FOR the first time in two decades, International Women’s Day will be celebrated in Pakistan with a statistical clarity: 101,314,780. That is the female population of the country according to the provisional results of the census conducted last March-May. More than 100m female Pakistanis, a population larger than most countries in the world, who have different lives, face different risks and have different opportunities. With the 62nd session of the Commission on the Status of Women set to open next week in New York, the UN has called for International Women’s Day to draw special attention this year to the rights and activism of rural women. For Pakistan, that theme has special resonance. While sections of the urban female population have made undeniable progress towards gender empowerment and equality, the situation in rural Pakistan is almost certainly grim. Indeed, the absence of systematic documentation of women’s contributions to the rural economy, both outside and inside the home, and the prevalence of regressive social codes often means that threats and opportunities for Pakistan’s rural women can only be broadly estimated.
The recent election of a Thari Hindu woman, Krishna Kumari, to the Senate has briefly shone a national spotlight on the courageous activism of rural women, but it is clear that much work remains to be done. In terms of greater political inclusion for all women, there is an early opportunity to test the commitment of political parties: the upcoming general election. Certainly, the three major political parties in the country each have a reason to boost women’s participation in the electoral process both as candidates and voters. The memory of PPP’s iconic woman leader, Benazir Bhutto, still greatly influences the party. In the PML-N, a front-line political role for Maryam Nawaz can pave the way for greater female participation in a party that historically has been male dominated. The PTI’s vibrant and inclusive political rallies are now so well established that the party can force positive change across the political spectrum if it gives women a greater role in party decision-making. Perhaps today, on International Women’s Day, political parties will announce new measures to promote women’s rights and participation in the political process.
Clearly, International Women’s Day is not just for some women and some causes — it is a day to celebrate all women and press for progress in all women’s causes. Over the last year, the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have shone a much-needed spotlight on the discrimination, degradation and violence that women all over the world, even powerful ones in advanced economies, routinely contend with. Last month, Pakistan lost its iconic rights activist, Asma Jahangir. The lesson to be learned from her activism is that all wrongs, big and small, against women emancipated and less free, must always be fought with vigour and resoluteness. May more Pakistani women carry Asma Jahangir’s immense legacy forward.
Published in Dawn, March 8th, 2018