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On your bikes!

Updated January 26, 2019


WHENEVER I have written about Pakistan’s economic and social woes, some readers have asked me to discuss the solutions, and not just highlight the problems.

Frankly, the remedial measures required are not exactly rocket science. However, they do call for a measure of political will that has not been on display as both civilian leaders and military dictators have shied away from the tough decisions needed to haul Pakistan into the 21st century.

If we examine successful nations even cursorily, we see a number of common factors. The rule of law is one essential ingredient: societies do not progress when privileged members are above the law, while the vast majority suffers from injustice inflicted by the state. In these countries, resources are unequally allocated, with the powerful getting a bigger share of the pie.

Also read: How empowering women can boost our declining economy

But the single most crucial key to progress is the education and empowerment of girls and women. Virtually every society that has prospered has done so because its women participate in the economy. And to make a meaningful contribution, they have to be educated and trained.

The most crucial key to progress is women’s empowerment.

In the Global Gender Gap Report (2017) prepared by the World Economic Forum, four of the top five countries for women’s participation are, unsurprisingly, Scandinavian. And 143rd out of the 144 countries in the survey is, again unsurprisingly, Pakistan. Factors included in this report are economic participation and opportunity; educational attainment, health and survival; and political empowerment.

Just where women stand in Pakistani society was illustrated recently when a women’s bicycle rally was cancelled in Peshawar because of a threat from religious parties who said the event would ‘spread obscenity’. Considering that millions of females bicycle around the world without being threatened by clerics, we seem to have reached a new low.

And yet many of their sisters in other parts of South Asia use scooters and bicycles without a second thought. In fact, given the paucity of public transport, they have no other choice.

By blocking educational and job opportunities for women, Pakistan is inflicting huge economic damage on itself. According to the UN, if other developed (OECD) countries could attain Swedish women’s level of economic participation, they would see their annual GDP rise by a whopping $6 trillion. I am not aware if economists have calculated how much Pakistan loses annually because of our stone-age attitude towards women, but it must be a significant amount.

Closing gender gap to boost Pakistan’s GDP by 30pc: IMF study

Other Muslim countries have seen their economies grow as women’s participation has increased. Bangladesh, Malaysia, Iran, Indonesia and Turkey are good examples of Muslim nations where women have been empowered through education. Yet none of them think their faith is being threatened, unlike our clerics for whom any social progress represents a danger to our beliefs. It would seem they consider their faith to be stronger than that of their counterparts in other Muslim countries.

Another benefit of educating girls is that almost invariably they marry and bear children later in life. For a country where runaway population growth is causing huge economic and social problems, this is a positive outcome. Countries across the world have seen their population growth fall as more women go to university and enter the job market.

'Shall I feed my daughter or educate her?': The abysmal state of girls' education in Pakistan

Sadly, our clerics take the view that any effort to slow down our population growth is part of a Western plot against Muslims. Politicians and the media have done little to counter this ignorant view.

Ultimately, the struggle for women’s rights is a political one. In many countries, women entered the formal job market because of labour shortages caused by war. From this beginning, the struggle for political emancipation began until women won the battle for eq­­u­­al rights. Of course, gender-based disparities remain, but civilised societies no longer qu­­­es­t­ion the right of women to equal opportunities.

While a decent education remains restricted to the privileged few, both boys and girls from the average Pakistani family only have access to our awful state schools — if they are lucky. Given the paucity of places due to underfunding, many children are sent to madressahs where they study the scriptures by rote, but little else. Girls are at a special disadvantage in state schools because few of these have working toilets and running water.

By blocking the entry of virtually half our population from the workplace, we reduce our talent pool by 50 per cent. Even the majority of the remaining is too poorly educated to effectively contribute to a complex economy. Given these realities, it is easy to see why we languish at the bottom of most global economic and social indices.

Many Pakistanis accept these anti-women attitudes as, according to them, they are rooted in our culture and religion. But surely poverty and ignorance are not. So next time you wonder why Pakistan is so backward, look no further than the position of women in our society.

Published in Dawn, January 26th, 2019