The status of Women

By Zubeida Mustafa

65-05-06-1992The women’s movement in Pakistan (I use the term for want of a more appropriate one) has lost its earlier vitality. The various organisations which came together under the umbrella of the Women’s Action Forum to take up cudgels against an Establishment determined to supress the female identity, have gone their separate ways.

This is distressing because a lot of work still remains to be done to raise the status of women. Admittedly, enormous progress has been made by a small minority of the female population in the country. In the last decade and a half since the international women’s year in 1975, women have achieved what was unheard of before. The number of girls enrolled in primary schools and in the universities has doubled and the female literacy rate has gone up by five percentage points in the last decade from 16 to 21 per cent. Even the labour force participation ratio of women has risen from three per cent to twelve per cent in 1981-1991. Health-wise women’s status has improved even though marginally, and the sex ratio has risen from 90 (for 100 men) to 92.

More importantly, women are now entering fields from which they were excluded previously. We have had a woman prime minister. Today we have a woman head of a bank, a woman editor of a daily newspaper and many women engineers, architects, surgeons and even airline pilots.

Then why should there be concern? Because the induction of women in many of these erstwhile male preserves, welcome though it is, has not given them a voice in the decision-making process. Hardly any of them are in a position to transform the system which continues to be heavily biased in favour of men.

Then, it must be pointed out that the progress that has been recorded is confined to a minuscule minority which is privileged by virtue of its education, wealth or family tradition. The overwhelming majority of women in Pakistan continue to be a disadvantaged exploited lot. Their situation has not changed at all. The overall position of women is so dismal that it is at par with some of the poorest and most backward countries of Africa. In terms of Third World averages, Pakistani women are definitely way behind in literacy, education, health care, mortality rates and demographic indicators.

If UN statistics are to be believed, women in Pakistan have gone two steps backward after taking a step forward in the seventies. For instance, in 1981,31 per cent of girls in the 5-9 year age group were enrolled in schools. This ratio fell to 28 per cent in 1988. If the absolute number of those enrolled has doubled it is because of the colossal increase in the size of Pakistan’s population. The number of girls out of school has increased even more. Take the crude birth rate which is a good indicator of the status of women in a society. This had begun to steadily decline since the sixties when the first official family planning programme was launched. In 1960 the CBR was 49 per 1000. In 1982 it had come down to 42 only to shoot up again to 46 in 1989. Correspondingly, the total fertility rate (the average number of children a woman can have in her reproductive life) went up to 6.6 in 1989 after having fallen to 5.8 in 1982.

This is not surprising. The Ziaul Haq years were the darkest period in the history of Pakistani women. Laws were enacted in the name of Islamisation which not only cruelly discriminated against women but actually made them liable to be punished for crimes which they had not committed. For example, the promulgation of the Hudood Ordinance created a situation which has sent more women to prison in Pakistan than ever before in the country’s history. Many of them who are innocent still languish in jail because they are disadvantaged by poverty, illiteracy and social traditions.

Another devastating dimension of the martial law years which took women back several decades was the anti-feminine climate that was created. The establishment of the Women’s Division in the Federal Government and loud proclamations of the rights granted to women by Islam notwithstanding, they were actually pushed back in an effort to confine them within the four walls of their homes. The slogan of chadar aur chardivari was raised to restrain women from corning forward to seek betterment. Female emancipation was checked by condemning the few who sought to provide leadership to women in their struggle to unshackle themselves as Westernised and alien to the indigenous culture. As though the Pakistani culture only consigns women to the dark backwaters of ignorance and servility.

The most disturbing aspect of the women’s situation today is that this state of decay and retrogression which set in a decade ago continues to persist. In fact, the position is bleaker. Why? Firstly, politics has supplanted discussion on social and women’s issues. Although this should not be so because such questions which are fundamental to our survival should be an integral part of politics. But the fact is that they are not, because of the bankruptcy of our politics. Hence in the absence of a focus for the struggle for women’s rights which the military regime’s blatantly anti-woman stance had provided, the response of the women’s movement has also weakened considerably.

This is dangerous for the women’s struggle. For while a small minority appears to be doing well, the condition of the majority is deteriorating and that too insidiously. As the women’s movement has begun to flag in dynamism, the paradox is that it alone can revive public interest in the uplift of women. Given the thrust of the government’s policy towards privatisation, it is futile to expect the public sector to be geared towards the betterment and progress of women.

The problem with many of the women’s bodies is that they have concentrated mainly on consciousness raising and creating awareness among women of their rights. This is a key function the significance of which should not be downgraded. The fact is that until women assert themselves to achieve their rights and empower themselves, they, will remain a downtrodden class. But consciousness without the necessary facilities to help women help themselves can prove to be quite frustrating.

It is in this context that the women’s movement in Pakistan has failed. There are a number of agencies which are working to provide literacy, health care, employment opportunities and legal aid to women. They are rendering highly commendable service in their own areas and their contribution should not be belittled. They have, however, failed at the macro level. One cannot help but note that they have not succeeded in generating a wider thrust towards change.

If attitudes had been sufficiently transformed, the dropout rate among female pupils would not have been so high — over 75 per cent of the girls drop out of the school system after the primary level. It has not been possible to even sustain their enrolment in schools once their parents have been motivated to send their daughters to school.

The time has now come for the women’s movement to concertedly strive for the empowerment of women. Consciousness raising was the first stage and it has certainly been marked with success. Even mobilising public opinion for the women’s cause was a prime responsibility at a time when civil rights were non-existent under the martial law regime. Had this not been done, women would not have managed to hold on to many of the rights they had managed to win earlier after a hard struggle. Moreover, they would have been dragged into the dark chasms of obscurantism as they would have become hapless victims of the miscarriage of justice. How narrowly they escaped this fate thanks to the dynamism of the women’s movement at that time was demonstrated in the Fahmida- Allah Bakhsh and the Shahida Parveen cases. Consciousness raising and mobilisation of public opinion were the factors that saved women in the blackest phase of their history.

But now the time for the next stage has arrived. The immediate need is to provide the facilities which are necessary to capitalise on the awareness that has been created about the women’s cause.

If women have been made aware of the importance of education for their personal, social and, economic development, they must be provided schools where they can study and their absence from home for a few hours every day be facilitated. When they are taught about the significance of health care, sanitation and nutrition for their quality of life, medical facilities must be made accessible to them. When women learn about the impact of family size and the spacing of children on their own health and the health of their children, as well as their socio-economic emancipation, contraceptives should also be made available to them. Similarly, the importance of economic emancipation has little relevance if the. employment generation process is neglected and no provision made for childcare for the working mother.

Here it must be emphasised that all this can be achieved if women are organised with a view to promoting their empowerment. Education must be central to this process. Thus alone can the women’s movement ultimately come to be rooted in the middle class from where it must derive its strength and following, if it is to succeed. If this opportunity is allowed to go by default, all that has been achieved in the past decade will be irretrievably lost.

Source: Dawn 05-06-1992