Aisha Sarwari in Newsweek Pakistan


Giving women more of a choice in the matter could help, argues Aisha Sarwari, a feminist activist who has previously written on population and women’s rights. “Access to birth control for women can be a game changer,” she told AFP. “Ultimately the impact is that there are more resources to go around … Empowered women have fewer children, and this creates a mindset that leads to prosperity within families that is likely to be emulated across communities.”

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Revenge rapes need to be punished harshly

A 400-year-old panchayat system is meant to protect only men. Men alone reap benefits from this system that operate out of the formal legal system of Pakistan. This is a system that proliferates male privilege. The same system made up of all-male village or tribe elders who make it up the ranks by their wife beating, philandering and social equity credentials often decides what calamity befalls women of this country. A particularly putrid one in Multan district decreed that a 16-year-old girl child is to be raped as a punishment for the rape her brother carried out.

This 16 year old’s brother had earlier raped a 12-year-old girl while she was cutting grass in the field. Justice under the panchayat system is based on a creed that commodifies and undermines women’s human dignity. It is based on a system that takes women’s consent away from them and places it securely in the hands of these tribal elders. It punishes men who transgress by punishing their women. “Their” is the operative word. Women belong. Men own. Women are subservient. Men dominate. Women are victimized. Men victimize. Women have to be the honor of the man. A man can be dishonorable and have no harm fall on his own self. There is impunity for transgressions against women.

It is a brilliant system that works to ensure that men fester, prosper and thrive. Where women are shut down hard after they whimper.

This time around though, the women did whimper a bit harder. Some noise was made because there was now a mechanism of noise. There was a Violence Against Women Center in Multan where the families of both these young raped girls registered an FIR. They had a grievance. The right to have a grievance was taken away from women before, and now under a new law, this is given back to women.

Revenge rape should technically mean that the man who raped a mere child should have been raped himself. In a misogynist culture like ours it means his sister, also a minor gets raped.

This tells us that for the panchayat it is a more cruel punishment to the rapist to see his sister raped. Therefore, having your sister, so called dishonored, is worse than your own death.

The idea that women hold their own choices and reputation in their own hands is an alien concept. This is why when the panchayat was grudged for doing what they did they were flabbergasted and unaware of where they had gone wrong. It is how it is always done: this was their defense. They knew no alternate universe because a woman is either a mother or a whore, with heaven at her feet or a fallen woman unworthy of a pulse. The space between these two extremes is unimaginable for these men.

There were reports suggesting that it was the women who implored the Panchayats to decree that the rapist’s sister is raped by a mass of men. This is painfully troubling on so many levels, if true. Women have been brought down over eons to a place where there is zero sympathy for their collective rights. They have been brought to a point of low self-esteem that they defer to the male code to function. They have outsourced their agency to the men, to their husbands, sons and fathers and to the panchayat.

How do we unlearn this subjugation? How do we hold up our sense of womanhood and call a violation a violation? How do we recognize that we have a contract with the state and a crime against us is a crime against the state?

The Violence Against Women centers are a start. This is where these two girls are now sheltered. This is where the Chief Minister of Punjab may visit them. This is where they may receive justice. This is where they will find out that all perpetrators of this crime, including members of the panchayat will face up to 25 years of imprisonment or even a death sentence.

Will this be revenge to the rapes of these two girl children? Probably not enough to restore them to their original state psychologically, but it will be a start to send a sure message to this marred country that women are not property, they are equals to men.

This is a revolutionary idea for now – One that Panchayats will have to die to find out.



Careem’s rishta aunty reinforces patriarchy

The rishta aunty is the biggest omen of patriarchy. She reinforces the segregation of sexes and takes the agency of young women into her own hands by choosing who young women will spend the rest of their lives with. Probably pushed to the sidelines of society all their youth that have a lot of retributive feelings towards the world, which they then take out on young women who remind them of their lost youth. Their entire lives the biggest decisions they could make was to buy their choice dishwashing soap after many failed attempts, or to choose when to stop co-sleeping with their teenage sons. Therefore this power over other young women is like their crack cocaine – giving them a rush of a lifetime.

They love watching a young suitable girl meekly walk into the rishta room with a trey of tea and pastries that she herself made for the judgment and ridicule. They love scanning a young woman like a lioness watches grazing deers in the Serengeti. They love asking a young woman probing questions like a forensic doctor cuts open a cadaver in a mortuary. They love picking on flaws of these young women – too talkative, too short, too dark, too nervous, too uneducated, too educated, too dull or too intelligent. There is so much subjectivity at play that young girls don’t understand what they did wrong to be rejected by a suitor who also goes though the same intermediary rishta aunty.

If rishta aunties were anything to write home about, or were even matchmaking fairly decently, there wouldn’t be these many episodes of stove burning, acid burning, domestic violence and harassment that women face across Pakistan regardless of any factor and there certainly wouldn’t be these many women in need of philological attention.

Instead of extinguishing the rishta aunty culture, the corportaes want to establish it. Careem, the Uber ride-sharing app of Pakistan, has now introduced a rishta aunty sharing option while you ride. It is ingenious as a marketing strategy, but only if you care about men, for whom the rishta aunties provide a way of checking a social equity box. The men for whom the world’s other wonders are open nonetheless, rishta aunty or no rishta aunty, marriage or no marriage. This service is an abomination to all women, not just independent and free-thinking women.

Women are rarely given any choices. The one choice to marry the person they are compatible with is only an urban and upper middle class phenomenon that leaves out majority of Pakistani women. Even when women are allowed the veto on not marrying a man selected for them, there are so many social and religious and cultural mores to abide by that it’s much easier for them to just fall back on the heinous rishta aunty culture – at least that way when all goes to hell after the marriage young women may gather some pity because it would not be all on them. These young women who choose their own spouses have to face hellish wrath if the man turns out to be incompatible. There is so much blame.

Whereas the men have an infinite list of physical attributes to give the rishta aunty as she ventures out to look for a suitable girl, the girl is only on the receiving end of the onslaught of demand. She cannot by any means ask for a stud muffin with an understanding of all things existential no matter what she does.

This is how it apparently works: The rishta aunty moves her domain of question-asking and objectification from the drawing room to the car. This time, rather than spectators who belong within the family, a stranger, the driver, is witness to this intellectual and emotional stripping down of a young girl. Whoever designed this needs to go to the school where they train you to be an Aztec.

It is 2017, Muslim women have won the field’s medal, Pakistani women have scaled the Everest and won Oscars and still none of that is enough. When will you stop diminishing women?


Dyslexia will push us back if we let it

I grew up in a school where corporal punishment was the norm. Another norm was I being on the receiving end of it. Teachers were almost always displeased at my reading and writing ability.

It took me longer than my classmates to read a passage. Words seemed so altered that they spelled differently in my head. I remember being made fun of often by peers and teachers. I remember the humiliating label of being called lazy. I thought perhaps my eyesight that was weak but even after I wore glasses, things made little sense cognitively on the blackboard. Math particularly was so daunting that I’d break into cold sweat each time the teacher walked in the class.

Turning left or right made the same sense to me when finding my way home from school because it was all a maze anyway. I felt this way, and with this feeling a spectacular kind of shame too, as if together bundled up like two tracks on a railway.

I had what experts call a specific learning disability (SLD) that makes the Broca’s area in my brain process what I see differently from a more healthy brain. It is also known as Dyslexia. As more awareness grows about Dyslexia, young girls such as my younger self are finding a word to shield their sense of inadequacy with. As will young boys.

It took me a US college education to be assessed as dyslexic after my English paper was returned to me underlined in red throughout with the professor insisting I get texted for dyslexia because my spellings were so horrendous. Even then, I would be told to check again, because just maybe, it wasn’t dyslexia, but that I was plain stupid.

Now for young girls like my former self there is a whole month to commemorate – October. There may not be brown girls yet, but there are white poster girls like Erin Brocovich and Keira Knightley to look up to.

There are popular yesteryear Bollywood movies like Tare Zameen Pey by Amir Khan that humanized the story from the angle of the sufferer. From the perspective of a boy child pitted against parents who make academia an Olympic sport.

Growing up dyslexic is like having a disability but without the pity and the perks. In its invisibility lies its greatest harm. I felt threatened by anything remotely academic. Getting a passable grade in Calculus, Statistics or Philosophy for that matter meant it would take twice as long and thrice as hard because I’d have to repeat things over and over.

Looking back, the one thing that got me to a passable reading level was my mother’s intervention. When she knew I was struggling, she taught me a few tricks. One was that she taught me to sound words in my mind’s ear. The other was the ability to break words into architectural blocks so they can be frozen as separate entities and put back together in my mind by my mind’s ear. I learned orally. I’d read notes to myself and learn by hearing them.

Without knowing it, my mom was somewhat following the techniques experts are using to help teach learning tools to dyslexic children. Some children are visual learners, for instance. Dyslexic children need to find what works for them.

In my research, I have come across a new program to be launched by the KP government to help 178,972 dyslexic children across KP. This education intervention aided by DFID is to first help with early detection via assessments. In a pilot study, turned out that 7.8% children were dyslexic in 15 schools with mild to severe levels.

Under this pilot there is to be training imparted to 16 master trainers; a train-the-trainers program targeting 272 teachers from 136 schools across 4 districts and a mass awareness campaign for parents and teachers.

These alone cannot be enough. I doubt that someone would have intervened in my case with only these aids. This is perhaps why there is an equal push in KP to bring about changes at the policy level – to make dyslexia assessments compulsory upon each child’s entry into the formal education system; to allow for teaching techniques especially for dyslexic kids; to allow them extra time during assessments and also to have a vigilant system that monitors their academic progress.

We need teachers to understand dyslexia. We need them to be kind with this understanding. We need them to put in the extra hours on the children who struggle. For this, not just in KP but across Pakistan, there needs to be such programs. Who knows what world we would be living in if Einstein did not find a way around his dyslexia?

Another woman politician, same Khwaja Asif

Misogyny, in Pakistan is largely a bipartisan exercise. However, with Khwaja Asif’s recent tweet about Firdous Ashiq Awan joining PTI and insinuating that she is a “newly acquired dumper,” he made PML N take the cake for misogyny. I won’t be surprised if secretly, he’s gloating, along with his haggard cronies, who undoubtedly make him feel like he’s 007. Except that toxic masculinity is loathsome, disgusting and so 1970s.

As a 15 year professional, I once walked into an all-male meeting where many wanted to know what I cook best. The systematic effort that is made to strip any semblance of power from women, regardless of how much of it they have, is a lauded male sport here. The higher women go, the more men seem to have permission to attack them. Remind them that they belong indoors, safely away from public space, because public space is male territory.

Firdous Ashiq Awan and Shirin Mazari, who Khwaja Asif called a “tractor trolley,” are not the exception, but the norm. Khwaja Asif many years ago called a woman MPA who limped slightly, a “penguin.” I wrote against it then. He’s done it again, and here is my second piece that only proves that shame is not a viable weapon against the patriarchy, perhaps only violence is.

Someone like Khwaja Asif will only respect people who can hurt him. Sadly, when women parliamentarians, the 21% of the whole lot have fought way too many Khwaja Asifs to be where they are. In the end the joke is on him – and his immense male privilege, his class privilege, the comfort that comes from being part of a majority in a country that only salutes majoritarianism.

Not only is sexism adopted as a go-to strategy across party lines, by both men and women, it is largely a global phenomenon. We saw Hillary Clinton face its wrath in this year’s US elections. Some predict that is what cost her the election – she didn’t reject feminism, didn’t make her feminism palatable enough, acceptable enough, as if she were making crème brûlée and not rooting to be at the helm of the world’s biggest power house.

Therefore, women in power, it isn’t surprising, adapt to the anti-woman culture by rejecting feminism. They say they are not like the men-haters and the bra-burners. They are just there to make a real difference to all people. They say they are pro-men. Blessed be the fruit. They say, acknowledging that they are in politics but that at first they are good homemakers. Maryam Nawaz is slightly stung by this phenomenon.

Fact remains that the Maryam Nawazs are still shamed, still ridiculed and still undermined. The commentary is still going to be how they carried themselves, what they wore, how doe-eyed they looked and ultimately how unworthy.

You’ll never see men judged by such high standards of scrutiny. They could show up to a press conference with a questionable blotch on their suit and it’ll go unnoticed, may even get a bravo. After all bravado is maleness.

Khwaja Asif’s comments against women politicians is violence itself. Unjustified violence. Aimed to put women with power in their place, to delegitimize them, to remind them of their worth, to unsettle them, to rattle them, to humiliate them publically, to ridicule, and yet none of it is going to change the fact that men like him are on their way out. The biggest victory for these women who get scape gloated and shamed is that they are paving ways for younger ones who will enter politics with the speed of disruptive technology. They are charting a path in time that thankfully leads to one direction.

One day he’ll wake up and he’ll realize it’s 2017. Nothing sadder than an old man whose James Bond fantasy smells strong coffee.




The Anti-Harassment Diva of Pakistan

“I can’t fade.” Tanzeela Mazhar is the woman who took a man down on charges of harassment in the workplace. She has so much of what young people today call swag. When she walked in to meet with me this is the last thing I thought she would say.

These are words that are both triumphant and also telling of the vulnerability women face when they come out of their shell and expose a man for bad behavior. She wore printed pants, a baby pink printed scarf over a button down white shirt and matching pink lipstick. She looked like she had dressed for TV as a role of an anchorperson.

She played this role in Pakistan Television for about a decade. “You have to be on air. That is how you make it as an anchor.” Which meant that all the time her boss, the man she accused, pulled her out of the limelight for turning his advances down, she was in career oblivion. Her boss would not just be a sleaze, he would come on to her physically, touching her, making her feel unsafe. “What matters is how small someone made you feel.”

Yet in Pakistan what matters is what physical harm was actually done, what the backstory is and why a woman brought this on herself. A gross culture of misogyny, of victim blaming and of sanction over the violation of consent, Mazhar has become the voice of women who have emerged on the other side of an anti-sexual harassment campaign with both her dignity and sanity intact. The latter was a real struggle. There were propped up charges of blasphemy on her to frighten her into quiet. When all else failed the right wing, which was squarely in the accused pocket, said that she enjoyed favors from her boss and is crying foul when they stopped.

“Somehow if a man abuses his privilege and doles out favors to women he preys on the fault is the woman’s and no one would point a finger at him for overstepping his authority.” In this culture of vile neglect of a woman’s narrative, Mazhar has dared to ask questions. Very uncomfortable ones and that too publicly. She asked them on the very medium that she commands: The media.

She recorded a series of video logs where she asks why women are not believed when they complain against lewd behavior, unwanted sexual attention and violation of physical boundaries. “This is a place where minors are raped. Yet we are more secure believing the best about men.” She recorded this and put it on social media. It received over 400 retweets and likes on Twitter.

There has been overwhelming support from women and even among young men for her bold work. It points to the fact that the new Pakistan is bone tired of the old order. Since her expose, many women have come to her and told her horrific stories about how they were harassed, then silenced.

Mazhar took her complaint to the ombudsman for harassment. Unfortunately despite a recorded conversation between her and the accused clearly proving his culpability the committee ruling was that there wasn’t enough evidence. “I didn’t want to knock on the court doors only to get another turn down of my voice.” Instead she beat him at the age-old game of credibility denting that society pits against women. She spoke out so vehemently and so loud with so much data that the truth was out there no matter what some committee felt.

For ages men have set the tone. They have laid out the verdicts. They have charred the course and decided who gets to speak and whose voice doesn’t count. Mazhar refused to give that power to anyone else. “People tried to tell me what I feel, where I was at fault and what I must do.” When women break the shell the go-to process is to think on their behalf.

Mazhar’s biggest disappointment: women. “I’ve propped up so many women, yet only a handful publicly supported me.” Even those women who were harassed by the same man hung her to out to dry on her own. There was support, sure, privately, in the dark.

Dark is how it is best the struggle is described. First, the battle for your story being heard. Then, afterwards, the battle of getting the story to be believable. Mazhar’s family supported her but not without peril. “As a girl who fetched water from the river in her childhood, the conservatism was a river I almost drowned crossing.”


She wouldn’t swap the journey for anything though. When I asked her if there was a class issue in her fight for justice: without a doubt. “It was so much more easier to dismiss me.”

Women like Mazhar would have been avoided like the plague, but she didn’t let that happen. She takes selfies and posts them to tell that silent constituency that is watching her: “There is no way in hell I am fading.”

I have been harassed several times. I have never had the courage to speak up like Mazhar. When we met I felt my voice was handed back to me. I first heard her speak at a conference where I tweeted her immortal words. “We must shame men who think women who work are fair game.” This is me, helping her staying alive in our consciousness as the darkness of silence engulfs us, and helping her do what so naturally comes to her – become the relatable face of women’s strength in Pakistan.


Mashal Khan’s Lynching in Pakistan points to a bigger loss

A tragedy always has a greater one lurking behind it. Waiting to descend like a slow mist over the aftermath of what is the first strike. Pakistan however has had a series of them. When Mashal Khan was dragged through the corridor of Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan, Pakistan, he kept pleading and asking his assailants not to hurt him because he did not commit blasphemy. His assailants eventually became his killers. When they were were lynching him, he was professing his love for the Prophet Muhammed. He kept begging to be taken to the hospital. Tragic, but the aftermath even more so.

Pakistanis are now investigating and finding reasons to prove that he was pious and therefore lynched when he shouldn’t have been. In other words, there is a public acceptance of lynching in certain circumstances. Others are glad it happened because, where there is smoke there is fire. A few even think that intellectually curious people like Mashal Khan deserve this fate and must be made a lesson out of. All three cases tell a tale of a country that is deeply diseased; hemorrhaged in its cognitive abilities and cannot chose which path to take tech progress takes over their medieval thinking – amplifying bigotry, sectarianism and religious extremism.

To label is to be reductive. We may call this extremism but it is in fact a long-standing policy of the government to witch-hunt people they don’t like. Almost like genocidal maniacs they arrive too late to make a statement against such blatant jungle rule. Otherwise they could easily declare mob lynching a criminal offence and try them swiftly in anti-terrorism courts – courts that come in handy to crucify people they label anti-state. If a mob takes it upon itself to kill a student accused of blasphemy, and the authorities stand by, it is hard to understand what writ there is left of the government, if at all.

Fear is the go-to emotion in Pakistan today. Every right-thinking person has terror gnawing at them because if they condemn Mashal Khan’s murder then they call to questions their own credentials as good Muslims – Supporting an alleged blasphemer is just as terrifying a prospect as being killed by stones. For good reason too – the state made little ado about a handful of disappearances of prominent bloggers and journalists in the country over the last few months.

Proving both their sanction and their warning. So palpable, that we now refer to the disappeared as a state of mind. When we want to know why someone isn’t writing their newspaper columns or closed their social media accounts we are told they have disappeared. Neighbors, extended family, people whom you shamed in the past all become potential snitch, potential accusers who can get you killed. It is McArthyism. It is the Argentinian state in 1976-1983. It is Nazi Germany. Except that no one is talking about it so it is glacial as it is horrific.

Routinely members of the Ahmedi sect are rounded up in false up blasphemy charges. Rimsha Masih, a down-syndrome girl from the petrified Christian community was accused of burning pages of the Quran in 2012 and was almost on death row when somehow her life was spared. In 2011, Mumtaz Qadri, the security guard of Punjab’s sitting Governor Salman Taseer, killed the man he was sworn to protect because he said Taseer was a blasphemer. Taseer showed his support to a Christian woman, Asia Bibi. Asia Bibi is still in jail because she dared to squabble with Muslim women who likely framed her on blasphemy charges. Though the blasphemy law in Pakistan is a tool to settle feuds and grievances and disproportionately and makes victims out of non-Muslims, but Muslims are just as afraid of its far-reaching tentacles.

Muslims for whom innovation, invention, brands and art have been elusive and removed, one ultimately understands why. There is an all-pervasive, ever present threat facing anyone who is non-conformist, even in the most benign sense. Our Galileos are elsewhere. As are our Einsteins and our Steve Jobs. The opportunity cost that this nation pays for the fear against freethinking could pay off world debt thrice over.

So the biggest tragedy then of mob lynching Mashal Khan is that people are going to find ways to justify it; explain it or say it was a case of mistaken identity. All of which is not the truth – the truth is that it is 2017 and the government in Pakistan allowed a mob murder, because people perceive, almost with surety, that they will get away with it. A lot of missteps; bad judgments and impurity towards crimes have to brought them to adopt this perception.

This can be undone, symbolically at least, if the men who did this to Mashal Khan are brought to justice. Sadly, out of the three leading parties only PML – N, the sitting government can do it. Maybe, just maybe all that opportunity cost of the progress we could have had, slows down.

Pakistani Women’s Stories need to be part of policy

Over a thousand women are killed for honor in Pakistan every year. At the Women of the World Summit in New York this month, Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, the Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker from Pakistan spoke about honor in Pakistani society. She said her films on the culture of honor have helped start a discussion about how women are valued in society. For the first time, honor killing is being condemned at the highest level: “The prime minister of the country watched my film and said ‘there is no honor in honor killing.’”

As often the case with change, personalized stories, like those in Obaid’s films make all the difference in creating an understanding of threat that women face.

In Sindh’s Jacobabad district on March 18 there were three horrific cases of honor killing. A woman called Ashram Khatoon was gunned down by her husband when he suspected that she was cheating on him. She was only 22. Another woman, Seher, also 22, was stabbed to death by her husband, again, on the suspicion she was romantically involved with another man. Neighbors say he overhead Seher speaking to her alleged lover on the phone and was enraged. The third woman was a mere child – a 16-year-old girl who was shot by her own father because he felt she shamed his honor.

It is by telling these stories that we can convey the urgency of how desperate the country is for lasting solutions to protect women from ghastly traditions. Despite the rhetoric of taking the women along, most governments in Pakistan and their international partners have failed to turn around the status of women.

Pakistan is among the top ten recipients of aid from both the US and UK and women are supposed to get a big part of that pie. Still, there are too many Ashram Khatoons and Sehers. The international donor ecosystem is pouring funds for women in Pakistan continuously. United States disbursed USD 782 million to Pakistan in 2014/2015 out of which USD 174 million was allocated to gender equity focused aid. The UK gave Pakistan USD 221 million in the same period, out of which USD 132 was gender equity focused.

When designing USAID Pakistan programs, their rules stipulate that it is mandatory that women make up 33% of the beneficiaries. For DFID funding in the country, this target figure is even higher. The scale and priority placed on women is evident, the results not so much.

All of this put together, we are talking of millions of dollars that are allocated specifically to elevate the women of Pakistan. Reality, however is lackluster. Scratch lackluster. It is an abomination. Even though there is money allocated, it is not spent on deserving women, or even women.

World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2016, Pakistan ranks 143 out of 144 countries worldwide. Of course, the Prime Minister needs to do more than state the obvious but one also wonders what blocks all the aid from translating into results?

Violence is one of the key inhibitors of women’s progress in the country (90% face violence in Pakistan according to the Thomas Reuters Foundation) and it is on a steady rise. Now it is taking up modern expressions on the Internet in the form of cyber harassment for women who dare to have an online identity. It seems like the more Pakistan advances, the wider the echo chamber and amplification of misogyny. There is a severe push back both from the right wing.

This is dire – the money that does go into the cross cutting theme of gender gets spilled and wasted by going to the wrong people. Often aid money bypasses the mandatory inclusion of women beneficiaries. Aid officials use a gender justification to come up with excuses on why trainings, grants or capacity building programming will almost always go to men.

They say culture, religion, value systems do not allow for women to be part of the development programing in Pakistan. These types of excuses are the bane of why already allocated money for women ends up where it shouldn’t – to men and to women who are securely part of the elite.

Violence and the potential threat of violence gets aid to only those who are above it – those who need it least.

The government says the right thing but doesn’t do much either.

This is where this money should end up: the 15-35 year-old women. 50 million or more and more of this bracket of women and girls need safeguards, support and props to help them crawl out of abject poverty, patriarchy and financial and educational exclusion. This is where we need to focus our policy and resources. This is a high-value group that is both talented and switched on to changing their destiny.

Women are often asked to learn needlework instead of computer graphics or innovative work. Somehow Pakistanis and the people working in development think of women as an after-thought. Perhaps that they take up more aid man-hours than women deserve. This is dangerous.

Women in Pakistan are moving in a diametrically opposite direction from women elsewhere – widening the women empowerment gap instead of narrowing it with tools like tech and modern education.

There is a global urgency on setting up a feminist foreign policy and a need to build sustainability – particularly with SDG goal on gender equity. Women internationally remain the pivot, here, however we don’t even want to know who they are.

Honor killing cases are growing in Pakistan. With more awareness, more cases are coming to light and these numbers seem to rise every time the earth revolves around the sun. Mere condemnation can only save so many lives. We need to cater to the ones who somehow plod along despite the barbed wires of tradition around them. We must enable them to be more mobile, self-reliant, have more access to heath and be violence-free. These are big dreams for a country that seems to build lots of roads but does not bridge that crucial gap between opportunities for a girl child versus a boy child.

If only the problem could be solved with more money. It can’t. Several architects of small and medium sized grant programs say that when women at grassroots are offered money to empower themselves with it, they reject it. The caged-bird syndrome is a long game and needs invested policymaking that is both holistic and data-centered. Women’s financing programs need to be coupled up with training programs to build internal capacity.

Women reject help for good reason. They face more violence as they tread towards empowerment and social uplift. They disturb the power lopsidedness. Men like their privilege. Giving it up is no fun for them, at all. Taking back power is not so easy in Pakistan because men get away with violating a woman almost always. Despite a changes in the legal system where women now have more recourse, but due to the ingrained culture there is a hesitation to press charges against men to whom women eventually have to return for support.

If one could wish for two things here: an end to lazy aid architects and a realization in Pakistan’s government that women’s exclusion makes no political, economic or social sense. Women must not continue to be footnotes anymore.

To help the women of Pakistan you have to do the scary thing first and get involved. Getting your hands dirty in understanding intersectionality, race, class and other handicaps that women battle on more than one level.

It all begins with letting women tell their own stories. Preferably while they are still alive.


KP’s anti-dowry act

As if it wasn’t already difficult enough for a woman in Pakistan, there is this bile-inducing custom to have a woman weighed in against what material and monies she brings into a marriage. Dowry determines a woman’s worth in this culture. About 95% marriages are said to practice the custom that is not built on functional need but a status symbol and a show of women’s subservience. Seemingly the more dowry a woman the more her takers will be and therefore the less dispensable she is. Less dispensable women are apparently treated by in laws with more kindness. Not really.

Whereas India has the highest number of dowry related deaths, it is Pakistan that has the highest number of dowry-linked deaths per 100,000 women. We murder and hack to death, via stove burnings and poison ingestion than any other country in the world. No amount of money gets in-laws to stop torturing new brides to seek more cash from their families. No wonder there is a funeral-like feel to a household a girl child is born to. Our customs are meant to stifle the caretakers of girls as if they bear the burden of a curse and the only way to make it up is cough up dough to marry off the girl.

This is not just a class issue. The elite in our country – do check the latest few destination weddings in our social magazines – are just as marred by it. Show more love and dote with money, flounder it across the far seas so everyone knows not to mess with your daughter. Why not equip them with the law instead? Teach them to stand up for their rights first.

Khyber Pukhtoonkhwa in a landmark move has barred a bride’s family from making dowry payments to the groom and his family. So basically the groom and his family have to make alternate means of extorting money, or for a change find a job or start a business. The KP law restricts value of gifts given by the bride to PKR 10,000. It is enough to buy a good juice blender, a hair dryer, a low-end vacuum cleaner or a few good books.

It’s time for men to seek out women for who they are and not what they bring. Dowry is an evil custom. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Dowry, Bridal Gift and Marriage Functions Restriction Act, 2017 has thankfully put an end to it as far as the law in KP. It’s one of the few sensible pro women’s legislation to come out of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI).

Last year in December a woman called Shumaila was forced to consume poison in Multan when her father could not pay her husband and in-laws the promised PKR 50,000 in dowry. Shumaila, like the estimated 2,000 dowry deaths per year in Pakistan, are an abomination and tell that we are a nation on the brink. Don’t be fooled by the mere gains in our standing – women remain a severely neglected all parts of our society. Rights experts say that this number is hardly reflective of how many women are actually tortured because of the heinous custom and many of their deaths remain unreported and marked falsely natural.

Pervasive in the middle class, we are extremely proud of the list of things we bring with us into our marriages – our cars, our washing machines, our furniture and the godforsaken toaster – these are spoils of the war on women. Reject it. Reject it as the girl bride, reject it as the father of the bride and certainly reject it as the groom. There is nothing dignified in it. Women must only be armed with one resource that is the real true asset for any family – their education, their aptitude, their ability to brace uncertainties like death and disease and more importantly their sense of justice. Don’t compromise on this. Everything else can be acquired, especially the toaster.

Now that we are making strides in banning dowry, can we look to please increase the haq mehr that the groom needs to pay the bride. This amount is to be allocated according to the groom and his family’s social standing but instead it is set as a pathetic token amount. This amount is payable to the woman on demand according to Islamic law. Fix the haq mehr according to the intended standard and notice how the balance of power shifts. For a start, fewer women like Shumaila will be dead by poisoning.












Of rogue men and hijabs

Where did Syed Raza Ali Gillani’s toxic masculinity come from? His all-boys education that can only breed contempt and bone-chilling fear of female sexuality; his feudal roots or his deep-rooted sense of insecurity about being a pious devout. Wherever it came from, it was rewarded with a valorous title of Punjab Higher Education Minister. Slow clap.

With the confidence of someone who speaks as the admin of one of those psychotic WhatsApp groups, he went on to say a few damning thing, that too in front of live media: Things that glorify the policing of women’s clothes. He said that it was incumbent upon him (not clear how) that he makes all women in his province’s education institutes wear a mandatory head covering or hijab because he claims that the Quran said so. He also, perhaps inspired by a local sermon says that we have lost our traditions, culture and religion and he must bring us back to it. Notably, by telling the women of the province what to do first. No such instructions were laid out for men.

He also seemed a bit unsure of how many takers there would be of this mandatory hijab policy so he sweetened the deal with a 5% marks to be added for free and no effort to women who only chose to hide their hair from the wanton eyes of men who had dirty thoughts. As if that ever stopped them.

Amidst applause of people there, who were probably high on meth, and would also applaud if a possum gave the speech instead, the respectable minster decided to add a few lines about how there ought to be an assembly where it will be mandatory to quote religious scripture and such. Standing ovation.

Women’s clothing historically started being policed as a result of patriarchal structures very tied to land and land ownership. Women had to belong to men to be clear where the lineage lay and who the rightful heirs were. To belong to men you had to first be contained and the veil helped then.

Well, take your land and do with it what cattle do to grass. Eat it. Curd it. Regurgitate it. Digest it. Pass it out. Leave us the hell alone.

We cry out foul when France bans the veil, borne out of the same bravado and fear to clothe women as to unclothe them. Yet here we are. The veil or hijab is an identity symbol for women around the world across several cultures but here is the thing with identity. There is an “I” in it. So stop telling women if they need to wear it or not.

Even with the 5% extra marks there are women who don’t want anything to do with it. Even without the 5% marks some women wear it like it were a limb, sacred to who they are and who they want to be defined as. No education minister who’s done a degree in Textiles can take it or hand that identity to them, certainly.

Education and particularly higher education has everything to do with nurturing a sense of independence and free-spritedness – that is where the innovation and ideas come from – and very little to do with how women dress. It doesn’t take much to know this, except perhaps being a good observer.

The scientific process, the logical architecture of the mind and rational intellect all stem from observation. Also from the data and facts that good observations bring.

The problem with men is that they explain things to women without observing what women want. That they explain things about women to women. This minister by telling women how they ought to dress is telling them essentially that he is thinking on their behalf like a true patriarch. Yet the women are being sent to get an education, precisely to squash the so-called culture and tradition that has kept them so backward in the first place. Bottom most numbers are what we boast globally on women’s empowerment across the board.

We send our girls to school precisely so that they can see through the confusion and machismo that wants them away from their plushy politics, positions and perks. They know the women will displace them so bad they won’t know what hit them.

Thankfully the Punjab Government in all its wisdom called his attempt at policy “wrong,” and distanced itself from it. The next step: call men like these for what they are: “rogue.” They are dinosaurs on their way out.