Empowering women

What is the purpose of marking International Women’s Day in Pakistan when even the highest state functionaries like ministers are not safe if they are women? Ours is a patriarchal society where customs like vinni and swara (exchange of women, mostly young girls, to settle feuds), and karo-kari (honour killings) are considered a norm, where the perpetrators of gang rape of women and children are allowed to roam free, where the police refuse to lodge an FIR against domestic violence, where barbaric laws are presented in the garb of Islamic shariah, where the self-appointed guardians of religion disallow women to go to schools.

Despite the prevalence of such misogynist practices and customs, it appears times are changing. The Pakistan Military Academy Kakul opening its doors to women, the inclusion of women pilots in the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), a woman pilot and her all-women crew flying a PIA plane, the first deployment of women military guards at the tomb of Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, a woman being made the Governor of the State Bank of Pakistan all highlight the progress we have made since the dark days of General Ziaul Haq. Passing of the Women’s Protection Act and the tabling of another bill pertaining to women’s rights are all commendable, but merely such directives by liberal state functionaries will not help women as a totality, even though it may help individual women here and there.

These problems can be addressed properly only if women are encouraged to take up their issues themselves and organise themselves for their demands by being given political rights. But how can women get political rights if the population of Pakistan generally is denied these rights fully? Women need to be empowered as people and citizens, but if the people of Pakistan are not empowered as citizens generally, can women be empowered separately? Political empowerment is not a sufficient condition, but it is the first and utmost necessary condition for obtaining women’s rights.

The Russian Revolution demonstrated that women’s empowerment can lead to liberation of the whole country. The revolution’s basis was laid by the women who took part in a strike for “bread and peace” in St. Petersburg on International Women’s Day of 1917. There has been an increase in the political participation of women in recent years in Pakistan, which is commendable. Yet the increase has been criticised for not serving its essential purpose of women’s empowerment, rather it is seen as serving the interests of the political elite. It must be realised that women’s empowerment strengthens not only women but also men, since the issue of the empowerment of both cannot be separated.

Despite shortcomings and problems with women’s participation in politics and public life, the answer to the problems of freedom and democracy is more democracy and more freedoms (or rights). Global history shows that the outcomes of democracy are always good, just that sometimes it takes more time. Pakistan cannot be an exception to this global trend. Islam also provides a wonderful template for women’s rights and public participation. Though Islam provides a remarkably good starting point, we also need to see how women’s rights are structured for the demands of the present day world. So this International Women’s Day, we must remember that in commemorating and celebrating women and their rights, all of us – irrespective of gender – commemorate and celebrate our political rights and our yearning for democracy and freedom.

(Note: wrote this on International Women's Day, but forgot to post it *blush*)


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