By Humera Ali
Being part of the Pakistani wider diaspora and living overseas in a country that has a predominantly euro-centric view of history and progressive advancement, a regular question I encounter about my homeland is almost a double-edged sword:
Isn’t Pakistan oppressive towards women?
I appreciate being asked about Pakistan as it gives me an opportunity to inform and educate others in order to deconstruct stereotypes that have long been rooted in themes of colourism and racial discrimination, but still dislike having to answer questions that are based on those outdated concepts in the first place.
I have found that many of those that ask the questions believe Pakistani jurisdiction and Islamic law are also one and the same, although this is oftentimes far from the truth when I have to correct them. It is also particularly surprising to some when I explain that Pakistan is rich and diverse in both religion and culture, with many religious minorities also residing in the country, and therefore Pakistan as a country is not representative of Islam, and vice versa.
It is true that certain countries have laws to prevent women from certain aspects of self-autonomy and are apparently justifiable because of what the Qur’an’s stance is on women’s rights. However, the study of religious texts (including the Qur’an) has mostly been carried out by male scholars for centuries, and the consequence of an absence of women’s involvement in reading and analysing religious texts professionally would make it more likely for the text to be interpreted in a patriarchal (as opposed to egalitarian) format.
Although many countries including Pakistan have noted this, there is a lot more to be done for women’s rights, apart from being granted suffrage in 1947. In fact, Pakistan is being increasingly recognised for its women and their voices, including an expansion for women voter registration and the negotiation of further rights.
Women in Pakistan are redefining stereotypical gender roles and societal expectations, despite varying resistance from the state and various religious institutions, and their work for feminist progress needs to be recognised!
The Fight for Legal Identities
The 2018 Pakistan election statistics highlighted an increase in women registering to vote, shown through a 66% increase from the election data five years prior. The increase was also recorded in marginalised and rural communities, and many women’s groups in Pakistan (such as WISE – Women in Struggle for Empowerment) have campaigned in order to increase awareness for voter registration.
Additionally, many women that are part of marginalised and rural communities are not registered for National Identity Cards, although statistics also demonstrate that this is rapidly changing. The cards are a requirement for voting, but also to open a bank account and obtain a driving license. In accordance with patriarchal customs, it is oftentimes the case that many women did not register for a card. However, the dramatic increase demonstrated in the 2018 elections (3.8 million women were newly registered) shows that traditional social structures (which can be found in many societies, not just Pakistan) are breaking down, with women leading the fight in their advocacy for equality.
Although women’s movements for equality existed in Pakistan from the country’s beginning, they have continued since the interim constitution in 1956 wherein they were formally allowed to vote in national elections. The Women Action Forum was established in 1981 and has continued to this day as a network of activities lobbying for progressive rights, with one anti-discrimination march in Lahore notably being attacked by policemen in 1983.
Organisations to Support
Sexism and gender-based discrimination is worldwide and something individuals experience globally. Although Pakistan has a long way to go, progression and change is lead by women fighting for independent rights and the opportunity for empowered self-autonomy.
There are many women-run organisations based in Pakistan that lead the fight for women’s rights and progress. By raising awareness and supporting these organisations in their fight for equality, we can uplift and uphold the values of Pakistan’s constitution, that ‘there shall be no discrimination on the basis of sex alone’ and that women will be able to ‘fully participate in all spheres of national life’, leading to an inclusive, tolerant and fair Pakistan.
· WEO: Women Empowerment Organisation
· WISE: Women in Struggle for Empowerment
· Women’s Action Forum (WAF)
· Aurat Foundation (AF)
Pakistan's women have played an extremely significant role in all spheres of its development, from its inception, to where we are today. They have been at the crux of political movements, spearheaded a number of STEM-based developments, and are building their voice through activism across every platform. As Muhammad Ali Jinnah said:
"No struggle can ever succeed without women participating side by side with men."