AS the forces of feminism grow in strength, it is heartening to see women mobilising themselves and rising to fight their own battles. It is clear that the seeds of awareness that were sown in the 1980s are now bearing fruit.

We see many young faces taking up the cudgels. They are the generation which reacted to the oppression of their mothers in Zia’s Pakistan and the heightened misogyny of the post-9/11 years.

Next Thursday is International Women’s Day, and a number of these activists have organised the Aurat March as a show of female strength. They hope to mobilise women in large numbers to resist the forces of patriarchy.

If education reinforces patriarchy, no change can be expected.

The flyer distributed by Hum Auratein (We Women) — no organisation is mentioned — invites women of all socioeconomic classes and ethnic backgrounds to join the march (from Frere Hall, Karachi). The demands identified are: 1) an end to violence; 2) workers’ rights; 3) reproductive rights; and 4) environmental justice and access to clean water, clean air and enjoyment of public lands.

Men are also welcome if each of them is accompanied by two women. But it must be recognised that by itself the Aurat March will not accomplish much if it is not followed by some tangible action. The march can at best mobilise women and create the passion to forge ahead. But then must come action to create the conditions and facilities that are needed to empower women.

The ultimate aim should be to enable women to win autonomy in decision-making in all walks of life. Regrettably, we seem to be stuck at the awareness-raising stage. A basic issue which should have been addressed from the start has seemingly been pushed into the background. That is the education of women.

This is the sector in which the government has let women down badly. Of the 23 million children out of school in Pakistan, 65 per cent are girls, That also explains why the women of Pakistan are so downtrodden. Besides, the quality of education is so poor that it doesn’t empower most educated women either. As a result, their visibility in public spaces is minimal and gender equality is still a pipe dream.

The fact is that the key to political empowerment, income generation, development, employment, good health and self-reliance is education. When I speak of education I do not just mean imparting literacy and numeracy skills but also what the curricula teach. If education reinforces patriarchy and the conventional belief in the secondary status of women, no change can be expected.

It cannot be denied that the neglect of education is the underlying cause of Pakistan’s social and economic underdevelopment. This also accounts for the backwardness of women. But what shocks me is the failure of people generally — even activists and feminists — to recognise the role of education in the uplift and emancipation of women.

At the Karachi Literature Festival in February in the session on #MeToo: Gender Issues Today none of the panellists, one of them a foreigner, expanded on the missing factor — female education and literacy — that is the scourge of our society and at the root of women’s backwardness.

The #MeToo session at KLF was followed by a conversation with Kesho Scott, an African American feminist-activist, academic and author of The Habit of Surviving: Black Women’s Strategies For Life. Kesho’s message was profound and poignant, based as it was on her own experience. Paraphrased, it read, ‘Set your sights on education which alone promises economic independence and without which women can never hope to win their rights’.

This was the black woman’s strategy for survival in an Ame­rica at a time when the biggest achievement she could honestly lay claim to was, ‘I survived’. It was a country where a black child of 13 was not allowed to swim with white girls in the swimming pool and had her head pushed into the toilet as a punishment. That was Kesho Scott who learnt from her mother the habit of surviving. In such a society, it would not have been easy to fight for social justice.

Yet Kesho did and can now proudly write, “Eventually I became a well-educated professional woman.” Education has helped her. More than that, it has enabled her to carry on her community work.

African American women have come a long way in their struggle for civil rights and women’s empowerment. Education became a key element in this struggle. More importantly, those who succeeded didn’t abandon their less fortunate sisters.

And yet education is not high on the Pakistani woman’s agenda. I hope Hum Auratein will pledge to educate every illiterate woman living on Pakistani soil — there are about 50m of them who need to learn the three Rs. Education is also important for equity without which all women cannot be empowered.

Published in Dawn, March 2nd, 2018


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