Women generally have it bad in Pakistan but there is a growing display of callous disregard for the rights of women and downright maleficent behaviour by senior representatives of government and parliament that can only result in – indeed is resulting in – wider acceptability of women as legitimate objects to disregard, disrepute and denigrate. Almost as if women were offenders rather than victims.
And, yet, according to the government’s own figures, three out of four girls don’t get schooling beyond primary level. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has for several years now been reporting hundreds of women killed every year in the name of honour. Men’s honour of course, never women’s.
And the news in Pakistan these past few months have been especially bleak. Several instances of girls burnt alive by their families for marrying for love and awarded as compensation by communities for sins of their male family members. A noted rights activist, a woman, shockingly browbeaten and cussed at on television by a male senator belonging to a religious party allied with the government. Two male ministers of the federal government unabashedly caricaturising – in the National Assembly and at a press conference later – an opposition parliamentarian, also a woman. Several religious parties successfully obstructing a law passed by Punjab Assembly from being activated to shield women against violence at home. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government seeking the help of Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) for advice on a similar law and being advised to tone it down and accepting it. The CII proclaiming that beating up wives is kosher, that scientific method of using DNA to determine culpability of rapists is haram and that legislating against child marriages is a conspiracy against Islam because girls as young as nine are eligible for matrimony.
It is shocking how much Pakistani men in particular and the patriarchal society, the urban macho legislatures and the virtually gender-blind policymaking echelons of the governments and state in general hate women. Perhaps nothing shocks more than what has been happening in the country’s bicameral national parliament, which is perhaps the best barometer of what the country and its representatives think and prioritise.
In many ways, the performance of parliament, supposedly the check on a wayward government, has been found wanting when it comes to defending, strengthening and enforcing the rights of women. Worse, the parliament is guilty of being dismissive of the role that women in the House have played in furthering the agenda of human rights in the country. It is the same house where ministers deride women with almost gleeful abandon – Sheikh Rashid commenting on Benazir Bhutto, Khawaja Asif on Shireen Mazari and Mahnaz Rafi, Talal Chaudhry on Shireen Mazari, Abid Sher and Shaikh Aftab on Shazia Marri, and so on.
Currently there are 70 women MNAs making up for 20 per cent of the total representation in the House of 342. In the Upper House there are 19 women senators making up for 18 per cent of the total representation in the House of 104. Overall, 89 women make up for 18 per cent of the total membership in bicameral parliament. According to data from Free and Fair Election Network (Fafen), in the last completed parliamentary year for National Assembly (June 2015 to February 2016) and Senate (March 2015 to March 2016), women legislators constituting 18 per cent of the combined members of both houses accounted for 44 per cent of the agenda of both houses — a whopping three times the proportion of their representation.
Considered in the context of how the social, political and economic systems are inherently rigged against emancipation of women in Pakistan, this performance in the parliament by them more than negates any assertions of pretentions by the state and its polity at who delivers more when opportunities present themselves — men or women.
The stated agendas of development and progress outlined in the manifestos of political parties ring hollow when measured up to translated gains. The yawning gap between promise (at the elections) and performance (three years in power for PML-N and JUI in Centre, PML-N in Punjab and Balochistan, PPP in Sindh and PTI and JI in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) is precisely because emancipation and empowerment of women have never been part of policymaking and governance.
Among many reasons for this is perhaps the fact that women do not constitute even five per cent of the memberships of the central executive committees of these political parties, or even three per cent of the memberships of the federal and provincial cabinets. Or the fact that, in general, the leadership of the political parties feel they are not obliged to attend parliament — their day job!
According to Pakistan Institute for Legislative Development and Training (Pildat), in the last completed calendar year (2015), the PM attended only 20 per cent of the National Assembly sittings and Imran Khan only two per cent. With their leaders not even showing up for work, what would you expect from their male colleagues, in general?
In the provincial assemblies, shockingly Punjab CM attended only two sittings (less than 1 per cent), KP CM only 34 per cent while Balochistan CM Dr Malik faring only somewhat better at 63 per cent and Sindh CM at 71 per cent. In short, almost no one is interested in making women part of the development policies — either as practitioners or beneficiaries.
Media – while not part of the government – is also part of the problem. This is the chicken and egg situation. Which came first – negative portrayal of women by media or negative treatment of women by society? Theoretically media is the guardian of public interest and is supposed to serve as the voice of the voiceless and supposed to bring to account government policies and state priorities to ensure the marginalised communities and underdogs have protections against discrimination.
Women are not a minority and yet they are marginalised wantonly and widely.
It is hard to discern any exceptional efforts made by media in Pakistan to promote women’s rights as priorities to focus on even though the media never shies away from reporting the subjugation and strident discrimination against women and sensationalising the discourse around it. If the media cannot aggressively champion the cause of women, it is failing in its primary duty. It does not help that less than 750 of the 18,000 journalists in Pakistan are women, according to Freedom Network, Pakistan. This is too insignificant a ratio to address gender bias in news and opinion perspectives since male journalists, in general, are simply not interested in championing women’s interests.
As for why Pakistani men hate women with an intensity that seem to border on the passionate? With religion as their worldview and feudalism and patriarchy as their systems of delivery, Pakistan’s politics and sociology in their current forms are rigged against the emancipation of women. With both state religion and cultural sociology regarding women on the basis of their biological functions rather than their sociological rights, both the legal framework and its attendant implementation mechanisms make sure women remain second-class citizens at best.
Little wonder then that men believe that effectively giving equal rights to women will overturn the status quo to their peril and to counter this they resort to their comfort-zone influence over women’s futures and fates as arbiters instead of facilitators.