THE controversial Veena Malik cover has got Pakistanis talking — about women, about sexuality and about empowerment — and it seems everyone's got an opinion concerning Ms Malik's decision to pose for the men's magazine across the border.
Some Pakistanis think her actions are shameful and un-Islamic, while others hail them as a bold step in liberating women to declare themselves in control of their bodies and their sexuality. But while women and sexuality is an important debate, what Pakistanis are misunderstanding is this is not nearly the most important aspect of women's empowerment.
First, let's look at what the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women defines as empowerment:
“Empowerment means that people — both women and men — can take control over their lives: set their own agendas, gain skills (or have their own skills and knowledge recognised), increase self-confidence, solve problems and develop self-reliance. It is both a process and an outcome.”
Far away from the glamour, the bright lights and the sexiness of the entertainment industry, a different kind of discussion is taking place about women and empowerment.
This debate is about empowering women not to take their clothes off or to choose to wear the hijab; but rather, about empowering women to “participate fully in economic life across all sectors and throughout all levels of economic activity”.
With the tagline 'Equality Means Business', the UN has put together seven 'Women's Empowerment Principles' designed to bring about a gender-equal environment in workplaces and businesses. They include:
— Establishing high-level corporate leadership for gender equality.
— Treating all women and men fairly at work — respecting and supporting human rights and non-discrimination.
— Ensuring the health, safety and well-being of all women and men workers.
— Promoting education, training and professional development for women.
— Implementing enterprise development, supply chain and marketing practices that empower women.
— Promoting equality through community initiatives and advocacy.
— Measuring and publicly reporting on progress to achieve gender equality.
But what's the point of ensuring gender equality in the workplace? And moreover, shouldn't we just accept the idea that women and men are equal but different, and that a man's strengths lie in the world of business, while a woman's strengths lie in the domestic sphere?
In a word, no. The UN Entity for Gender Equality states that when women have full agency and participation in business, economies are strengthened, societies become more stable and just, internationally agreed goals for development, sustainability and human rights are achieved, the quality of life improves not just for women, but for men, families and communities, and entire businesses' operations and goals are pushed forward to success.
By accepting gender stereotypes, and by keeping our workplaces and the way we do business no-go areas for women, we weaken Pakistan, rob both Pakistani men and women of the chance to improve their lives and perpetuate an unbalanced, unequal society.
Giving women workplaces and business environments that support and welcome them are key to improving society at large — a mass movement that Pakistan desperately needs in order to help push it out of the economic and social quagmire in which it finds itself today.
One programme that seeks to redress the gender imbalance in the Pakistani economy is the Commonwealth Business Women Initiative, which works with businesses and governments to support gender-mainstreaming — “the process of assessing the implications of policies and programmes in political, economic and social spheres for both women and men to make sure that gender inequality is not perpetuated”.
Thanks to the recommendation of Dr. Salima R. Ahmad, president of the BPW (Business and Professional Women) Pakistan, the Commonwealth Business Council decided to reinvigorate the initiative under the guidance of the International Federation of Business and Professional Women.
Even more importantly, the United Kingdom, Australia and Pakistan signed a tripartite agreement at the Commonwealth Business Council meeting in Perth, Australia in October this year to enact the initiative in their respective countries through the twin arms of 'procurement' — bringing buyers and money to services and products created by women; and 'policy' — enacting programmes, courses, and principles of action that adhere to the women's empowerment principles as outlined by the UN.
Signing this treaty is a great honour for Pakistan, as well as a challenge, because rather than going for mere cosmetic solutions, the Pakistani arm of the Commonwealth businesswomen's organisation will have to change mindsets before it can create permanent, meaningful linkages between the government and the private sector — and the challenge is double in an environment where there is great cultural and social resistance to the idea of economic independence for women.
The president of the BPW International, Freda Miriklis, is a staunch believer in the treaty's chances for success. “We're not doing this because we think women are poor and we want to help them, or because we think they're victims. We are saying that women are invaluable and this is what they can bring to business,” says Miriklis.
The key to success in Pakistan, however, is to recruit eminent Pakistani businesswomen to the cause, rather than ambushing governments and male-dominated businesses and imposing gender mainstreaming on them from outside the system.
Difficult as the task is, it remains an exciting one, and if Pakistan's women are able to find their place in business on equal ground to men, instead of appearing unclothed on the covers of magazines, women will actually be able to own and run the magazines.
And that's a future into which Pakistan must invest its money, time and effort, because in the words of the CEO Statement of Support in the Women's Empowerment Principles, “equal treatment of women and men is not just the right thing to do — it is also good for business”.
The writer is an author.