PAKISTAN ranks only above Iraq and Yemen in the Global Gender Report 2020. Yet the long-discriminated-against Pakistani woman has made much overlooked progress. Conditions are terrible for her but trends, especially for those between 15 and 24 (the future and present), are hopeful.

In Karachi, literacy of this group of women increased from 53.34 per cent to 70.91pc between 1972 and 1998 (figures in larger towns are not dissimilar) and in smaller towns such as Larkana and Chiniot it increased by 14.48pc and 10.45pc respectively. In the same period, female marriages in this age group declined in Larkana by 16.06pc and in Chiniot by 14.6pc. Karachi has seen a decline in female marriages from 61pc in 1960 to 27.68pc in 1998 in the 15-24 age group. Except for Balochistan and Fata (now the tribal districts), the figures are similar for the rest of Pakistan. So, for the first time in our history, in this age group we have an overwhelming majority of unmarried adolescents. Research and statistics show this has changed gender relations and family structures.

As a result, choices for women have increased. In 2020, there has been a 700pc increase in khula cases. Recent statistics show the trend is increasing. There has also been a large increase in court marriages and a gradual grudging acceptance of self-willed marriages (in all classes) in urban areas.

There is also an increasing demand for women’s hostels in urban areas so that women from other places can be educated at institutions located there. Because of a change in family structures, living with one’s relatives is no longer an option.

It is not surprising that the custodians of patriarchy are fearful.

According to the HRCP, the number of karo-kari cases have increased. Unlike earlier, increasingly it is relatives of the victims who file cases in defiance of those who have committed the crime. The changes in gender relations and family structures described here lay the foundations for a new world that wants to be born — a world in which the panchayat has ceased to exist and the jirga has no moral authority.

Working women have also been emerging, especially in the field of education. In 1947, women primary schoolteachers constituted 13.5pc of the total number of teachers — high school teachers were 11.8pc. In 2006-07, the figure had increased to 53.4pc and 49.5pc respectively. Women university teachers also increased by 1,300pc from 837 in 1999 to 11,534 in 2016. Meanwhile, women’s enrolment at institutions of higher learning increased from 18.86pc in 1991 to 38pc in 2003-04.

Women have come to dominate in the field of medicine and the social sciences; 70pc of medical students are women and between 70pc-80pc in architecture and planning. Data from the Pakistan Medical and Dental Association shows the percentage of women registered with it has increased from 58.29pc in 2004 to 76.27pc in 2013.

There are some 300,000 women polio workers in Pakistan and 65,000 in Sindh. Applications for these jobs were considerably higher than what was required. Polio workers and LHWs have their own unions in which elections and events are held and International Women’s Day is celebrated.

Since 2014, the National Assembly has passed 21 and the provincial assemblies 45 pro-women and pro-marginalised community laws. Male members have supported these laws, many of which were opposed by previous assemblies. This shows that a change has taken place among the new generation of lawmakers.

An important aspect of women’s visibility is their participation in protests alongside men, something unheard of before. Working class wo­men such as schoolteachers, polio wo­­rkers and government emp­­l­oye­­es, have protested with men for better working con­ditions and salaries. Rural women have blo­c­ked traffic on major highways to protest against karo-kari, wadera and administrative injustices, the absence of utilities, and tribal conflict, and have increasingly had their demands met.

And in violation of chadar aur chardiwari, we now have a women’s cricket team, women squash and martial arts champions, women participating in car rallies, women on motorbikes and thanks to social media hundreds of new women singers and performers. Some of this can be considered perfomative, but is still rapidly opening up spaces for women. What is important to note is that these changes have taken place in the last 20 years and are consistent and not class specific.

Given what has been described, it is not surprising that the custodians of patriarchy are fearful and struggling to arrest this change through various forms of individual and collective violence. However, to fight back it is necessary to not only understand the changes that are taking place but also the reasons for them and to invest in the age group 15 to 24 — the parents of two future generations.

Arif Hasan is an architect, urban planner, and social activist.
Zara Imran is a Social Development and Policy studies student at Habib University.

Published in Dawn, April 12th, 2021



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