Women are more important than cookies

Most of this month, Pakistan, its legislators, media pundits, policymakers and intellectuals are in feisty debates surrounding cookies, helicopter per km rates and the banning of cheese imports to Pakistan. I would like to insist that this is a great strategy that works in favor of anyone who wants to distract from pressing issues such as the fact that women are holding up this nation with great peril and cost to themselves. They are unsafe in their bedrooms, in their kitchens, in their offices, in the fields, when they travel and when they dare to speak up and let out a peep of protest.

Here are some recommendations that could double as a caution: Unless women of Pakistan are not elevated in status and in body integrity, nothing in terms of public policy and sovereignty will work out for the country.

I dare to caution because 21 percent of underage girls in Pakistan are married off without consent. I dare because our glorious Gender Inequality Index Rank is 130 and the Global Gender Gap Index Rank is 143. Put simply, we are among the first countries to prioritize, protect and fuel male toxicity and oppression. Put another way for those who don’t like women whining, we are among the first globally to crown men that violate women. So if there were a medal for that, Pakistan would be its first honorary recipient.

I also dare to make these recommendations to the current government because the number of women selected to make up the cabinet, both federal and provincial, can be counted on the fingers of a chimpanzee’s left hand.

I put forth some legal suggestions because the law is part of the violation of women’s status as equal citizens: Hudood Ordinances, the Law of Evidence and the Citizenship Act.

Here are some preachy two cents, which if I were a man, could be worth a million dollars.

Give all women cell phones. Give them Internet on the cell phones. Then leave them alone to browse, learn and find solidarity networks to escape from violence. About 93 percent of women face violence here. Women teledensity numbers in Pakistan are among the worst. UN’s ITU reports a few years back, shows the gap between male and female Pakistani cellular phone users, is highest globally at 17%.

Punish violence against women such as acid burnings, honor killings (Average of 1,000 a year according to HRW) and rape. Almost all men get away with murder, abuse, harassment and rape in Pakistan. As seen from the recent hashtag campaign #JusticeForKhadija, no matter how many times a woman in stabbed in daylight, with witnesses and video evidence, chances are the accused will walk away. Until there is no justice for violators, women will continue to be soft targets. Unless the judicial system, dominated by men are not gendered sensitized, women will suffer.

Engage men in public policies to change laws against violence against women. Since it is men who perpetrate discrimination in workplaces, government and in the fields, they must be part of the dialogue. Conversely, women telling men what to do and how to do it, does result in much noise, and awareness, but hardly translates into impactful legislation and implementation. Men block them. Other men, those with kind mothers, those who do not harbor hate for women, should be asked by this government to pass on their power, their mic and their security to women.

Respect expertise. In Pakistan, people who hold irrigation ministries, go ahead and run sports or even religious affairs portfolios. I urge the government to put in charge of women, those who have not held, say, waste-management portfolios. Employ leaders instead who certifiably understand the pain of human rights violations.

Let there be a revolution of women’s rights over their own bodies. Move away from the tenth century model where women were regulated for having women bodies. Let them, love, marry and have children as they please. Don’t punish them for changing their minds. Holding women’s bodies sacred is immoral because, if men were regulated this way, it would drive them mad. The only difference is that women are not permitted to be angry. When I say command over bodies, it includes the brain. Let women nourish their thoughts and cognitive concepts as ambassadors of this country. Not as relics. GDP will go up, honor killings will go down and motherhood, which this society values, will be in it’s the healthiest form.

Lastly, abolish and eliminate parallel legal systems and informal dispute resolution mechanisms that discriminate against women. Think of jirgas or panchayatts as the place where women and young girls go to be killed. Hardly is there a decision from these male-only self-appointed jurists, that allow a woman to walk away without being gang raped, ripped off dignity or killed.

Once we do some or all of this we can go back to the national debate about cookies, helicopter rides and cheese import bans.



Addressing disability in education is an emergency, not an objective

I was invited to speak at an event in a 5-star hotel on the inclusivity of women in public space. My co-panelist was a disability rights activist, a young woman in an electric wheelchair. When she arrived to speak she had to be lifted by four able-bodied men onto a ramp-less stage in front of the entire audience. She was there to talk about access for disabled and yet she had none to the arena. The irony was stark and visually deafening. Yet, no one called it out at that event.

Similarly, no one calls out the deafening silence on how Pakistan’s education system is failing children with disabilities. Even if these children show up at school, there is no ramp. In the region, Pakistan stands the worst out of already faltering countries. Disabled out-of-school children, as a percentage of the total primary school-age population in Pakistan, is 34.4 percent according to the 1998 census. Experts say, since then, things have slid down like mercury on a playground slide.

Pakistan has signed off on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) but like most else, it is a party to; few people care to read what was agreed upon after photo-ops are over. The teachers certainly are not capacitated enough to define and carry out an inclusive curriculum for disabled children in their classrooms.

This is chiefly because education in Pakistan is already overburdened and already excludes as many as 25 million children who are not attending school. According to the Alif Ailaan campaign to end Pakistan’s education emergency, these numbers define a gargantuan challenge for those students who have disabilities.

In April 2018, I carried out an exposure visit to one of the 1,550 Girls Community Schools[1] in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s remote areas so I could assess some students with disabilities. I was reminded of the disabled panelist at the inclusion conference when I saw two teachers carrying a disabled 9-year-old girl, called Mehek from a dark dingy classroom to where I sat in the main courtyard. On their way to bringing Mehek to have me assess her learning environment, the teachers carrying her almost tripped over on the uneven unpaved floor of the non-purpose built school. By the nonchalant reaction of the young child, it seemed like this had happened several times before and it didn’t always end as unceremoniously as it did then.

Mehek was clearly uncomfortable with being carried around without consent. She bowed her head throughout my conversation with her. She looked down at her lap and only smiled at the end when I asked her about candy. She wore the Sunday best her mother had dressed her in – red embroidered shalwar kameez. She had polio as a young child and that left all her limbs severely deformed. She also had developmental challenges. I was told before Mehek came to school a year ago, she was bedridden, but she can now recognize numbers 1-10.

These may not be formal government schools, but they do play a great role in enabling children with disabilities to enroll because of the proximity to their homes and the informal community model support at school. At these schools, unlike more formal government ones across Pakistan, there is no pity approach to teaching disabled children. Schools like these have a rights-based approach instead.

These community schools, rather than segregate special needs children, actually integrate them within the regular classroom setup. This allows for special needs children to be normalized and mainstreamed. More than anything else this readies them for more challenging societal roles like employment and public travel. The impactful transformation will only happen if there is a significant and consistent investment in school infrastructure and in conscientious teacher training. We don’t want students to be carried around in an undignified way where they have no control over their movement and comfort. We want to give them their loss of body integrity back.

Despite the success of these community school models, the formal education models in Pakistan fall terribly short. Falling short is not just a social and a cultural failure, but an economic disadvantage that policymakers refuse to be alarmed by.

Recent estimates by UNESCO suggest that as many as 1.4 million Pakistani children with disabilities are left without access to either inclusive or special schools.[2] There are sadly only 330 special education schools in Islamabad, Punjab, Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces. There is a dearth of studies, but one World Bank study of the workforce found that among employed people with disabilities, only 27% had completed primary school, compared to 42% without disabilities. Those excluded from the workforce because of disabilities and access issues lead to economic losses of as much as 4.9 to 6.3% of Pakistan’s GDP.[3]

There is a very unfortunate pecking order in addressing disability challenges, in which students with intellectual disabilities are almost always entirely omitted from solutions. Take Dyslexia for instance; there are very few provisions for understanding or even catering to the needs of children that cannot read because of an inherent inability to interpret letters as they are visual. There are an estimated 12 million children with dyslexia in Pakistan.[4] Hardly any schools successfully implement programs that test and train students to overcome the reading challenge.

Article 25 guarantees an education to all Pakistani children, but it seems to define only those as children who can walk themselves to class, those who can pick up reading instantly, those who can solve math within seconds, those who can hear instruction without hearing aids and those who have no challenge reciting tongue twisters. Education for all is not defined for silicone dolls genetically engineered to perfection. It is for the children to whom nature bestowed a flawed scar. As Maulana Rumi said, it is the scars where the light enters. The light enters through the country’s Meheks.

We need to reform the education system to stop being cookie-cutter and be more invested in equity.


[1] https://www.dawn.com/news/1235072



[4] https://dailytimes.com.pk/120033/12-million-children-in-pakistan-have-dyslexia-seminar/

Adolescent girls in Pakistan need more than just vocational skills

I thought I had seen it all in my decade-long work on gender equity in Pakistan. Then I was asked to be the lead communications consultant in the USAID Pathways to Success program for the KP province. It is only now, that I really feel like I have seen it all. I have a cache of young adolescent women telling compelling stories on audiotape, pictures of them in action and transcripts of their interviews. It is, however, vivid memories of their strength and spirit that remain with me. These women I met, are the unsung heroes of this country in their fight against traditionalism, patriarchy and in some instances deeply ingrained violence against women. In such an environment, their ability to learn and make their vocational skills marketable is nothing short of miraculous.

I met about 14 young women who were taught vocational skills by trainers under the USAID program. The program was led by the DC-based implementing partner, World Learning that architected the training to be reflective of local challenges and international best practices. These young women were selected randomly to record their journey. Without any privilege or access, they somehow managed to have the same progressive ethos of a young woman from any city of Pakistan who have attended elite private school and has been taught global content.

How did these young women, marred by domesticity, manage to transcend geographic isolation, cultural hegemony, and misogynist values? How did they reject the victimization that accompanies poverty? The design of the program certainly had its architectural genius but over and over again, these young women said to me in interviews that it was the selection of mentors that made all the difference in changing their fixed mindset to a growth mindset.

By design, the program focused on the psychological aspects of these young women’s empowerment just as much as it focused on the skills transfer aspect. In addition to learning about dressmaking, photography, cosmetics, etc., the young mentees also learned life skills and the importance of agency. Many interviewees told me they had never seen any woman as empowered as the mentors who stood before them and taught the basics of learning and living, fighting and dreaming. They said meeting powerful women mentors transformed their mindset to buying into a possibility that they too could transform, incrementally or all at once.

Under the USAID priority, since October 2015, 37,000 girls in KP province (including FATA) and Sindh have been taught vocational skills. In my work with documenting the success of the program, I had to also consider to what extent the development objectives were met. The goals were to increase young women’s household income, empower their mobility and raise their social status. Within these priorities, 158 schools girl’s schools have also been rehabilitated. This is an ambitious program where USD 70 million has been allocated to benefit 200,000 adolescent girls aged 10-19 in Pakistan.

The data shows that teenage girls from impoverished families, belonging to a minority group, living a village in Sindh or KP, will live their whole lives without even realizing their fundamental rights. 15.7 percent of all adolescent girls in Pakistan are married off before the legal age[1]. This means that these young child brides have been deliberately harmed and their mental health and body integrity have been compromised. A development emergency as declared by the USAID.

Young women from disadvantaged households lack the familial structures that help promote the development of healthy self-esteem and appropriate self-expression. The goal for USAID was to help them escape this confinement and learn tools that cannot be unlearned. USAID’s Pathway to Success Project was designed and implemented to train 2,532 girls, who face the risk of life-long exploitation due to marginalization.

The project spanned for two years and sought out girls from the remotest communities and taught them rights-based information, communication skills to augment their professional aptitude, inputs for vocational proficiency, access to internships and job placement, entrepreneurship training and financing for micro-enterprises. It was an end-to-end program that aimed to leave young women standing on their feet.

My most memorable interview was with Saadia Ibrahim. She came from a violent and abusive family and suffered psychological harm. She said: “I loved the fact that the teachers were very loving. I used to be so scared of human interaction. I used to feel very scared of beautiful people. When they hugged me, I started loving myself. I started feeling worthy.” As a result of a safe and enabling environment, the learning just followed naturally.

A young woman from a marginalized Hindu family said the USAID vocational training was life-altering. “I used to be unproductive and now I am so proud that I can support my family financially. Now that I earn, it has changed how my father thinks about me. He tells my brother to learn from me.” Capacity building of young women on various vocational skills in underserved areas challenged the long-prevailing gender norms.

Suraksha Chawla said that she wanted to keep working because her father didn’t earn much. He is a homeopathic doctor and practices in remote Swat that has previously been taken over by the militant Taliban in 2013. As a result, economic life in Swat has not recovered. She named her beauty saloon after her father when she completed the beautician course with USAID.

She said, “Now I usually pay the Wifi bill and sometimes pay other utility bills too and that makes me feel strong and valued in my family, especially by my father and brothers.”

Under the program, the National Mentor Network was made up of over thirty high-achieving and prominent women leaders from IT, agriculture, energy, law, healthcare, academia, arts, sports, media, and also venture capital firms. These women came forward as volunteers to mentor the young women. Over numerous sessions, these mentors provided girls access to their own successful lives, networks, and insights. The mentors helped young women from remote areas balance work ethics with cultural norms.

When equipped with skills that were highly in demand within the market these girls went through an overhauling role switch in a limited timeframe. They are now better informed on topics such as the legal rights of all citizens, safeguards against child-marriage and domestic violence, state processes for national ID registration, and affordable banking/insurance solutions. This knowledge complemented with skills training has increased their status within the larger community that often shunned them.

Veronica Parvez was one of the trainees who enrolled in the professional photography course. She had a natural talent but the coursework itself took her to exceptional skill levels that were recognized by her teachers. She said, “I hate the idea of being a burden on my family. All young women should work to secure their future and to not be confined to their homes. They should go outside and be part of everything that is out there in the world. I love documenting the world out there with my camera. I also love being paid for it.”

With these transformational learning practices, USAID has been able to change the societal perception of girls in remote communities and marginalized families. Their financial independence has carved them out as role models for local communities.

The wider scope of the project addressed issues that have a major impact on the life quality and personal development of these girls. Domestic violence is a silent norm in these communities.

By increasing adolescent girls’ participation in secondary and tertiary education and introducing them in freelance and formal workforce, they are becoming Pakistan’s agents for change. With newly acquired confidence, motivation and mentoring it is possible to increase the employability of women over generations.

[1] 2012 UNICEF data

The transgender community finds a hero in Marvia Malik

Last month Pakistan held its largest women’s march – a collective feminist movement to bring women’s status closer to a human being and less close to a pet. Since then, there have been even more strides in the civil society – our films contain more feminist themes and our girls come out to bike en mass across major cities. There is one thing the movement didn’t have – a transgender representation.

Perhaps because of it, it is nascent; the cry for more women’s rights has been a largely horizontal fight. Women who can fight patriarchy with class privilege have gone on to call out men for their abuse, double standards and vulgar hate towards women. Intersectional women have been left out: Those below the poverty line, religious minorities, non-conforming femmes, and transgenders.

Yet, with that exclusion, feminism fails to achieve its intrinsic goal – to erase gender and by that to distribute status and agency by purely human standards – those that the state may uphold for each citizen equally and equitably.

Transgender people are trapped in a body that they do not identify with biologically. They may wake up as men when they are women in their consciousness, in their mannerism and in their dreams. It’s a prison that nature confined on them. Science backs the fact that it is not possible to undo this identity entrapment. Many cannot afford or perhaps even don’t want to gender-reconstruct. Therefore, they linger in the middle of the only two genders we allow socially and enforce through shame. They express themselves as women and perhaps nothing can be more unsettling to Pakistan than a man willingly, under no duress, identifying as a woman.

This is why anyone who wants rights for women must first want rights for the transgender community. They utterly defy the patriarchy’s pivotal assumption that any person born male would never want to give up that privilege. Also because the suffering and torture transgender people go through in Pakistan is worse than what women go through. That says a lot. A thousand honor killings of women annually in this country alone mean the transgender community is hunted down like dears in the Serengeti.

If you are a transgender person, the first thing you battle is an identity crisis. If you survive that clinical depression and the onslaught of social exclusion, you are driven out of any formal job market and the only thing available to you is begging for alms and prostitution where there is rampant extortion and sexual exploitation.

Good news though. A local TV channel took a bold step and hired Marvia Malik, the country’s first transgender news anchor. No ordinary woman and I say woman because she self-identifies as one, Marvia was kicked out by her family, put herself through journalism school and made it to the station despite the abuse and chronic harassment. She demanded that she be hired for merit and not gender.

When transgender people are typically on TV, they are on the receiving end of both humiliation and crass humour. Either that or they are absent. The role of an anchor, like Marvia, during prime time on TV is a huge step in mainstreaming transgender people into what society feels is respectable.

The UN Women Pakistan launched the laudable #ChangeTheClap campaign. Transgender people commonly begging on the streets clap their hands in a rotation movement symbolic of their entertainment quality. They only invoke either laughter or fear. The campaign clearly helped create the narrative that gender is non-binary, no matter how much clerics and parents want it to be. That transgender people deserve applaud, they do not deserve indignity.

Another development sector intervention supported and promoted by Marvia Malik is the country’s first transgender school in Lahore that teaches vocational skills aimed to mainstream them. It is aptly called The Gender Guardian and has been launched by an NGO – Exploring Future Foundation (EFF). With 30 enrolled, it is placed to grow and assist in integrating transgender people into the economy.

The development community cannot lead this alone. It has to be an indigenous and grassroots movement. One that women must take under their wing when fighting for women’s rights to equal pay, an end to violence, better electoral representation and more access to public spaces.

This dawned on me in the summer of 2016 when Alesha, a transgender woman, and coordinator of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Trans Action Alliance, ended up dead because of the universe’s most futile reason to be dead. She was shot in a gang action and when she was brought to the hospital, patients and their relatives complained that they didn’t want her accessing the male or the female ward of Lady Reading Hospital. Alesha died bleeding in a corridor because of neglect in a place where the broken are promised an earnest chance of healing through science. Sometimes transphobia trumps humanity.

In Pakistan it always does.

The transgender community needs feminists and those who believe in gender rights. It needs the government – not just handing them the third gender representation on identification cards – but real representation and access to employable scenarios. The transgender community needs non-transgender heterosexual men and their predicated patriarchy to let them go forth into the realm of femininity.

As Simone de Beauvoir said: “One is not born a woman. One becomes a woman.” Let’s reward and protect those that honor womanhood with their identity.







Fasting because the state asks

Ramadan of 2018 came to a close two weeks ago and this holy month reminded me of a tragedy—a wholly preventable one—that took place during Ramadan of 2015. Three years ago about 1,000 Pakistanis died during Ramadan. They died because piety was thrust upon these impoverished day-wage workers. You see, Pakistani dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-haq passed a law in 1981 that criminalized eating or drinking in public during the month of Ramadan.  This ordinance, called Ehteram-e-Ramadan, was and continues to be a blatant anti-poor and anti-women law.

Why anti-poor? Well, while the middle-class and elite can fast within the cool comfort of homes and offices with fans or air-conditioners, the destitute masses must fast while working out in the unforgiving sun. And if you have ever visited South Asia, you’ll know that in the summers, temperatures can soar to a deadly 118 degrees Fahrenheit.  The construction workers, gardeners, security guards and street sweepers toiling in this sweltering heat have no respite.

Breaking this law, which indiscriminately applies to both Muslims and non-Muslims, results in a fine of 25,000 rupees (easily a yearly salary for a poor laborer) and three-month imprisonment. To avoid these punishments, many poor people risk fatal dehydration and fast. And the elite, who, prior to this law, would often place free water coolers outside their residences for day wagers and masons on their way to work, no longer provide this water.

And so, with no water to drink for miles on end (tea stalls and juice vendors disappear from the streets during Ramadan) and no shade to rest beneath on Karachi’s tree-shorn roads, nearly 1,000 people simply collapsed and died while fasting in Ramadan of 2015.

Ironically, those in power—the clerics and politicians –either flee abroad to second homes during Pakistan’s oppressive summers or lounge in lavish, air-conditioned homes where they are served prodigal amounts of food at the sunrise and sunset meal times. It seems these members of the elite have forgotten that while the Qur’an commands Muslims to fast during Ramadan, it does not insist that they do so at the risk of their health and certainly not at the risk of imminent death. After all, God is Ar-Rahman—The Compassionate One.

Sadly, compassion is not a trait you’ll find among the men who sit in Parliament or stand at the minibar. An NPR report quoted a cleric saying that workers in the field and construction industries are just lazy, not tired and that fasting is obligatory. The cleric said the workers are making “lame excuses” about it being unbearably hot. “This is laziness. According to Islam, if they are Muslim, they should be fasting.”

Unsurprisingly, another enormous segment of the population disproportionately hurt by this law are women. Firstly, women who are menstruating, nursing or pregnant are not required to fast, but Ehteram-e-Ramadan has these women unable to eat or drink in view of others for fear of a fine or imprisonment. Does the law expect females to prove their exemption from fasting? Given the law, a 2012 study found that 88% of Pakistani women felt they were obligated to fast through the pregnancy term.[1]

In 2004 in Lahore, when I was pregnant and visibly so, I was taking a sip from my sports water bottle in my car on the way home. I stopped at a traffic light and a man knocked at my window from the next car. I rolled the window down thinking there was some safety aspect of the car he wanted to caution me about. He asked me rather aggressively to have some shame for drinking water when the Muslimeen are thirsty and suffering. Why was I tempting their faith? Shaken, I put the bottle away and drove off, my feet trembling at the pedals. Had I shot back at him with some defensive remark, I was certain I would be punched.

Mob justice in Pakistan is even more violent. In 2009, Christian brothers were arrested under this law in, while last year a Pakistani diabetic Hindu in a remote Sindh village was so profusely beaten by a policeman that his face bled.[2]

The culture of shaming for people who don’t fast is so damning and the state-sanctioned punishment so severe that Pakistanis will risk death over eating or drinking in public during Ramadan. A state that demands observable, measurable piety sacrifices the spirit of Islam—compassion, caring for the most vulnerable segments of society and assuming the best of fellow Muslims—in favor of deadly religious compulsion.


[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3730448/

[2] http://www.christiantelegraph.com/issue6747.html

Girls need pens more than they need rolling pins

Schools are not places to develop learning outcomes in Pakistan. Rather, they are political tools. There is graft during teacher induction, neglect during knowledge transfer; pedagogical understanding is non-existent and a whole lot of misspending happens by the provincial governments. Public school children suffer the most even after education is a constitutional right for all – just 3% graduate beyond grade 12. When it comes to girls sadly, even fewer girls make it beyond the final year. Girls from poor families, after grade 9, fizzle out like salt on snails. This corresponds to the time they enter pre-pubescent and pubescent ages.

Whereas prematurely sexualizing young girls is a societal norm in Pakistan’s patriarchal setup, it is not the only factor for low girls enrollment in schools. The country’s enrollment gender gap is the widest in South Asia, only after Afghanistan. We may not have had the Taliban govern us directly, but they might as well have by a mindset proxy – by perpetuating the belief that women in the economy are worse off than women on the kitchen hearth, armed with rolling pins.

In my yearlong work in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) education department this year, I realized this archaic thinking is not what gets most fathers to keep their daughters indoors. It was the fact that facilities and services at schools did not measure up and did not protect their daughters from anti-women perceptions. For a father to send his daughter to school, he had to battle patriarchy himself and to do that, there has to be some level of certainty that his daughter would grow up to crush it. Not be its victim.

Pakistanis even in remote and underserved areas are progressive and pro-education. It is the state that encourages a gender bias and seeps it into policy, perception as well as into bricks and mortar.

I wouldn’t blame fathers for not being terribly convinced about the value of girls education in public schools.

How can parents trust the system that keeps girls under-resourced deliberately in these schools? The education reforms organization, Alif Ailaan since 2013 quantifies exactly why: about 12 million of 5-16-year-old girls are out of school. There are 2,585 girls’ government schools that do not have a building at all. Girls sit and learn outdoors under the elements. Almost 17,483 school buildings are not safe enough for girls and are downright dangerous for girls to be in.[1]

Take a snapshot of callous disregard for girl’s schools: There is no toilet in 14% of schools; no water in 17%; no boundary wall in 12% and no electricity in 23% of them. These girls are considered no assets by the state. Seemingly even the country’s criminals have better services in prisons.

There are only 36% of schools for girls Pakistan-wide. The gender parity index for enrolment ratios gets even worse to 0.81 at the secondary level. Older girls are even less valued than younger ones.

There is a tremendous amount of research, content and philosophical persuasions available to increase girl child education. There is even a very compelling business case that stipulates that a mere 1% increase in female education; female labor force participation; education expenditure and fertility rate causes 96% increase in GDP of Pakistan.[2]

Age 10 and above, 48% of females are literate in Pakistan whereas 70% of males are literate.[3] The contrast is so stark there ought to be an inquiry on where all the women and their collective potential went? Making rounder chappatis perhaps? A woman who cannot sign her name or count her grocery money at a time of when the rest of the world has bionic arms and plans to launch Interplanetary Internet is a terrible travesty of humanity. The girl child cannot be merely left behind because of value systems; they can only be left this far behind when there is a systematic effort to hate them. Marginalize them. Disable them. Disadvantage them.

Most girls in Pakistan have more than one disadvantage: minority religious status; minority ethnic status; poverty; location disadvantage; physical disability and even something sadly as avoidable as malnutrition.

A lot of the bias the school system perpetrates is not limited to bad infrastructure and neglect for girls. It comes in the lethal form of teacher’s biases. Girls don’t do well because they are not expected to do well. They lag behind in math and science because they are stereotyped into barely passing only non-Science subjects. This psychological warfare on them is just as damning.

Elections are around the corner, yet the girl child is essentially a tossed-aside piece of spinach from a meaty sandwich. She is not on the agenda. The only people who can change this and give the girl child a voice in the elections are women lawmakers who have personally tasted dirt and gender bias in education. We need to bring them to the forefront. Also, those women who vote can give the girl child a voice and demand that political parties prioritize pro-women policies, not tokens, but transformative changes that are inter-generational. Lastly, the people who can truly bring a voice of the missing girls in schools are the men who are at the helm. Righteousness, the business case, pity, or whatever the motivation, we urge a pro-girls change. Girls deserve to pick the pen.





[1] Pakistan Education Statistics 2016-17

[2] https://researchleap.com/role-female-education-economic-growth-pakistan-time-series-analysis-1990-2016/

[3] Pakistan Bureau of Statistics 2015

Pakistani women’s #PushForProgress       

When the sun rises on the 2018 International Women’s Day, Pakistan would do well to bow her head in shame. Politicians, populists, policymakers, development consultants and the financial sectors have all collectively and individually erased women in the country – diminished them to the edges. Globally it may take 200 years to achieve true gender parity. For Pakistan, as things stand, this may not be enough time. Not at this rate. Not with these social norms and certainly not with this lack of priority on women’s rights.

If the recent UN report on gender equality for it’s Sustainable Development Agenda 2030 is to be believed, Pakistan is one of the four worst countries where there are concerning states of neglect and abuse of women. Almost 5 million Pakistani women 18-45, stand deprived in terms of forced child marriages, lack of access to education, no access to healthcare and no employment opportunities. Some regions in Sindh province are worse than the worst war-ravaged remote regions of Nigeria.

In total, 74 percent of women in Pakistan have an average of fewer than 6 years of education. These are unemployable levels of education for a staggering number of women, mostly across the rural divide. Similarly, in rural areas, 70% of women don’t have access to health care or emergency medical care. Due to a significantly lower social status, women are 11% more food insecure than men in the country. Across several households, nutrition is distributed in a way that puts the girl child at the lowest rung. Then the man comes first and then the boy child follows. Also, housework is so undistributed that women have worn to the bone in around-the-clock caregiving.

Sometimes it seems like the young girl in Pakistan is marred right at birth, first by low nutrition and lack of access to health and reproductive rights then by the absurdly low expectations from them to deliver anything but more children, that too preferably boys.

They are no economic contribution expectations from them, mostly because of social stigmas that bar girls and women from entering public space. As a result, women are likely to wither away and become inhibited and small. Those women who dare to establish some control over their lives are chastised and punished in extreme ways – 1,000 and more honor killing average cases a year are reported by the Human Rights Watch. Many more go unreported, hidden underneath the rugs of patriarchy.

The inheritance laws in Pakistan are so archaic. Women only inherit a negligible fraction of land from their families and most are pressurized by their family to give it up for their brothers and or are married off within families to keep the wealth consolidated among men. In every case, they are distanced from financial independence and the empowerment that comes with it.

The laws in Pakistan are designed to punish the victims, often women who are subjugated through rape or even workplace harassment. Domestic violence is prevalent among 90% of women according to Thomas Reuters Foundation. Law enforcement treats this as a personal family issue, often prompting women to return to their batterer.

Global feminist movements like #MeToo have sprouted local movements in Pakistan that cry out against misogyny. The fashion industry has come up with the #MaiBhi campaign asking celebrities to come forward and name and shame their abusers so the shame is not internalized but actually put onto the backs of the perpetrators. Many celebrity women have called out the sexual abuse they faced as children. For the first time in the country, women are taking charge of the narrative rather than silencing what is a crime against them and the state – a crime for which justice should be sought.

Sadly when women claim justice first her right to speak is questioned, then her claim to being violated is discredited and eventually she is drained of resources to go for a lifelong fight.

Fundamentally the way abuse is rationalized in societies like Pakistan is through the systematic diminishing of women’s voices in public space – in the parliament, in the professional space and in law, technology, and science.

With the advent of the Internet and social media, we hope more women can have a voice. This International women’s day when the agenda is to #PushforProgress most Pakistani women are not allowed to have a digital presence to begin with. Those who claw their way onto the web – 40% of them face blatant online harassment – eventually find themselves frightened into the four corners of their homes again.

The onus to #PushforProgress is not really on the women in Pakistan. They have a long way to go, even when the fiercest women in the world are Pakistanis. The onus to make way is on men. They need to recede. Give away some of their power after checking the privilege this country and its governance has granted them for about seven decades. True economic prosperity will only come by handing the reigns to the women – to come up with an equitable way to share power and status. There is no progress otherwise.



#JusticeForKhadija will lead to Justice for Khadija in the courts

A lot of men in conservative societies often say feminist social media movements are not suitable. They say societies like Pakistan cannot live out these online movements because they propel foreign notions of gender equality. That these #metoo-esque efforts are for women who are unhinged, and here, thankfully women are not that out of control. They also say if women have grievances against men, take them to court.

It baffles me how Pakistan’s justice system is quoted as a go-to solution for women – the same one that acquitted 4 out of 5 of Mukhtara Mai’s rapists in 2011. Mukhtaran Mai’s 2002 case shook not just the country but also the world, in its callous disregard for women’s rights. Mai was gang raped then paraded naked on the orders of a local justice system called a Jirga to avenge her brother’s misdemeanor. What can one do to call out an outdated and backward system ruled practically on a 1,500-year-old ethos, that treats women as cattle? Nothing. One can, however, expect a different course from a system armed with Ivy-League-educated judges and their expansive law credentials.

When rapists walk away with a victory sign on their fingers, one can expect that murderers will too. Yes.

Shah Hussain, the alleged culprit in an attempted murder of a woman named Khadija put it very succinctly after the Lahore high court ruled that he is innocent. He said the case against him was on the premise: I am dead, I destroyed and I am mugged. In other words, he said that women like her have no proof in court except their fragile sense of victimhood. Thankfully, he said the law of Pakistan doesn’t work that way.

Frankly who has time to entertain the victimization of women violated by men? Not the go-to judiciary, because there is almost always, insufficient evidence. Courts will always find a way to overlook facts for the law.

There was insufficient evidence from the hundreds of people who were at the scene of the crime; who saw the alleged murderer flee the scene on a bike after stabbing Khadija 23 times; from the sister of Khadija who had a witness testimony; from her driver who actually fought off the alleged murderer and took off his helmet to reveal his identity and from Khadija herself who lived to tell. Insufficient evidence? Insufficient power?

It’s hard to tell.

The courts that acquitted Shah Hussain, the son of a powerful Lahore lawyer, didn’t fail to clarify that it’s hard to tell. They said that Khadija had several male friends; therefore anyone could have committed a crime of passion against her. They said she had written a letter to Shah Hussain asking him to marry her, therefore he had no motive to attack her; when the FIR was lodged, his name was not mentioned; the number of stabs on her remains disputed and most importantly, in the face of no independent corroboration, the benefit of doubt must go to the defendant.

Justice must be done in Khadija’s case. Shah Hussain behind bars or him schooling women on law and justice and fairness outside of court. His punishment doesn’t matter as much as the need for a fair resolution. The person who attacked her must be punished. All DNA evidence on his helmet points to him but still, if the law feels the evidence is insufficient be it. Bring the real perpetrator to justice, instead. Let Khajija’s case be among that rare one percent that finds justice. According to Aurat Foundation, that is the actual dismal conviction rate in Pakistan when it comes to violence against women ranging from stove burnings to gang rape. The courts must add her to that glowing tribute to the country’s legal justice system.

Thankfully that one place the men didn’t want Khadija to go – she went. The online justice courts are certainly fairer than the Jirga and sadly swifter than the formal courts. #JusticeforKhadija trended for days in on Twitter in Pakistan. Not just Khadija’s supporters, men and women, but also those who understand that the powerless need to find their voice first. Before they can be believed. The Internet gives that adage its power: “Until the Lion tells the story, the hunter will always be the hero.”

Armed with healing battle scars of 60 stitches around her neck, arms and back Khadija said about the online support for her: “Society will no longer let a criminal roam free.” It is this that led her to file an appeal in the Supreme Court before Asif Saeed Khosa. This is good news.

Provided the legal counsel available to her is competent and knows how to present how the law failed a victim, this should, by all means, turn out to be a landmark in women’s rights cases in the country. It will give thousands of other women courage to seek justice, both from the voice of the Internet and the formal courts. In due time, perhaps as a result of this case going the way of truth, women will be believed in court too. In due time, maybe being a victim will no longer be a shameful thing for the victim, but for the society and the perpetrators.



Labeling a failing state is less helpful than fighting one

Indian actress, Swara Bhaskar, called Pakistan a “failing state” on an Indian talk show while promoting her film that was banned in Pakistan for nudity and obscenity. States cannot fail for banning films merely, they fail for something much more insidious – the policing of women, the control of their bodies and the impunity with which they harm their bodies and dignity. By these standards, Pakistan, of course, has a ghastly record – honor killings alone HRW says average 1,000 a year, while laws and their implementation remain weak.

India however, has no fork to stick in Pakistan’s eyes. Under no banner can it claim a better status or even slightly more moral high ground. When it comes to the status of women in South Asia generally, we are more similar than different. If India is better of in inclusion in the workplace, Pakistan is better off in rape data and if India is worse off in rituals like satti Pakistan is worse off in feudal areas where women are denied agency so land is kept among family men.

What strikes me as very deeply troubling is when an empowered woman from one part of “town” shames woman from another part when frankly, the shame is ours collectively. Birth geo-location is nothing to brag about. Rarely is a South Asian man non-toxic in his masculinity and rarely are South Asian states benevolent towards women – women are often avenues of avenging war men made to one-up other men. This India-Pakistan war rhetoric has cost women the most – lost sons, raped daughters, murdered husbands and stolen wealth – let the women themselves, at the least, cry halt on propagating jingoism.

50 Indian civil servants in India wrote in protest to what they thought was the Modi governments callous indifference to the rape of an 8-year old Kashmiri girl child: “In post-Independence India, this is our darkest hour and we find the response of our government, the leaders of our political parties inadequate and feeble.” In this girl’s brutal rape case, police, priests and local influential Hindus deliberately sent a message to the minority Muslim nomad community of Kathua in the district in Jammu. It was as much a hate crime as it was a rape.

This happened India’s holiest Hindu region nested within its only Muslim majority state. If women are treated with hate in India, take the infamous Delhi rape case of 2012, what then of intersectional or multi-disadvantaged women? Mere firewood. Society in this Indus belt wages war on women relentlessly. Patriarchy is to blame. When the state covers it up however, it is not patriarchy – it is a crime against humanity. The Modi government was complacent in hiding the details of how this child was abducted for days, drugged, gang-raped in a temple, murdered with a blunt stone and thrown in a bush.

As the lawyer for the victim, lawyer Deepika Singh Rawat documents this cover-up, she faces death threats and extreme harassment from state and bigoted society. Relentless in her fight against this crime against a vulnerable representation of society, Deepika is what we need so desperately. I wonder also what her answer would be if she was asked to give an example of a failing state.

Feminism is the Deepika Singh Rawat kind of feminism – it is revolutionary. It doesn’t beg for dog treats in exchange for playing dead. It doesn’t ask for concessions – it shows the proverbial high-heeled shoe to the world’s most militarized zone – 700,000 armed and paramilitary forces in Jammu placed by India. Her feminism doesn’t look at her birth religion, geolocation or her caste and hurl stones at those who “other” her. These are the secular values both countries have lost and hurled onto the harbingers of corrupt religious right forces. The difference: one has a label of secular, the other doesn’t.

Merely rebranding feminism – fun films were women have amazing choices – this is not what the radical feminists set out to do. Rebranding women’s rights to make it soft and unthreatening enough for the more popular public to take it on will not protect young minority women from being harmed. It will just expand the cult of feminism.

In Basharat Peer’s book, Curfewed Night, he describes how mothers in Kashmir who’ve lost over 10,000 sons in the last decade alone to ‘martyr graves’ set the dinner table for their missing sons as well. They serve food in the plate reserved for them. Each night after dinner they throw the untouched food away. This tradition is their protest against the state’s attempt to make Kashmir forget its sons – many under the age of 20.

Human Rights Watch states in a report on rape investigations: Central and state authorities have done little to stop the widespread practice of rape by Indian security forces in Kashmir. Indeed, when confronted with the evidence of rape, time and again the authorities have attempted to impugn the integrity of the witnesses. Armed Forces Special Powers Act makes Jammu and Kashmir a safe haven for perpetrators of injustice.

Women’s solidarity networks cannot work when there is a shaming contest based on nationalism. States, both India, and Pakistan are terribly complacent when it comes to protecting women. Making films about how women can gain empowerment by choosing what they want is all brilliant and even admirable, but truly speaking truth to power, in the midst of the war is what makes women heroic. The lead role of Deepika Singh Rawat is what more women need to play on both sides of town, off the screen and on.

Labor day is about that cup of tea

When most working women in Pakistan return home from a long often-humiliating workday, the first thing they do is make tea. They serve it eagerly. Just the right color and texture, otherwise it could be splattered across a wall by an angry father, brother or husband. With a smile – wiping away any strains of tiredness because they are making a pitch for permission to work, almost every day. The tea is a symbol of their subservience and their domesticity – Let us work and we won’t falter on our requirement to serve. As a result, they are workhorses, both at home and at the office or factory. Falling short sometimes at both. Throw in a child, a bad marriage or an elderly parent that’s ill and everything is out of whack, but only for the working woman.

Female labor force participation in Pakistan is at 25% according to ADB’s latest data. This is well below rates for countries with similar income levels. This is also well below rates for many Muslim countries. So the social stigma against women who work that is prevalent in Pakistan cannot only be sourced from religious conservatism. Neither is education the only barrier, although it is a significant one. Only 25% of women with a university degree in Pakistan are working. The rest choose, for lack of a better expression – to marinate in the leisure of patriarchy. Standing up to it requires a gargantuan death wish and preferably motorized weaponry.

Experts that study female workforce say that lack of mobility is one of the main reasons women don’t work even when their male guardians allow them to and even when they need to, thanks to gruesome economics. Crime, violence and rampant sexual harassment on the streets are a deterrent to even begin a job search. Only 10% of women on public transportation across Pakistan are spared the routine, grope and shove and squeeze by conductors and passengers, 90% are not. Aurat Foundation found that it is even more rampant than it is reported. When bodily integrity isn’t harmed, women on public transport are ogled at and made to feel psychologically uncomfortable. Women are made to hide in the corners when they step into public space – regardless of how they dress.

Lately, Pakistan has been celebrating the rise of Sima Kamil who was appointed the President and CEO of a major commercial bank called UBL. There have been others too, Alfalah GHP Investment Management, First Women Bank, L’Oreal, Unilever Pakistan have all chosen women to lead their organizations into commercial growth. Sima Kamil made her rise not just as a woman who survived in a male-dominated industry, but also as one who had intersectionalism. As a non-Muslim, Sima faced what we term as double discrimination and disadvantage. The fact that she made it at the top defies status quo and also drives in the point that when women in Pakistan to make it a point to play the game, they often beat their male peers.

What remains tragic is that our economic policies and social policies do not reflect the disadvantages of women who have a double or even multi-pronged disadvantage – being way below the poverty line, being from a minority religious or ethnic community and also being a woman.

One of the largest employers of women with these intersectionalities is the municipalities where for instance, women sweep streets and clean parks. It would make a tremendous difference if they were the focus of inclusion campaigns – financial inclusion campaigns especially, campaigns to digitally empower them, to economically encourage them to the bank and then save, to get them to understand basic skills to expand their income portfolio and also to perhaps give them better health safeguards. These women are exposed to dust and smoke constantly.

More than 74 percent of the labor workforce in Pakistan is engaged in the informal sector according to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics. Out of this number domestic workers are the biggest chunk. Most of these women start off as children. It is difficult to find a story where these women have not been sexually harassed, physically beaten for minor mistakes or even denied fair wages. This is the most unregulated and undocumented part of the workforce.

Pakistan cannot turn around its economy without reducing the onslaught of violence women face – 9 in 10 women according to Thomson Reuters Foundation. The economic cost of this violence cannot be calculated accurately, but it is safe to say this country would be perhaps an economic giant by now had we treated women more like intellectual assets rather than wet wipes.

The turnaround is somewhat attempted. Punjab has Violence Against Women Centers, there are updated and stronger harassment in the workplace laws for women and there is also the occasional bone thrown to them in politics.

It’s not enough. What needs to happen is the change in mentality that gets a woman to come back from work, kick off her shoes, sit on a sofa and have tea served to her instead. That proverbial cup of tea must be brought to her for respect, for comfort and also, for an apology.