The Status of Women in Pakistan
My parents run a private school in Pakistan. One day when I was there, I noticed some marks on the face of a female staff member. I was worried, so I asked about the marks. At first she was hesitant, but then she told me that her husband had beaten her. Feeling sympathetic, I asked her about the reason, and she said that the tea was cold. I said that reasoning was horrible and unacceptable, to which she replied: ''It's alright, he is justified in beating me because he is my husband."
Such is the sorry state of women in Pakistan. The internalization of misogyny has taken deep roots, and women are told that it's OK if their husbands beat and abuse them. No matter how abusive and dreadful he is, she has to live with him just because of the stigma of divorce in our Pakistani society.
Women's Status Across Pakistan
That being said, the status of women varies across classes, regions, etc. In the provinces of Punjab and Sindh, women's treatment is better; however, in Baluchistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, it is the worst. I myself live in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which is far more conservative and patriarchal than the others. Most of the cases of honor killings in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa go unreported because of the inefficiency of the police and the strong loyalty within those families.
How Do Women's Rights in the West Compare?
Though western societies are not perfect for women, they are still far better for women than third world countries like Pakistan, India, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, and others. Women in western countries have almost all of the rights they are entitled to, and many don't realize how fortunate they are to be living in a free society. On the contrary, women living in third world countries have fewer rights and live by outdated values and traditions; these are a big hindrance to their empowerment.
In Pakistan, for example, most of the women have less opportunities for jobs or education as compared to men. They are living in strictly patriarchal societies where men are at the helm of affairs. Moreover, violence against women is rampant in Pakistan.
Domestic Violence Against Women
Misogyny has such deep cultural and psychological roots in Pakistan that, according to the Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey, 34% of women say men are justified in hitting wives if they argue back. Even the most educated people hold archaic and misogynistic views. For instance, once I was arguing with my friend (who is highly educated) about the treatment of women in the case of an argument between a husband and wife. He coldly said that if a wife doesn't stop arguing, then her beating at the hands of her husband is inevitable. Let me assure you that he is a very nice and polite man, but he said such horrible things due to societal indoctrination.
In Pakistani society, if a woman has an affair, she would likely be killed by her close relatives, especially her father and brother. This phenomenon is called "honor killing" because they think that the woman has brought shame to the family, and in order to wash that shame away, she must be killed.
When I was a little child, I witnessed two honor killings that scarred me for life. I could never forget the blood and gruesome brutality perpetuated by the close ones of a poor mother and her daughter. According to the Human Rights Watch 2018 report, 1000 are killed every year in honor killings.
Qandeel Baloch's Murder
A few years back, a social media star, Qandeel Baloch, was killed by her brother for ''dishonoring'' and ''shaming'' her family. Most of the people around me applauded this heinous act. The reason for such loathing towards her is that, according to them, she was spreading ''vulgarity'' and flouting our values and traditions. Her brother showed no remorse by saying that she deserved to die.
The Honor Killings of Four Kohistani Girls
In yet another incident, in 2011, four girls and a boy from Kohistan (a district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) were mercilessly killed by their relatives after a video of their private innocent celebration emerged on social media. Some parts of Pakistan are really the worst regarding women's rights, and Kohistan is one of them.
Why Do Pakistanis Hate Malala Yousafzai?
We are all familiar with Malala Yousafzai's story. With tremendous courage and determination, she stood up against the Taliban when no one was willing to stand up to them. She has been hailed as a feminist icon and admired by the whole world—except Pakistan. Pakistanis loathe Malala. If you take a random survey in any part of Pakistan about Malala, I would bet that almost 95% will show disapproval of her. So the question arises: why do Pakistanis hate Malala so much? Well, here are some major reasons.
- Being patriarchal and misogynistic, they can't stand a free, independent girl. Even in our dramas, free and independent girls are shown as immoral and villainous. Most Pakistanis like timid, subservient women who will cook food and rear children. An intellectually superior and strong woman easily scares them.
- They also hate her for religious and patriotic reasons; they believe that somehow she is defaming Pakistan and Islam.
- They think of Malala as a "Western puppet." They think that western countries, especially Jews and the United States of America, have employed her to obliterate our culture and tradition and to undo Pakistan. Even if you show them infallible evidence, they would still think that the attempted murder of Malala was a hoax hatched by Jews.
Life Is Slowly Improving for Pakistani Women
Having said all that, things are improving slowly but surely. As my mother told us, she was the only girl from her village who went to college. Now, even in rural areas, parents are more likely to send their daughters to colleges and universities so they have better future prospects.
Through social media, awareness is spreading among the young Pakistani generation regarding women's rights. Moreover, women now increasingly take part in employment opportunities, and their male counterparts are now searching for educated girls to marry, which ultimately enhances the value placed on women's education.
Furthermore, many laws have been passed by parliament regarding violence against women and advocating for better employment-education opportunities. In addition, a child marriage restraint act has been strongly implemented. Nowadays, Pakistanis look at child marriages with aversion and hostility; even the clerics in Pakistan strongly oppose child marriages, which is a huge improvement regarding the rights of women in Pakistan.
How Can Women's Status Be Improved Further?
According to the Gender Gap Index Report of 2018, Pakistan is the worst performer in terms of gender inequality. Therefore, concrete steps are required to improve the status of women in Pakistan.
We have to change the patriarchal and misogynistic way of thinking that women are weak and intellectually inferior and that their sole purpose in life is to serve their husbands and rear children. To change this mindset, several steps will be necessary.
Promote Feminism in Journalism
First, space must be given to progressive Islamic scholars and clerics—scholars like Javed Ahmed Ghamdi (who has been exiled to Canada). He should be brought back and given coverage on national television regarding women's rights. He can play a pivotal role in improving the status of women in Pakistan because the country is a very religious one, and people listen to Islamic scholars and clerics.
Update School Curricula
Second, there is a dire need to change the outdated curricula in schools. There is hardly anything written about women's rights in schools' curricula. Chapters need to be included regarding strong, independent women and feminist heroes, such as Malala Yousafzai, for the purpose of changing the Pakistani mindset.
Teach Children to Respect Women
Furthermore, complete courses regarding women's rights and their treatment ought to be taught in schools. A child's mind is very impressionable; children carry behaviors and attitudes that are taught to them in their early education into the rest of their lives. Therefore, if we inculcate in them good attitudes towards women, they would likely carry that for the rest of their lives. In addition, little girls need to be brought up to idolize strong women instead of the weak and timid women that are normally shown in our literature and entertainment.
Represent Strong Women in Media
Last but not least, extensive media campaigns should be held for the awareness of women's rights. As I mentioned, women are often characterized as weak and frail in our culture. They are shown as wailing, weak creatures who need constant support and protection from male counterparts to rescue them from some evil.
To change these stereotypes, we need the women in our media to stand up for themselves instead of silently facing atrocities. Therefore, entertainment media should be encouraged to show working, strong, independent women carrying on with their daily lives and standing up for themselves.
Additionally, talk shows need to regularly address women's issues. Sadly, our talk shows nowadays only discuss politics; for the sake of ratings, there is constant bickering and prattling on politics day and night on talk shows. The government should use its capacity to air programs promoting women's rights awareness on national TV.
What Can Pakistan Learn From Bangladesh?
Pakistan could learn a lot from Bangladesh regarding women's empowerment.
Bangladesh, after its separation from Pakistan, was the most wretched and poor country in the world. However, it has made tremendous strides in recent decades, especially in terms of economic development. One of the main factors which contributed to this economic miracle was the empowerment of women in Bangladesh.
Recently, Bangladesh topped the Gender Gap Index Report among South Asian countries by providing women with education, employment, freedom of movement, etc. In fact, one of the biggest markers between developing and developed countries is how they treat their women. Pakistan can also achieve such a level of development and prosperity by emulating Bangladesh.
Hopefully, with the passage of time, women's status will get better. I hope women will have the freedom of choosing their spouse and freedom of movement, education, employment, and more. There is a glimmer of hope, which we see in women like Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, Malala Yousafzai, and Asma Jehangir, who are symbols of resistance, change, and determination.
- The Express Tribune: "34% of women say men are justified in hitting wives if they argue back: Pakistan survey."
- World Report 2018: Pakistan—Human Rights Watch
- The Daily Star: "Gender gap closing ranking: Bangladesh top among South Asia."