Zeph, a seventh grader who hails from a small village located in the district of Gujranwala, was preparing a meal for her cooking class exam. The teacher — who was rotating around the classroom to assess her student’s dishes — came to Zeph’s table, looked at her with visible disdain and whispered, “Christian girl”.
She then moved on to Zeph’s Muslim classmates, without even touching or tasting the dish Zeph had prepared as a part of her graded exam. Zeph was humiliated in the face of such overt discrimination and returned home crying, enraged at this verbal assault.
While she was left jarred by this incident for months, Zeph finished her education and ventured into teaching to create a healthy, non-discriminatory and safe space for her students — for free. She started a school in the courtyard of her home and decided to fight against different obstacles that prevent people from pursuing education in Pakistan — such as religious discrimination, child labour, early marriages, corporal punishment, cultural biases and patriarchal values which impede girls’ access to the education.
She earned two masters degrees in political science and history and numerous international recognitions for her work in the field of female education. Channel News Asia Singapore made a biopic documentary on Zeph, titled “Flight of the Falcons” to chronicle her life and work. The film won a gold medal from the New York Film Festival.
To honour such unsung heroes in Pakistan, on March 6, 2023, the first-ever Women Leadership Conference was organised exclusively for Christian women, in commemoration of International Women’s Day at the Governor House Punjab. It was a joint initiative of the Pakistan Partnership Initiative (PPI) and the Life for Guardians’ Foundation (LGF).
Minority women are triple-disadvantaged in Pakistan on account of their gender, class and religion
Punjab Governor Muhammad Baligh Ur Rehman said, “Today we have opened the doors of our historical Durbar Hall [Governor’s House, Lahore] for minority women in the honour of their demonstrated leadership and commitment towards women rights. The government of Punjab has taken number of initiatives to promote and protect the rights of minority women.”
What Is A Minority?
Women are considered a minority group not because they are less in number but because they do not share the same privileges, rights and opportunities as men.
In a country like Pakistan, the concept of ‘minority’ is further convoluted to understand particularly in relation to women. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) defined ‘minority’ in 2021: “An ethnic, religious or linguistic minority is any group of persons which constitutes less than half of the population in the entire territory of a State whose members share common characteristics of culture, religion or language, or a combination of any of these.”
‘Minority’ is an identifying factor which takes into account both, the fact of discrimination and the awareness of discrimination.
The Constitution of Pakistan classifies the religious minorities both as non-Muslim and minorities. Article 260 defines ‘minorities’ as ‘non-Muslim’, which include Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Parsis, Ahmadis, Bahais and persons belonging to any of the ‘Scheduled Castes’.
Article 36 of the Constitution uses term ‘minority’: “The State shall safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of minorities, including their due representation in the Federal and Provincial services.”
As pointed out by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (UNCERD) in the combined 21st to 23rd Periodic Reports of Pakistan, the Constitution of Pakistan restricts ‘minorities’ only to religious minorities, not including linguistic or ethnic minorities.
Minority Women in Pakistan
The Constitution of Pakistan explicitly provides a proactive, focused and affirmative policy approach for empowering the marginalised groups and discouraging discrimination in various manifestations.
Articles 20, 21, 22, 25, 26 and 27 specifically prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, religion, caste, sex, residence or place of birth.
Various political parties holding power have taken concrete steps to improve the status of minorities, such as the creation of a Ministry of National Harmony, enhancing minority representation in the Senate and the reservation of five percent job quota for religious minorities and two percent quota in higher education in Punjab to safeguard their rights.
Yet the minority women are victims of both a male-dominated society and a Muslim-dominated country. They face discrimination on the basis of gender and religion, which is aggravated by their poor socio-economic situation. The intersectionality of gender, class and religion are the three most important organising principles in development of the cultural ideology in Pakistan in relation to the women of religious minorities.
Recent surveys have revealed for instance that 87 percent of scheduled caste Hindu women were illiterate, compared to 63.5 percent of males in their community, given that the national illiteracy rate among Pakistani women reaches 58 percent.
The number of minority women in a leadership role is virtually zero because of women’s low socio-economic and political status. Despite Article 106 of the Constitution requiring each provincial assembly to reserve 66 out of the total 371 seats for women and eight for non-Muslims, in the last Punjab assembly, only one Christian woman was a representative in the house of 371, while no Hindu woman was there.
Minority women face two key challenges: the dearth of statistical data on their socioeconomic situation and the invisibility of minority women in leadership. To address these challenges, it is pertinent to recognise that the nexus of gender, class and religion plays a key role in nurturing religious minority leadership in Pakistan. This social hierarchy develops mindsets which subjugate the minority women in sociopolitical and religious spheres.
Ms Asiya Nasir, a former Member of the National Assembly of Pakistan and a renowned Christian politician, said that Christian women leaders are unique and have abilities of doing wonders by their work, but they lack recognition and space as leaders due to bigotries against women.
The Way Forward
Some concrete measures must be taken by the government for the protection and development of the status of minority women in Pakistan.
Firstly, the term ‘minority’ is better to use than ‘non-Muslim’ since it protects the rights of minority women within the Constitution of Pakistan as well as the international human rights instruments.
Secondly, to honour the recommendations and observations made by international treaty bodies, it is strongly recommended that collecting and revealing statistical data on the socio-economic situation of minority women is the utmost responsibility of the state.
Thirdly, discriminatory laws against minority women should be repealed, their personal laws must be updated, new laws for their protection and development must be promulgated, and their implementation should be assured.
Fourthly, special measures need to be taken to ensure the representation of minority women in decision-making structures in both non-profit and public sectors such as boards of statutory organisations, public sector companies and committees as well as special purpose task forces and committees.
The writer is a human rights activist and a leadership consultant. She is Ex-member of National Commission on the Rights of the Child. She earned her doctorate in Leadership Studies from the University of San Diego, California.
She tweets @RubinaFBhatti
Published in Dawn, EOS, May 14th, 2023