One may have issues with many of the amendments made by President Musharraf in the constitution of Pakistan, but very few would grudge the increase in women representation granted by them. Now almost 18% of seats of the national assembly, senate and the four provincial assemblies are reserved for women; more than many western countries. This is in addition to the open seats where they can also compete. How is this newfound power helping the women in Pakistan? The recipients themselves provided some answers.
A delegation comprising of women ministers of Pakistan recently attended the International Women’s Day celebrations at the United Nations. They also attended a function arranged in their honor by the Pakistani American Community of greater New York at a restaurant in New York on March 4, 2004.
It was an impressive array of dignitaries, led by the Advisor to the Prime Minister Ms. Nilofar Bakhtiar. There were women ministers representing each of the four provinces. Each member spoke on the occasion and at length explained in what their opinion were the recent positive developments with regard to the women in Pakistan. They cited the burgeoning number of women parliamentarians (over 200), ministers (about a dozen), and local government officials (about 40,000!) in the present government, as a testimony to the great transformation of women empowerment taking place in Pakistan.
Before the members of the visiting delegation spoke, many from the Pakistani American community articulated about the challenges faced by women in Pakistan. These speakers invited the women delegates to inform them about the steps being taken by the government to alleviate the conditions on some specific points. Honor killing, poor health and educational facilities, mistreatment of women in prison and very limited economic opportunities were some of the points raised.
The women delegates spoke forcefully on most of these issues and outlined the steps taken by the government. Two sectors especially were significantly highlighted. They were government’s efforts to enhance women empowerment and efforts to eradicate illiteracy. It was informed, with some pride, that even at the village level there is a new awareness and women are being involved more and more in the decision making.
In some cases, however, the speakers chose to sidestep some sensitive issues. For example honor killing was described by one of the delegate to be more of a fixation of the western media than an actuality. The speaker apparently did not take into consideration reporting of this reprehensible act by many human right organizations, including Pakistan based ones.
As expected the western media was rapped soundly for painting a very dark picture of the Pakistani women, much more than what the situation actually warranted. In their opinion the western media was not objective but had other motives, because they only pointed to the negatives and not the positives of the Pakistani women’s position in the society.
They also expressed the feeling that the concept of freedom and equality of women in the west and in countries like Pakistan would remain somewhat different given the influence of tradition and religion. They said that women in Pakistan were struggling for a better deal than what they have now, but not exactly in the western mold. According to them not all aspects of western women’s emancipation was worth emulating.
All spoke about the esteemed position, which Islam had granted to women, much before any society did so. According to them the religion did not in anyway preclude the status of women on equal terms in the society. They lamented that the teachings of the religion were not followed in totality and that religion and gender equality are not mutually contradictory.
On the affects of the prevailing religious laws in the shape of Hudood Ordinance, there was unanimity of opinion. All felt that it needed to be scrapped, as it has been thoroughly misused against women. Advisor to the Prime Minister Ms. Nilofar Bakhtiar informed that appropriate legislation to this affect is ready to be presented to the National Assembly in the near future.
The whole event was an interesting expose of the newfound confidence, which seemed apparent by the views expressed by these leaders. It underscored the wind of change in the struggle of gender equality in Pakistan. The delegates sounded determined to seek justice and equality and give the Pakistani women the position they deserve in the society.
On a more cautious note it must be added that in certain matters the women leaders did seem to get carried away by the emotions generated by the newfound confidence. As they complained about the western media highlighting only the negatives, they too need to guard against being naively over-positive, and sweeping the sensitive issues with a broad brush.
There are serious challenges concerning the women in Pakistan, and a lot of ground is still to be covered. Acknowledging their existence is the first step towards solving them. Nonetheless, there appears to be some genuine movement in the right direction, and for that the new leaders struggling to provide a better future for the women in Pakistan deserve support and encouragement by all, especially the men in Pakistan.