LET’S not kid ourselves: ‘mera jism, meri marzi’ (my body, my choice) is not a mere slogan. It is a call to arms.
Those thugs who stoned the women participating in the Aurat March in Islamabad recently are aware of the implications of the activism displayed by the girls and women who marched. They want to seal off the contagion of free choice before it enters their homes and infects their wives, sisters and daughters.
This battle between the sexes has been fought for millennia, and mostly, it has been contested across the bodies of women. It is only in the last century that women in the West have gained a measure of equality. Apart from a handful of small matriarchal societies, men have called the shots around the world.
Women demanding equality in Muslim countries are routinely told that their religion gave them unprecedented rights when it was first revealed. This is true. But no society and no rules can remain frozen. Just as slavery was once acceptable but is now discarded, so, too, do our women need to move on with the rest of the world. The reality is that we cannot make meaningful progress while half our population is marginalised.
No progress can be made if half the population is marginalised.
Even within the Islamic world, there are wide variations in women’s rights. When Islam swept out of the Arabian peninsula, it encountered and conquered many societies and regions with totally different traditions and practices. From Kosovo to Kabul, while oppression was common, women participated in society to varying degrees. In Afghanistan and Arabia, they were always forced to cover themselves.
For centuries, oppressive attitudes have prevailed under the garb of religious sanction. And while Muslim women watch most of their non-Muslim sisters progress socially, they mostly remain stuck in the past, at the mercy of their men, with few economic or educational opportunities.
In Pakistan, women are worse off than virtually every country in the world. According to the latest Global Gender Gap Index issued by the World Economic Forum, Pakistan sits virtually at the bottom (151st out of 153 countries listed), having risen from 112th in 2006. In terms of economic participation, we are down to 150, and score a miserable 143 in educational attainment. But we score well in honour killings and domestic violence.
The men who tried to violently block the Aurat March in Islamabad are unconcerned with progress and education. They know they will get left behind, but want to ensure that they retain control at home, free to beat their wives and daughters, and force them to do domestic chores for the rest of their lives.
Being a man, I obviously have no direct experience of the daily humiliations and pain women endure every day of their lives. Even my indirect anecdotal knowledge is limited as my father had just one brother; I was one of five brothers; and my only son has two lovely young boys. So clearly, there was a severe shortage of females for me to learn from in my life.
This changed when I encountered my four free-spirited English stepdaughters who put me on a steep learning curve. They enjoyed their visits to Pakistan, although the youngest complained about all the restrictions she had to endure. Now they are older, they have no time to come, and the violence of a few years ago has put them off.
This is the kind of freedom most Pakistani men fear. Their impression of the West comes mostly from cheap soft porn movies that depict a decadent culture where women sleep around, and men often play second fiddle. And yet, in the index I have just cited, women (and men, for that matter) fare much better in the very societies we criticise for their supposed licentiousness.
But Pakistanis (and Muslims from other countries) spend a fortune trying to reach Western countries by hook or by crook. And if the whole family can’t make it, young men are put on dangerous paths at the mercy of people smugglers. If and when they finally make it, they encounter the temptations of the West. Obviously, they cannot allow their sisters to emulate this lifestyle, but many of the men themselves indulge in criminal sexual activity.
These double standards are widely prevalent across the Muslim world. To impose them, men use legal means and dubious dogma. Women, mostly uneducated, often accept the status quo as a religious norm.
In Pakistan, as well as in most Muslim countries, educated urban women have made some progress in terms of jobs in government departments and the corporate sector. Others with supportive parents have been able to go abroad to study. But almost all of them conform to the demands of conservative societies in terms of family responsibilities. Until we men learn to do our share, little will change for women or our backward societies.
Published in Dawn, March 14th, 2020