Women’s status in Muslim societies creates a pulviscular cloud of religious discourse that surrounds it, but always results in shaking off the dusty image of an emancipated woman as a model. It is no surprise that Pakistan is making its women suffer so insidiously for being women. Let us look at some recent examples from Pakistan, many of which have been devoted entire columns.
Pakistan’s Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) recently recommended child marriages. With the recent uproar in the UK over its youngest mother of 12, Pakistan probably has many of such cases, just unreported. According to the Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey (2007), 50 percent of women (between 15 and 29 years) were married at the age of 20 and around seven percent become mothers at 15. Pakistan cruises at the bottom of most country rankings in terms of both maternal mortality and infant mortality. The CII’s recommendation on child marriages is a death sentence and nothing less.
Women nurses in mid-March of this year were severely baton charged and beaten by the Punjab police while they protested against the unfair termination of their colleagues. These women were unarmed and protesting peacefully. The entire episode was dismissed without as much as a slap on the wrist for those who perpetrated the violence against innocent women exercising their constitutional rights.
Our national hero and cricketer decided that women who are playing cricket ought to be using their hands to cook in the kitchen and serve men food instead. Granted that misogyny is not punishable, but to think it is celebrated enough to be broadcast can only be tragic. It is also very telling of how acceptable this stereotyping and confining of women is. No heads turned, no corporate advertising contracts were pulled from this national hero who wants to culinary away with 50 percent of the country’s workforce.
A rape victim from Muzaffargarh set herself on fire and succumbed to her injuries when she was denied justice. The 18-year-old was returning home from college when she was raped by a man who was later released on bail. According to Human Rights Watch there is a rape every two hours and a gang rape every eight in Pakistan. Justice is almost never served, often the victim is accused.
Pakistan ought to look up to another Muslim democracy in this regard. Turkey is a close cultural role model. Although it has significantly better economic indicators, the issues women face are less horrific, but the indication is that the overall situation is becoming grimmer in these few years. Also like Pakistan, Turkey has high numbers of child brides: 7,000 girls, ages 13 and 17, in just the past 10 years. In 2012, only about a third of women in Turkey had jobs. This is less than half the average in the European Union they so desperately want to join. Even though there are reports of women’s political participation on the rise, in 2013, in terms of gender gaps in health, politics and education, Turkey was rated 120 out of 136 countries by the World Economic Forum.
The reasons for cultural conservatism shrouded in misogyny, justified by narrow interpretations of religious text, are many. Some historical, others economic. They are all worthy of fighting against for the world needs equality and balance. There is however one reason that should not just be fought against, it should be annihilated with the force one uses against a mortal enemy: internalised misogyny that women themselves have inculcated over the years bred by the notion that men are indeed superior to them.
Take for example the recent comments by Farzana Yaqoob, minister for social welfare and women’s development in Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK). Talking to the media on women’s empowerment, she said that women must strive for progress by following the religious and cultural values of her forefathers, and in this way “nobody will create hurdles in her way”. In case Ms Yaqoob did not notice, and probably she did not because she was born into privilege, these cultural values have not been working out for many women in Pakistan. Also, a memo needs to go out to our esteemed minister on the importance of women asserting themselves on their own terms and not on the terms of the status quo. There is no glory in that and no courage, there is only playing to the side with power, which is what everyone is doing and everyone has done. What is important is that we assert ourselves not just to represent today, but to represent tomorrow.
No one could have put it more aptly than Alys Faiz who said in 1953 in her letter to Pakistan’s foremost poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz: “Coming through unscathed for women in this country is simply impossible — they have little to grip onto — they leave it to others to drag them through. Women of Muslim democratic countries need to stop depending on others to do the asserting for them, or to hang on to the walking stick of traditionalism.”