IF a string of recent events have sparked a bit of optimism among the observers of the country’s politics and students of its rather tragic history it is indeed a welcome development.
When such columnists and writers, who had been forced by decades of depression due to an endless downward spiral into being no more than prophets of doom and gloom, begin to see and acknowledge signs of change it appears a safe bet to believe something positive is afoot.
Side by side with this optimism, another debate that has adorned the op-ed pages of major newspapers, at least in the English language, has focused on whether Pakistan can ever be a liberal society or will remain conservative. Frankly, I lack the intellectual prowess to take sides in this debate.
Let me share, nonetheless, what gives me hope about our country’s future; in fact, what has always filled me with hope about tomorrow: Pakistan’s women. Yes, its women, so many of whom toil unsung in the far reaches of the country more than equal in their contribution to the household income but still tragically unequal in status, in wages and in many other aspects.
Before the state recently applied the brakes and did an about-turn from the road to perdition it seemed committed to, for years and years the only ray of hope that I nurtured and cherished was that half of the country’s population would one day rise up and prevent what seemed like a determined attempt at collective suicide.
What gave me this optimism? Well let me tell you. Before my third birthday I was struck by the polio virus. Lack of awareness of polio’s ravages meant there was no inoculation. Even some of the top paediatricians were ignorant of the disease and I was treated for several weeks for typhoid.
My mother was a small-framed woman with a steely resolve. Despite being devastated by what had happened to me (I was told by family and friends much later in life), she never betrayed any signs of her anguish.
Over the following years of my life she not only taught me to walk a second time but also drummed into me a never-say-die spirit. We lived in Rawalpindi and often headed to Murree for picnics with other families.
My mother would carry me on her hip to the highest point other children got to, to play. I am sure if she needed to she’d drag me up the hill too so I didn’t feel left behind. Thus, I grew up feeling pretty self-assured and saw my disability as no more than a minor inconvenience.
From my mother the baton passed to some of the most incredible teachers one can have. All of whom were women. For me learning from them was not just about the ‘course’ for the year. They taught me the meaning of respect, of equality and of decency. Each one determined that I had all I needed to succeed despite the obvious mobility challenge.
Oh yes, the law of averages did kick in and one or two of my women teachers left a lot to be desired like some of their male counterparts. But on the whole, whether in my circle of family and friends or in my professional life, the women who have influenced me with their professionalism and commitment would outnumber men.
One criticism that is the favourite of nit-pickers is that most women role models belong to the elite, the affluent, Western-educated, upper middle class that rests on or near the highest point of the nation’s socioeconomic pyramid.
I don’t agree. Just to mention three, where did Mukhtar Mai, Kainat Soomro and Malala Yousafzai all women of substance come from? They came from either the middle class or the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder and look what they have achieved with their grit.
It is true that I am restraining myself from naming more women as my word count limitation will not permit to but seriously look around you and acknowledge the excellence that women bring to each endeavour.
In my journalistic career, I have worked with two of the gutsiest editors in Pakistan and both happened to be women. The news magazines they edited were a tribute to their vision and their commitment to the truth.
The pluralistic society and sanity they advocated through their pages was done through difficult, turbulent times and yet we, the reporters, were free to seek out the truth and write everything we wanted to. We were never confronted with a ‘no’ for an answer.
Today too our women colleagues hold up the banner of objective journalism aloft. Dawn’s refocused op-ed pages have much to do with the newspaper’s first woman op-ed editor, Zubeida Mustafa, with whom I worked. Women on the editorial team continue to provide nuanced brilliance to date. The reporters’ bylines tell their own story too. Elsewhere in the media, in parliament, in law, in medicine, science, architecture, in fact wherever you look a revolution is under way with a large number of urban women from all socioeconomic tiers excelling and leaving their long-entrenched male peers, well, sitting.
All that society needs to do to reinforce the sense of optimism currently being expressed and to accelerate to the promise of a brighter tomorrow is to let the women take their rightful place at the helm; create an enabling environment where the women can do what they want to and see what happens.
It isn’t difficult to imagine what Pakistan will look like given where our women have got to despite endless obstacles in their path whether in the name of culture, traditions or most ominously religion. Ability and potential, not gender bias, will determine our future.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
Published in Dawn, March 12th, 2016