IT had an air of celebration, with the grounds of Karachi’s Beach Luxury Hotel filled with men, women and children milling about on Sunday as music played in the background. And that is exactly as it should have been — that is the mood for an event conceived as a cultural platform to acknowledge the achievements and contributions of women around the world and in the country. This was Pakistan’s first iteration of the Women of the World, or WOW, Festival, jointly organised by the British Council and London’s Southbank Centre. But beyond the relaxed environment, there was that vital backbone of seriousness underscored through a series of panel discussions on topics of contestation. The truth is, after all, that despite the push for gender equality and female emancipation being made in various countries over the past several decades, the world remains an unequal place and the treatment experienced by far too many of its women and girls who constitute half the global population continues to be criticism-worthy. The obstacles to gender equality in developing countries are obvious, but even in highly developed countries, progress has been less than could have been hoped for on, for example, equal pay at workplaces, or the erasure of the so-called glass ceiling.
Pakistan, of course, has its own unique set of challenges where women’s empowerment is concerned. In recent years, there have been some legislative successes, such as the laws framed against sexual harassment in the workplace and domestic violence. But society remains deeply patriarchal, with large numbers of women denied their rights. The presence of Mukhtaran Mai at the WOW Festival, for example, or Dr Fatima Haider who, after losing her husband and son in a drive-by shooting, started a voluntary service where people can find some measure of catharsis in sharing stories of tragedy, came as sobering reminders that a great deal needs to be achieved by both state and society before Pakistani women can expect to live their lives with dignity.
Published in Dawn, May 3rd, 2016