The neuter gender

By Rifaat Hamid Ghani

geust-contTHE Pakistani woman: can she be defined? For that matter can the Pakistani male? Somehow we don’t think that much about defining the Pakistani male – its women are so much more interesting! Pakistani society is stratified and its cultures mixed; yet its male value stereotype is almost constant. Feudal lordling or serf, bureaucratic grandee or babu, urban or rural, whatever the income bracket or professional tag or social exposure, men are convinced they know better than their women – whether they indulge them or control them. They retain the right to intervene be it as wise men or tyrants.

But the Pakistani woman’s attitude to the male in her orbit varies dramatically depending osocial standing. The plane of stratification and the cultural mix make an enormous difference to her mental attitudes and responses. One could say that women are still evolving and the men have evolved – which is a polite way of saying that they are static. It’s not the women in Pakistan that have to be awakened. It’s the men.

From the start, thanks to active female participation in the freedom movement, Pakistan a class of emancipated and progressive women. Despite a familiarity of many with English and English ways one would never describe them as westernised. Their prism on their society and their goals were rooted in indigenous cultural perception of what freedom demanded; and here they followed and were shoulder to shoulder with men: The male and female vision was common. Unfortunately, post independence the collective social contribution faltered in both genders. Their enjoyment of their freedom was personally individualised – which also helps explain aspects of our country’s current malaise.

Perhaps the men can say what the Bhutto clarion call did for them but Zia-ul-Haq – no credit to him for it was the last thing he intended – did more to goad women into meaningful awareness and effort than any of our well-intentioned preachers and political reformists. His limited understanding and interpretation of Islamic Hudood that became statute, attacked and diminished the Pakistani woman’s dimension and space; and her response to the threat gave us the seminal Women’s Action Forum.

Priobala Mangat Rai, a former principal of Lahore’s Kinnaird College through the nineteen-fifties and sixties, revisited Pakistan in Zia-ul-Haq’s heyday. Rather tritely some of us said how distressing it must be for an educationist like her to see what was happening to Pakistan, especially its women. She startled us by saying she had every reason to be hopeful: She found women much more aware of their rights than when she’d left; and there were far more women working and socially committed and advocating economic independence than before. “If the thinking within a woman’s mind moves forward there is no turning back that kind of progress.”

Alas, Zia’s fundamentalism never threatened male provenance. What will it take to galvanise our comfortably somnolent men?

Will the atrociously concretised threat to the lives of our children bring us men and women back to working together socially in pursuit of a consensual national embodiment of freedom and tolerance in and for the country we share? A ‘Patras’ of Lahore’s College might tell us we have much to unlearn.

And we don’t even have the curriculum straight – What would we fight to preserve in avowed values and what would we fight to root out?

That question is not even honestly posed yet, let alone answered.