Wednesday, February 15, 2012

In Pakistan, Women Are Not Yet the Better Half

By Sagar Atre

Copy edited and produced by Laura Straub

Maryam Irshad of rural Pakistan
Maryam Irshad is like many other young girls in Pakistan; she dreams of a life where she can learn, earn and enjoy the fruits of education. But this dream is hardly likely to come true; Maryam’s parents decided to sacrifice her education so that they could educate her brothers. Instead, Maryam has been sent to a city to work as a housemaid. “Between me and my brothers, it was an obvious choice. If I did not have brothers, I probably would have gone to school.” In a country where women are legally equivalent to ‘half’ a male, the choice Maryam’s parents made is hardly surprising. Pakistan’s laws against women draw their attitude towards women from their source, the Sharia, or Islamic Law. The laws for women in Pakistan included a law called the Hudood ordinance, passed by its erstwhile military dictator, General Zial-ul-Haq. This law required women to provide four male witnesses to prove her innocence in case of a rape. Although this law was repealed in 2006, other unfair laws remain. Pakistan’s laws still hold a woman’s testimony equivalent to half a man’s testimony. Divorce laws in Pakistan state that women cannot seek a divorce without giving acceptable reasons, while men simply can say ‘I divorce thee’ three times and their divorce is held valid.

Mehmal Sarfraz, Op-Ed editor at a daily newspaper, The Daily Times, Pakistan states, “The basic problem is deep-seated patriarchy. Practices like Karo Kari (honor killings), Vani (child marriages) are still rampant. Although the cities are better now, rural areas still remain far behind.” Equal status to women in society still remains a distant dream for most of Pakistani society.
Zebunnisa Burki, social activist and founder of an organization promoting women’s participation in media, South Asian Women in Media, feels the problem goes deeper, “Socially and economically lower classes not having access to education is not an exception in Pakistan, it’s the norm, and for women, it has become a reality they have accepted long ago. Urban environments and money can provide some advantages, but even in cities, poor women do not get access to good education. In rural areas, the situation is unimaginable.” Burki’s claims are echoed by statistics; surveys by the United Nations reveal that 40% of the women in Pakistan still do not get access to education, compared to 28% amongst boys. The dropout rate among women also remains high; only 28% of women were enrolled in secondary schools by 2009.

Education Improvements
Some girls like Azmat Perveen, 20, from a village called Renala Khurd, however, may be harbingers of coming change. Azmat was allowed some education, and she is glad for it, she states, “I was allowed to learn until the eighth grade, but then my father denied permission to go to a school farther away from home. But I am content that I at least got to learn up to some level. Most of my friends have not had that privilege.” Azmat is right in calling education a privilege, in rural Pakistan, educated girls were rare until recent times. In Pakistan’s cities however, enrollment rates of women in educational institutions are improving. Ayesha Iftikhar, a photographer from Islamabad, says, “It will take time for the effects of liberalization to percolate to the poorer and more conservative sections of society, but I see change happening around me. I am a photographer, which itself was traditionally frowned upon. Many urban women have come out of patriarchy, and I see positive change happening. I think the generations after mine will see change come into their lives.”

Co-ed Concerns
Many professions requiring frequent public contact and interaction with males were earlier cordoned off for women. In recent times however, some of Pakistan’s plum Union ministry posts have gone to women; Pakistan’s deceased Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and current External Affairs Minister Hina Rabbani Khar are examples. Even in Parliament, representation of women is increasing. According to the Ministry of Manpower and Labor, the rate of increase in the number of female employees in the workforce is currently 6.5% per annum, much better than earlier decades, where it was barely rising for many years.

New Attitudes
A positive side is the changing attitude of men in the new generation, one such example is filmmaker and graphic designer Abdur Rahman Mian, who states, “There were blatantly unjust laws earlier. I still do not believe how something like the Hudood ordinance was enacted. I hope the change, now slowly coming, extends to all our socio-economic classes. Women are equally capable, and my wife is testimony to that, she is an author, legislator and a prolific public speaker. Women should never have been considered weak or secondary, and I am glad the government today has at least tried to right the damage it has done earlier.”

Government efforts towards educating women are becoming more holistic. Rafique Tahir, Joint Secretary, Capital Administration and Development Division (CADD) at the Federal Directorate of Education of Pakistan, says, “This is a problem with many facets; economic, social, religious, even psychological. We are attacking these problems through a multi-pronged strategy. Through programs like scholarships for girls to attend schools to awareness programs for parents and village leaders, we are trying our level best to bring women into the mainstream. We also aim to introduce more modern and scientific modes of imparting education very soon. We are fighting a tough problem with deep historical and social roots, tackling it will take time, efforts and patience.”

From being a country where women were subjugated legally and socially, Pakistan has progressed to being a society which shows a contradiction of sorts in terms of women’s rights. Urban and wealthier Pakistani women are making rapid progress in terms of their careers and are even working to improve the situation, while most women from rural areas still remain shrouded in illiteracy. The chasm between  rural girls like Maryam Irshad, who is bound to illiteracy and a life of imminent poverty, and her urban, educated counterparts like Ayesha Iftikhar is probably one of the saddest ironies for a country whose name and promise signified Purity and freedom.
(With inputs from Tanveer Jahan)

No comments: