The province in the lead for women’s empowerment

Divulging in to the state of affairs for women in Pakistan is an unsettling activity. Currently ranked at 143rd in the Gender Gap index among 144 countries, Pakistan is among the worst countries to live a life as a woman. Conditions here are worse than in Syria at 142 and slightly better than Yemen at 144. Both these countries are at the epicentre of a global war against terror. It is an unfortunate fact for which the government is culpable and faces regular scrutiny. As we approach this international women’s day, introspection is even more necessary.

International women’s day was commemorated in the memory of 129 working women in 1908 who lost their lives in a factory while protesting for flexible working hours; equal pay and the right to vote. In 2017 our women are still fighting for those rights. I feel the reason we have strayed is because we have not put in an onus where it needs to be — with the government. While I’ve often used this space to take down inaction, it is also important to acknowledge when governments do step up and make women’s rights a priority — albeit after a push from the conscientious civil society.

Despite the prevalence of gravest circumstances with regard to privileges and freedoms women enjoy in Pakistan, there is a strong commitment of the government, both at federal and provincial levels, to empower Pakistani women. The prioritisation of women-friendly legislation at all levels indicates the general will of both the public and the government to address women’s issues. At the least the compass is being fixed.

The best way to go about evaluating government action is to identify and characterise the policy tools employed to address the problem. Categorisation of these policy tools into key dimensions guides the progression of our current analysis. First, what is the nature of activity the government is currently engaged in to address the problem. Then, what is the structure of the delivery system being employed? Then, how centralised is this system? Lastly, does the program require detailed administrative action?

While there is a protest regarding the inactivity of the government to address women issues, particularly at the provincial level, the Government of Punjab has seemingly brought a renewed focus on the subject. They have delved right to a core issue and have come up with notable policy initiatives to empower women in the form of legal protections; outright grants; penalties for violators of women’s rights and provision of key services for their health, education and mobility.

With the creation of a dedicated Women Development Department (WDD) the Government, of Punjab has established a sound institutional mechanism to transform its policies towards gender mainstreaming and equality. A model that ought to be adopted by others.

To tackle the issue of much needed legal protection for women, various amendments and legislations have been signed into law in Punjab. These protections cover the contentious issue of women’s right to inheritance; the issue of harassment at the workplace; child marriages and crimes against women, which include but are not limited to acid burning.

Money disbursements to women contribute in improving the condition of economically disadvantaged women. With the establishment of the Punjab Working Women Endowment Fund Society there is a provision of financial assistance to working women, especially those residing in hostels. This economically strengthens the women who face the worst of orthodoxy, patriarchy and pseudo-religious fanaticism on a daily basis. These contributions though meagre in their value provide a much welcome economic cushion to these women who compete with men in a very hostile environment.

Via this department, the province has made contributions for the provision of services needed to ensure women empowerment. Take for instance the 16 working women hostels that were operationalised to address the concerns of outstation working women in major cities. To address factors that restrict women from active participation in the economic activities the initiative to provide day-care services for working mothers has been launched. With 61 operational day care centres at various public and private sector institutions there is a phenomenal change in the lives of working mothers in Punjab. We are told, 14 more day cares are in the pipeline. Punjab needs thrice that number and more, but it is, at least, a start.

To address violence and litigation issues the Government of the Punjab is establishing Violence against Women (VAW) Centres in Punjab to protect women from physical, economic, and psychological violence. Along with providing VAW centres a dedicated helpline has been established to support women accessing justice and litigation support. More data needs to come in to see if there truly is a follow through.

There is no denying the fact that a lot needs to be done for equality and empowerment of women in Punjab particularly in the areas of poverty alleviation, universal primary education reduction of child mortality, improvement of maternal health, elimination of gender-based violence, mainstreaming of gender perspective in policies and programmes, enhancing training opportunities for women and girls and increasing the participation of women in leadership and decision-making.

It is critical that we garner public support behind government initiatives to improve women’s rights, not to merely trumpet them, but give real support because the development sector can only go so far. Also real on-ground change will come when the government itself realises its mandate towards women and works within its existing infrastructure and system to provide for them.

Anti-Harassment Ombudsperson Unappointed KP

I was in a hotel in Islamabad invited by a friend whose friend had a farewell. It was Ramzan of last year. We were opening our fasts at the sit-down dinner so I chatted to the person next to me who turned out to be a sitting minister of an important development field in K-P. Glad to be in the company of someone who was a decision-maker of a key province, I brought up women, how could I not — how well they are doing there; why you don’t see them on the streets when I recently visited Peshawar; why that is an indication of what agency they hold in all other realms of decision-making and what role they have in the electoral process. After my passionate questions and mini monologue, I realised I was being sort of ridiculed by the men on the round table. All I did was ask for his thoughts — why were they finding it amusing instead of feeling an acute sense of responsibility.

It took me a while to figure out that the minister and his cronies, who also happened to be his relatives, and also interestingly, happened to hold high positions in the K-P government, were openly mocking me and sharing familiar glances, arched eyebrows and all. When I probed, the sitting minister’s cousin said and I paraphrase: These “NGO women” know nothing about the realities of our culture. All they do is sit in five-star hotels and theorise. I’ll tell you a story. A similar woman came to my office to talk about women’s rights and such, I made her eat her words, and I told her: “you need to have a broom handed to you and you also need your tongue cut off. That is your place. Don’t forget that.”

Laughter from them. Out of sheer shock, I smile. Half confused, half eating dust.

A heated argument ensued. Others chipped in. We were told that we need to watch it because we are talking to ministers, not servants. To which we reminded them, they are actually servants to the people they are under contract to protect and to be answerable to. Not running a monarchy. After much ado, we left with the first five minutes of the conversation that went going south at the speed of breeding rabbits. Like all other aggressions, this one too was buried away. What could be done? A few tweets of outrage and then what — some more silence?

Until now, when I learned that there is a petition filed by an NGO person, God bless, Khurseed Bano who runs an aptly named organisation called Da Hawwa Lur (Daughter of Eve). The Peshawar High Court has issued a notice to the K-P Government after his petition, to immediately appoint a suitable person to the position of the anti harassment ombudsperson. This position has remained vacant in K-P for years even when the Protection Against Harassment of Women in the Workplace Act enacted in 2010 stipulates that this is to be done as a priority.

Sindh and Punjab understood that this was imperative. They appointed people to the post. The petition stated that the refusal to appoint someone to this position only spells out an “ulterior motive” on K-P’s part.

K-P’s government, right from its head honchos down to its staff seemingly want to either stay secure in their privilege by keeping women indoors, hidden from public space and civic engagement or certainly modified to have no voice. It’s terribly inconvenient if the status quo is changed. This petition, for instance, is terribly inconvenient.

K-P is abuzz with harassment complaints from women at hospitals, government institutions, and particularly at its universities. Take the University of Peshawar and the Khyber Medical College for instance and track only the harassment cases that make it to the news alone. It’s appalling. A travesty. The way these cases have been patched up is even more unbelievably — completely bereft of due process and justice for the women who dared to come forward. Currently there is no mechanism to address a grievance against men who choose to abuse their power even despite the milestone act protecting women from harassment. What good will acts do if there is zero political will to work towards an equality of all genders.

The women of K-P with the exception of several power-houses who break barriers, have been largely disenfranchised and remained a quietly whimpering group. Maternal mortality; lack of women in the workforce; nutrition deficiencies of the girl child; lack of education opportunities; domestic violence; non-financial inclusion and mobility restrictions are all definitive attributes of most households.

The requirements stipulated in the hiring of the anti-harassment ombudsperson have now been further eased. Now the requirements are loosely defined to include “any woman with 10 years of experience in matters relating to the protection of women against harassment.”

I am sure if you ask the K-P government why they couldn’t find a single woman in the entire province to take that position on all these years, they’ll say because she held a pen instead of a broom and had a sharp tongue instead of a spongy noiseless one. These ombudsperson positions can be lethal to a misogynist government. It is time to ask the K-P government to now finally obey the court order and start the interviewing process and get the person who can expose them for what they are.

Women Harassment App

A woman in Bengaluru, India was walking home one night when she entered a secluded street. Two men on motorbikes turned onto the street. One got off and grabbed her, molested her and then both of them attempted to carry her off. When she resisted, they threw her on the ground with a menacing thud and rode off. All this was caught on CCTV. Then there was the new year’s event in Banglore, India where there was mass groping of women.

Feminism in India’s Japleen Pasricha began a criticism of the Twitter hashtag #NotAllMen that began as a response to claim that not all men are harassers, gropers and rapists. The biggest criticism being that it was neither the time nor the place for men to try and hijack the narrative of women’s outcry over the harassment. We know not all men are criminals and perverts but perhaps remind us of this when there is a lull on the continuous onslaught of offences against women. #YesAllWomen face harassment.

The reason I mention what is going on in India is because it is extremely pertinent to our context here. It is a veritably South Asian mentality to think women who are isolated and unprotected are fair game. That the onus is on them to fend for their security when they are out solo. That somehow it will be too tempting for men to devour her as if she were prey and they were the hunter and that this was a jungle and not a city. That somehow women are sugar and men are ants. As ludicrous as the latter sounds, this was actually uttered in Indian national TV by Abu Azmi of Mumbai, the state leader of a political party. He mirrors only the absurdities our very own politicians and common people mouth on a daily basis.

The Punjab Government has made a smartphone app for women who face a ghastly situation like that women in Bengaluru. This app has the functionality to not only mark safe and unsafe places for women but it actually is linked to a first response law enforcement team that would show up in times like this with the press of a panic button. Instead of lauding this effort, Pakistan’s religious right are calling it unislamic. They say it is in conflict with the Muslim holy book and the constitution based on Islamic principles. What they are essentially claiming is that an attack like the one in Bengaluru should be dealt with silence, inaction and passive observation. Sadly, there are actually many takers of this insanity. What is even sadder is that the mighty women of Islam fought wars and led merchandise caravans on their own, and yet the so-called custodians of our religion want women to be unlike women in Islam’s history.

As spectacular as technology is in providing women safety in public spaces and allowing them to reclaim it, it can also be a bit limiting. Smartphone penetration in Pakistan is amongst the highest in the world, but when you look at the gender breakdown, women own less smart phones than they aught to. This app does leave behind a more rural spread granted, but it is also important to note that it is in the urban landscape where most of the harassment actually takes place. The everyday kind of harassment particularly – the groping, the pinching, the lewd comments and the threats of rape. Perhaps an SMS integrated panic mechanism for women who are non-smart phone users will be a better addition in phase two of this project.

The government is in the best position to put such a mechanism in place because it integrates three essential aspects for this app to be effective – the Police Integrated Command Control and Communication (PPIC3); the geo location and the invaluable data that is being collected on the helpline that is dialed into. Over the years it will help the government zero in on the problem public spaces and transform them into areas where women can be mobile without worrying that they will be assaulted. With women like Fauzia Viqar at the helm of this initiative it seems likely.

By making this app, the Punjab Government has signalled to the ants of the province that women may be sugar but they are not your sugar, they are their own sugar and there is a social contract between them and the government to have and hold them in protection. I see that with this app we can stop equating women to things and prey and equate them to human beings who deserve to thrive in harassment-free environments.

My guess is that many times the app’s panic buttons will be activated against women’s own families and acquaintances – that is where the bulk of abuse takes place. Hopefully the app’s response team is adequately trained to not brush these calls as domestic disturbances and private matters. Technology only goes so far. The mindset is the real challenge in South Asia. Punjab has taken a lead.

The black goat and the black plague

Our national carrier brought a goat to the airport and slaughtered it next to the ATR due to fly to Multan to ward off evil spirits. The sacrificial black goat’s blood drained on the tarmac, behind it, the wheel of the carrier. This is not an Onion piece. PIA did in reality bring a “foreign object debris” (FOD) in the active areas of aircraft. This is clearly prohibited by Federal Aviation Administration rules. An FOD is “any object, live or not, located in an inappropriate location in the airport environment.” Some smart Alec at PIA decided to call in the press to document the colossal shame as well. Splendid.

Frightening — not the evil sprits that down our ATRs like the recent PK661, but the fact that we choose to use this method to carry out safety procedures. It is not as frightening as the negation of Science that we indulge in as a nation. This single act has made a mockery out of Pakistan in the aviation world. Furthermore, it has identified how utterly pseudo-scientific our notions are. It is the cusp of 2017.

In the 1900s, Karl Popper observed keenly how Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein conducted Science and came up with a keen and profound differentiation between what made Science Science, and what made it child’s play. In his observations Einstein used data to predict the future, whereas Freud sought current scenarios and hypothesized about the past.

He identified that real Science was all about walking into the thought lab with your mind open — open to your notions, your hunches and your theories being disproved. Being certain closes your mind. Therefore it was clear that irrefutable theories are not Scientific. Blind faith comes in this category. Three things make Scientifict heories scientific: that they are testable, refutable and falsifiable.

Let us talk about the last factor. It takes one plane in the history of aviation to have crashed after the slaughter of a black goat, to disprove that the slaughter prevents a crash. If our aviation industry is so sure about the Science behind the slaughter, they must be because flying a machine is science, then it must first seek contradictory evidence of its ritualistic sacrifice.

It does not. Why? Perhaps because we are a country stuck-choked between the future and the past; between Science and Pseudoscience and we think we can have the best of both worlds. The reality is that you end up having the worst of both worlds.

Animal sacrifice has roots in charity, in giving and in community which encouraged tribes to thrive and prosper. This was way back when the Aztecs used to put food at the altar. Today people are walking about with bionic arms and legs. Charity, thanks to Science is on turbo.

We have corrupted both our ancient traditions and soiled our understanding of Science and progress. There is a place for both, in separate realms — the deeply spiritual and then the real — but no place for it combined — unless you want the PIA-Goat meme. The tastelessness, the vulgarity, the cheap display of piety and the utter disregard of international rules — it is an abomination. International airlines already cancelled their tours to Pakistan because of security concerns and now we are giving them insanity as an additional reason to keep away. Who suffers ultimately? Our people, our industry, our economy and the bottom 50 per cent.

How many of us are willing to give up our notions after they are disproved? Not many. This is the generation we are bringing up — fed on folklore and wishful thinking. No surprise then that the particle physicists are being produced in the countries whose belief systems didn’t come in the way of Science — India; Israel; the Nordic countries and US among others.

We are being left behind. We are seeking ways to confirm our mere hunches. Until we stop doing that and adopt the scientific method to our knowledge body we will continue to be left behind. It may be too late for us. Save our children. Don’t let them grow up thinking a plane flew fault-free because of animal sacrifice. This is more dangerous for the country than the black plague.

Thin link between load shedding and divorce

Cooking is not a moral act. In fact it is the least bit fun when it is mandatory. Therefore, the fact that women in Pakistan are presumptuously handed this task is an abomination. No one likes to stare at a sink full of dirty dishes or blow at the firewood to light the clay stove. Women collectively spend more time doing this than working on building the next big disruptive technology or work on a craft that makes them upwardly mobile. Even in offices, women end up doing what we term as office housekeeping: cutting the office birthday cake, ordering pizza for the boss’s promotion party or taking on tasks none of the men in the office want.

Back at the house regardless of how much they toil in the fields or write thankless minutes of meetings, they roll up their sleeves in the evening and get to the housework, especially the cooking. For crying out loud, let us sap the morality out of simmering the vegetables and stirring the haleem. There is nothing caregiving about it, except that it doles out calories to first the men in the house and then the male children, then the female and lastly the women, in this order — calories that can be gotten elsewhere, without breaking women’s backs. 

It’s the 21st century: it’s the era of specialisation. It is the era of letting people, including women, find their calling.

This is why it was very excruciating, pelvic exam excruciating, to hear a large political party’s MNA Tahira Aurangzeb debate that gas load-shedding in the country is leading to more divorces. First, as an MNA, do feel free to find out the context of the developing world energy crisis and then advocate for better solutions. Secondly, spare women from the burden of serving food to men when they demand it. Third, please understand that divorce is not a boogeyman. To the contrary it is recommended that women leave men who smash plates on walls when they are hungry and dinner is not served.

The gas load-shedding problem deserves a solution because it thwarts economic progress, not because the wife beaters nationwide find new excuses to put their souses through new and improved torture.

I find it ludicrous that such arguments are presented at the National Assembly. That somehow women’s inadequacy (in the one thing they are measured up against) will be used as a weapon to change what is a resource problem with the state’s service delivery to its citizens.

This is indicative of how traditionalism grips us even at our apex bodies. It infests even women themselves and sadly women themselves perpetuate it when they have khansamas for their own personal needs. Even when it is 2016 and women are perfecting the string theory elsewhere.

Women will be behind the stove for a while in Pakistan, some even do it as their mode of flow and joy. Sometimes the men help them out. The fact of the matter is that women should not be pigeon-holed into the role of the cook, the server and the cleaner. This is extremely dangerous to both their mental health and the well being of the family as a unit.

Also, this statement tends to give liberty to the aggravated state men find themselves in when the food is undercooked, tasteless and late to be delivered to their famished selves. It is never ok to blame a woman because for whatever reason the food is not up to par. 

Cooking is a gracious act of love, not of duty. It ought to be treated as such. With the dignity it deserves. It deserves community, not tasters and raters.

Yet the argument appears to suggest this — fix load-shedding or our sacred family system will fail us. The same one that infantilises grown men and oppresses women until they are right about the ripe age and close to death, then they are deified.

There ought to be more responsible arguments made at the National Assembly. At the least they shouldn’t stereotype or delegitimise women’s versatility. This argument right here is so full of gas.

The UN Women #BeatMe campaign

The UN Women Pakistan have done something laudable. They have launched a campaign against violence against women by naming the devil and spelling out that men beat women, pretty often and pretty viciously. When the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), a body better left to measure the length of mowed grass, declared that lightly beating women should be permitted in the new pro-women legislation that is coming out of our national and provincial bodies, then this campaign becomes all the more important. The #BeatMe video, viewed thousands of times, has celebrity women from all fields challenging men to beat them at their game — scaling Everest, singing chart toppers, outdoing political commentary and having babies. Again, significant because it reminds everyone what women are capable of, how versatile they are and how they cannot be put in a box.

That was the intention. However, in a way, unwittingly perhaps, they did put women in a box. They did convey the message that women are strong and powerful and influential and therefore, cannot be beaten. Yet the data shows that there is no correlation between power and violence against women. Women who sit at boards have been beaten by men; women who have run countries have been beaten; women who are construction workers have been beaten; women who are butchers have been beaten and women who have rejected suitors and publicly shamed them have been killed. Like the young teacher in Muree, Maria Sadaqat who was burned this year by a mob because she said no to a man.

There is zero protection that power and influence gives women from being beaten. The truth lies elsewhere. Truth is that it is the social subtext that makes all women appear as a monolith to all-powerful men. That social subtext about women always being subservient no matter what, will be changed when enough men are punished for wronging a woman and that is not happening. Dragging a man to court for beating a woman is worse than trying to dig a water well with a toothpick. It’s not even worth attempting. The law and justice system of the country is so tipped towards the aggressor that they know beyond a doubt that they will get away with it.

A successful campaign, a more successful campaign would be to deter men. Neither does a women’s subservience deter him nor does her power. A man cut out to be violent towards women will always have that disposition because well, it’s easy; he feels vindicated afterwards when he gets away with it and it’s such a power kick when the woman scrambles around concealing her bruises because society shames her before it shames him. There will be enough men (and women) to put her down for failing to be likeable than it will guilt him for being a savage. After the anti-women violence legislation was passed, that sub-text seemed to change albeit by a few millimetres. The buzz was: don’t break anything when you beat women, there are laws now.

With that generational inertia of misogyny powerfully charging towards the annihilation of women, the #BeatMe campaign leaves behind women who are frail, who haven’t won any medals, collected any accolades, or firewood or wins in the contemporary sense. It also could do well to represent the woman who is the actual force against patriarchy: the regular working women, the 9-5 woman, the receptionist, the nurse, the data entry person or the house maid.

Women don’t deserve to be beaten. Period. Their strength can sometimes be counterproductive in the current hostile environment. It gives the wife beater extra brownie points amongst his peers for putting a more prized one under his thumb. It is a woman’s vulnerability that makes her strong. As does her obscurity. As does her ability or inkling not to bear children. All women are strong.

You’ll be scarred for life if you #BeatMe — A more effective message in my humble opinion.

Then put those development funds in bringing perpetrators to justice. When enough men are behind bars for what the CII approves of, that’s when men with not #BeatMe.

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