Missing women

Updated 26 Dec 2019


The writer is a PhD candidate at the University of Oxford and a former civil servant.
The writer is a PhD candidate at the University of Oxford and a former civil servant.

A FEW months ago, a friend who had just visited Pakistan for the first time, made an interesting observation about her time there. While she had thoroughly enjoyed her trip, she could not help but ask one simple question: where were all the women? Pakistani women were nowhere to be seen in public places — a fact that outsiders are quick to notice, unlike people who grew up in Pakistan. In a country where a woman riding a motorbike is more of a statement than an unnecessary detail, the lack of women in public spaces is a natural and unfortunate outcome.

This phenomenon is closely related to Pakistan’s abysmal female labour force participation rate. According to World Bank statistics for 2019, only 24 per cent of Pakistani women above the age of 15 are actively involved in the labour force. In contrast, the same statistic for men in Pakistan is 81pc.

There are only 15 countries in the world that have a lower female labour force participation rate than Pakistan. This is certainly one important mechanism that results in Pakistani women being absent from public spaces.

The deeper underlying causes of this phenomenon are closely related to our cultural norms that we do not challenge on a daily basis. According to the World Values Survey, 74.6pc of Pakistanis believe that men should have more right to a job than women; 72pc believe that men make better political leaders than women; and 51pc believe that university education is more important for boys than it is for girls. These are the cultural norms that we live by.

What has led to the absence of women in public spaces?

While women bear the brunt of these norms in their daily lives and accept them, it is often hard to quantify their real cost to our society. One basic and crude measure is to look at the estimated impact on the economy. This is admittedly an imperfect measure, but it does show the scale of the problem. A recent study by the IMF estimated that Pakistan can increase its GDP by 30pc by closing the gender gap. For a developing country that is currently growing at around 3pc, this number is huge. The rationale behind gender empowerment is fundamentally ethical. But it also makes a lot of economic sense.

These facts should ideally help us introspect so that we can ask ourselves hard questions about why Pakistan performs so poorly on gender empowerment. It should allow us to think about the societal norms that contribute to the existing situation and how we contribute to it on a daily basis. While one is sure that this is exactly how a lot of Pakistanis react when they are exposed to these facts, our reactions are not always the most rational and constructive.

Much of the time, however, we get defensive about our cultural practices. This achieves the opposite of what revealing the facts should do. A few common reactions that we get from people when bringing up these facts are: denying that this is an issue of gender empowerment; asserting that women do not need to work; claiming that cultural norms are sacrosanct; maintaining that the intra-household bargaining power is not tilted towards males in the household; narrating an anecdote to counter the statistics; and finally, denying that they themselves contribute to the problem. All these reactions are, of course, incorrect, but at the end of the day, no one wants to admit that they are wrong.

One of the first steps in solving any problem is to admit that there is one. While policymakers in Pakistan working on the issue of gender empowerment certainly acknowledge the scale of the challenge, do we as citizens accept it in our daily lives? As a starting point, all of us need to look at our own actions and analyse how they contribute to skewed gender norms that persist in Pakistan. It is only when we take this first step that we as a nation will be ready to grapple with gender empowerment challenges in Pakistan.

A few years ago, I had a conversation with a colleague who had gone abroad to study for the first time. She excitedly narrated her experiences that resonate with most Pakistani students abroad, such as the wonder of experiencing a new place, the excitement of meeting new people, nostalgia for good desi food, feeling homesick at first and settling in eventually. These were all feelings that I could relate to, having experienced them myself. When asked what the best thing about living abroad was, she responded without hesitation: “The freedom. The freedom to move around.”

This was the one experience that we did not share and the one thing that she cherished the most. This is, unfortunately, a feeling that she shares with millions of Pakistani women, who should not have to travel thousands of miles just to feel free. The least we can do as a response to this gross injustice is to accept that there is a problem and think about how we contribute to it in our daily lives.

The writer is a PhD candidate at the University of Oxford and a former civil servant.

Twitter: @KhudadadChattha

Published in Dawn, December 26th, 2019