PAKISTAN is a country where generation after generation of children, especially girls, have been deprived of education. However, a low level of female literacy is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to gender inequality in Pakistan. Look at any gender indicator and Pakistan is a country lagging way behind — it has one of the world’s highest maternal mortality rates, violence against women and girls continues to be a serious problem, and one quarter of females are married as children.
Everyday cases of rape, ‘honour’ killings, domestic violence, forced marriages, sex trafficking, are reported in the media. However, despite the increasing number of cases, government responses are at best inadequate and in most instances the culprits are never brought to justice.
Against such a background, it was extremely disturbing to find out that the KP government had passed a diktat making it mandatory for schoolgirls across the province to cover up by wearing an abaya. The convoluted thinking behind this measure was that girls would be safer in our society as a result and that this would protect them against “unethical incidents”, while it would also improve girls’ access to education.
This euphemistic thinking is far removed from the reality we face in Pakistan today. It is true that a few days later this policy was rescinded; however, it does raise concern regarding the need to introduce something like this in the first place.
Though rescinded, KP’s abaya policy betrays a regressive mindset.
We live in a society where there are huge in-built barriers to the access of education for girls. The first major constraint is on the supply side, especially when it comes to the number of available schools. The greater the distance of the school from the community, the less likely it is for girls to attend school. Not only that, there is an upward negative bias in the provision of schools, ie there are less secondary schools as compared to primary schools. The obvious outcome of this is that a greater number of girls leave school at the secondary level — over 60 per cent of girls are out of school by grade 6.
Poverty also has a huge role to play in this. Even though public schools are for all extent and purposes free of cost, most schools still require parents to foot the bill for stationery, textbooks, uniforms and other miscellaneous expenses.
Given the low quality of education being offered in public schools along with the rising costs of education, a majority of young girls are kept out of school as the opportunity cost of sending them is seen to be higher. Low-income families prefer to employ young girls in home-based work or even send them as domestic help to work in other people’s home.
However, the story does not end here as there are significant social and cultural barriers that also prevent girls from going to school. These relate to attitudes regarding girls being seen as ‘liabilities’ to be married into another family. The trade-off is to invest in their dowry rather than in their education. Not only that the notion of ‘purdah’ and ‘honour’ combined with the prevalent patriarchal mindset, forces girls in puberty to stay at home rather than being sent to school.
It is perhaps important to unbundle the thinking behind the abaya policy.
The basic premise behind such thinking is that it is women and girls who create the problem in the first place. It is not surprising to see policymakers drafting up simplistic, all-encompassing answers which are governed by patriarchal norms to address such deep-rooted social issues, without really trying to identify the actual cause of the problem.
This reminds me unfortunately of the Safiya Bibi’s case, the blind girl who was raped and who ended up in jail for zina. It is the proverbial case of the kettle calling the pot black.
It is rather astounding to see how linear the mindsets of our society are, well into the 21st century. In such cases, we tend to express our ire through victim blaming, which is another belief that lies behind the current thinking. Our sympathy is reserved only for the individuals who have died, and not for the survivors. Even in that we are selective — for women like Qandeel Baloch who make us uncomfortable because of their personal choices, as per our notions of morality, they are deserving of their fate.
Of course, as bleak as this picture is, there were a few voices of sanity, whose outcry led to this decision being reversed. Having said that, we still have a long way to go as a society and a country towards creating an equitable and inclusive society. It is not just about legislation or policy, but about changing our mindsets which is the harder of the two things to achieve.
The writer is founder and managing director of Kashf Foundation.
Published in Dawn, September 26th, 2019