By Zubeida Mustafa
The time has come to celebrate women’s leadership in Pakistan because so many of them are in that role to justify a memorable celebration. When I look back to the days when I entered professional life more than five decades ago, I remember that there were so few of us around that it could be quite a lonely spot to be in. Besides, with a few notable exceptions, there were few who could claim to be playing a leadership role. We were the followers until we found our bearings and gained confidence.
It was, however, realized even then that once the barriers are down women who are enterprising will inevitably refuse to hold themselves back and would proceed to seize the opportunity. And they did, with many of them rising to the top on the basis of merit.
In the middle decade of the last century, Pakistan’s statistics stated that only two per cent of the women were in the workforce. Among them the majority was in menial jobs. The picture has changed considerably today. The World Bank estimates that 28 per cent of the women in Pakistan are engaged in what economists call productive labour. In absolute numbers this is a big jump, but nothing compared to many other countries. If in this scenario there are women in leadership positions it is something to be proud of.
For women leaders — be they in business, politics, media, management or the professions – it has been a hard struggle. Many of them were pioneers in their field who had to chart a new path as there was none for them to follow. They did not always have role models or mentors. Yet they found their way to the top with sheer hard work without wandering in the wilderness.
However, there is need to ponder the circumstances which force 72 per cent of our women to remain confined to their homes in mostly oppressive conditions. Who should do this pondering? Of course the state and society. But more than that a heavy responsibility rests with the women leaders who have made it to the top in their own professions. While celebrating their success, women need to ask why the underprivileged section of the female population that constitutes a whopping majority is denied the opportunities that some have been fortunate to get.
Can women really hold up half the sky when a vast majority consists of women who are the doubly oppressed ones. They are the victims of the patriarchy that has crippled Pakistani society. They also suffer because of the negligence of the state in respect of its duty to provide social justice to all its citizens and safeguard their human rights. As a result many women are denied education, healthcare, family planning services, shelter and job opportunities. They are, therefore, not empowered and lack the capacity to play a productive role. Moreover, an uneducated, unhealthy and oppressed mother produces children who do not get the parenting, education, nourishment and healthcare that is their birthright and that will help them break out of the cycle of poverty. This explains why our nation remains so downtrodden.
The women who have made it to the top – the women leaders – now owe it to the others to open the doors of opportunity for women. Their forte is the female perspective all women are born with. They are in a position to add the gender dimension to policymaking when they are involved in it and men very often miss out, not by design but inadvertently. Many men who are enlightened and progressive have admitted that they got a better
insight into the deprivation women suffer from when these men interacted with women activists.
The award-winning American journalist, Nicholas Kristof, and his wife Sheryl WuDunn, in their book Half the Sky, give anecdotal accounts from all over the world of how women turned oppression into opportunity. They write, “If girls get a chance, in the form of an education or a microloan, they can be more than baubles or slaves; many of them can run businesses.”
In other words they can be empowered. That is what leadership is all about. When a successful woman uses her candle to light another woman’s unlit candle, she does not lose any brightness from her own candle. She actually makes the room brighter which is to her advantage and makes life easier for all.