Published in Daily Times on August 2nd 2012
Feminism ought to be a verb — to act out the notion that women are equal to men in their status, abilities and virtues. It is not a stagnant ideology that merely observes oppression and outright terror mounted against women and it is certainly not a belief that somehow everything will be rectified by sole and exclusive power for women. No reform of society can happen without making alliances with women from all walks of life and then even more importantly, men.
The recent attack on a woman in Guwahati, India, where a gang of 18 men molested and abused her was horrific, particularly because a 20-minute footage was filmed to make the crime look more sexualised and also because it was in a public place where no one came to her rescue. This showed the extent of a society’s warped thinking that a woman who is in that situation deserves to be in it, because she was asking for it. This is a common sentiment in India as well as Pakistan. In a sensitively handled episode, Amir Khan in Satyamev Jayate on ‘domestic violence’, presented a report on the views of half a dozen men on why they beat their wives and most of them said that it was just the obvious thing to do after a tired day from work.
We in Pakistan can relate. According to a survey conducted by the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences, over 90 percent of married Pakistani women face physical abuse. The only difference is that our talk show hosts would rather talk about petty politics and regurgitate the ghairat narrative, anti-Americanism and other assorted ‘sexy’ issues. The South Asian mentality is the same when it comes to viewing women as objects of scorn and mistrust. Women in India however have taken to the streets to demand more attention on eve teasing and attacks. In cities like Jaipur, they have organised classes for self-defence. Women in Pakistan have a long way to go in mounting a defence against this terrible butchery of the soul of society.
In Lahore, a police officer murdered his sister for wearing jeans, which he thought was a sign of western decadence. Adding to our regular burden of South Asian customs, these fallacy-ridden fantasies of selective morality spring out of a misreading of the religion of the majority in Pakistan, reinforced by televangelists who dedicate a disproportionately large part of their shows to the subject of how women can be morally policed, controlled and made to behave in a manner most acceptable to the male ego. They essentially turn women into mute objects in their jealously guarded patriarchal social edifice. Ultimately, these men assume they have a God-ordained right to lord over women to extract obedience from them and to control them.
The only path for women’s empowerment lies though financial empowerment of women at all levels of society. One way is though microfinance. Nick Kristoff of The New York Times has written extensively on how women in Pakistan and other places have radically altered their status within their family structures as a consequence of these small loans, which they successfully pay off through grassroots entrepreneurship. A ray of hope for this social transformation is the Kashf Foundation founded by Roshaneh Zafar. Kashf Foundation has helped thousands of marginalised people and has empowered many women to pursue their dreams. Moreover, women are 40 percent more likely to spend money on food and education than men are. Ms Zafar says, “If you want to change the world, you need market-based solutions.”
Another way is through joining forces with organisations such as the International Federation of Business and Professional Women (BPW). In addition to creating synergies for professional women, this organisation works towards getting CEOs to sign off on Women Empowerment Principles where they commit to equal pay and equal representation in their business organisations. The BPW also networks supply chain solutions for women to get easy access to international markets for their goods and services. A local chapter of the organisation is active and has done tremendously well in highlighting the unique causes of businesswomen to its president, Freda Mirikilis, who visited Pakistan as well.
Research after research suggests that societies progress only when their human resources are balanced and both genders are empowered but now there is also a business case for equality. At the heart of the malaise that affects progress in South Asia is the disrespect and inequality for women in the work force.
Women alone cannot do reform. You need an enlightened national political and business leadership. Jinnah spoke empathically about the need for women to be equal, and made it a point to stand with his sister, Fatima Jinnah, at every political juncture. He was leading by example to tell men to let women, who had been caged because they were their mothers, sisters and daughters, go out in the world and make something of themselves. Men are a key counter-party in bringing real change because they have the ability to use their current social power and status to undo centuries-old discrimination against women. Women need to be free, free to move, free to express themselves though their outfits, with or without covering their heads. They need to be free to get an education, work and support themselves so their ultimate protection remains in their own hands.