016

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