SINCE partition, Pakistan’s women and girls have been working to forge a nation where all citizens have equal status, and discrimination on the basis of gender is not just morally abhorrent but constitutionally illegal in all its guises. So why in 2021 is Pakistan ranked 153rd out of 156 countries on the Global Gender Gap Index, only one spot higher than Afghanistan in all the eight countries of South Asia?
The answer is simple: we preach the empowerment of women, but despite all the legal reforms and awareness campaigns, the economic investments and the educational programmes geared towards this goal, there are strong, ever-present paradoxes negatively impacting the lives of Pakistani women. Even in the 21st century, Pakistani women must bargain with patriarchy for our freedoms.
Globalisation and economic demands have seen Pakistani women mobilise in the workforce, enter universities, carve out professional careers, all while maintaining the juggling act of balancing work and family. A multitude of pro-women laws have been enacted in the last 20 years and well-publicised campaigns highlight the need for girls to be educated, for gender-based violence to be eliminated, for women to gain financial independence. This is Pakistan’s long slow march toward the realisation of women’s social, economic, religious and political rights.
But regressive elements of Pakistani society remain determined to retain control over women, even while ‘allowing’ girls to go to school, women to build careers, to buy and sell property, or run companies. Generally, all the major decisions of a woman’s life either originate from the male head of the family, or they must be approved by the patriarchy of fathers, brothers, uncles, cousins. This makes the freedom of women contingent upon the approval and permission of men.
Regressive elements of Pakistani society remain determined to retain control over women.
By requiring a male guardian’s name or male witness’s signature on most of a woman’s significant documentation — a wedding contract, a financial transaction, national identification papers, which are required to open bank accounts — women remain several levels removed from true citizenship and complete autonomy. Exceptions are usually won only after lengthy battles, as the one Rubina faced at the Sindh High Court last month to have her single mother’s name entered in the Nadra database instead of her absent father. Without this ruling, Rubina could not get her CNIC, barring her from taking any financial, professional or political steps towards her own independence.
The importance of girls’ education is the single most prevalent social message of the last 20 years, and the state has enacted laws that all children over the age of five must be in school. But if a father decides that he doesn’t want his daughter going to school, the state is powerless to enforce the law. Girls’ education can be stopped at any time, depending on the patriarch’s perception of the security situation: the ‘war on terror’, ethnic riots, distance of school, absence of female teachers. Leaving school for marriage is another factor where girls have little choice but to comply with their family’s directives.
Another paradox: women’s economic agency is touted by governments, multinationals, international and domestic development organisations as the key to women’s empowerment and the nation’s uplift. But Pakistani women’s careers and working lives depend upon the approval and cooperation of fathers, brothers, husbands. Sexual harassment at the workplace, glass ceilings, and hiring discrimination are other factors that cause women to leave the workforce voluntarily if not willingly.
To understand these paradoxes, we find clues in the apparent dichotomy between the lives of urban and rural women. Our cities are arguably more progressive, tolerant and modern, while rural areas are more conservative, slower to modernise, and without the opportunities for education and economic advancement that bigger towns and cities present. But while Pakistani women in the cities gingerly defy patriarchy, rural women perform a different routine with it altogether.
The work of Dr Nadia Agha, a professor of sociology at Shah Abdul Latif University in Khairpur, examines the lives of rural Sindhi women and how they ‘bargain’ with patriarchy in order to survive. It is a work too complex to summarise here, but it accurately captures the lives of most rural Pakistani women who, outside the pockets of urban modernity, negotiate with and submit to patriarchy in order to advance their needs in a safe way.
The rural Sindhi women know that to ask or agitate directly for their emancipation will cause rifts in the family and endanger their own access to safety and shelter. Dr Agha found that these women prefer conformity over resistance, conforming to the patriarchal system that oppresses them. For example: they work from pre-dawn to dusk at their chores, domestic tasks and farm labour, as delays earn the verbal and physical censure of their husbands and mothers-in-law. But getting their tasks done quickly and efficiently earns them approval and validation, safety and security.
Families appropriate the women’s labour; they win approval and use this as a strategy to negotiate with patriarchy. By establishing themselves as experts on household responsibilities, they increase their value and become indispensable, which maximises the family’s dependence on them. Similarly, submitting to consanguineous marriages or giving birth to sons also earns them social capital with which they bargain for greater freedoms and privileges in their lives. Aware of their situation, they make the conscious decision to comply with others’ demands in order to survive. Dr Agha calls this “agency through conformity rather than resistance”.
In short, the very system that oppresses women provides them the opportunity to fulfil their obligations and demonstrate agency through conformity. This is the main paradox in the lives of Pakistani women, visible to a greater or lesser extent but ever present for all. This explains why we have slid down the scale even in the face of all the seeming advances — the three steps forward and two steps back that is our current dance with patriarchy.
Conditional freedoms for women are not the same as unreserved rights. Only when we understand that Pakistani women find it more strategic to submit to our strictures can we truly take concrete steps to dismantle this paradox for good.
The writer is author of Before She Sleeps.
Published in Dawn, December 3rd, 2021