Women’s struggle makes headway

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

March 8 is international women’s day. Over the years it has acquired a ritualistic symbolism – seminars, rallies, plays and other events to draw public attention to the deplorable status of women in Pakistan.

The cynics believe nothing comes out of all the rumpus that is created. They point to the dismal state of a majority of women in the country and ask, what have all the international women’s day celebrations done to better their lot?

True, the statistics continue to be shocking. One aspect is the dismal figures of literacy, empowerment and participation in decision-making. According to the Human Development Report, 2004, only 28.5 per cent of women (above 15) in Pakistan were literate in 2002.

The figure would be somewhat better today but by no means satisfactory. The female economic activity rate has been shown as 36 per cent, which is of course, a vast improvement over what it was two decades ago, but not good enough when compared to the South Asian average of 43 per cent.

It is also the lowest in the region. As for the female participation in decision-making at every level, only nine per cent of the administrators, senior officials and managers are women.

The second aspect is the gender disparity that has still not been eliminated, many pious proclamations notwithstanding. Women continue to be perceived as the “other half”.

The Human Development Report shows that in terms of literacy, the female rate is only 53 per cent of the male rate, while the economic activity rate is 44 per cent of the male rate. But given the discrimination they suffer in employment the ratio of women’s earned income to that of men’s is 0.33. Worse still, it is difficult to quantify the violence against women – rapes, murders, domestic abuse. This is on the rise.

But should we start despairing about the fate of women in Pakistan because of these bleak figures? What needs to be noted is that the women’s movement in the country has entered a new phase.

Even ordinary women have begun to fight back not just for their rights as equal citizens of the country entitled to the same treatment as their men folk, but also to have a say in all national and local affairs, since ultimately they are equally affected – in some cases emotionally and economically more – by what befalls the country.

It is in this context that the international women’s day acquires great significance because it symbolizes the efforts of the committed women activists of Pakistan to raise public awareness. It is this mobilization that has enabled women to raise their voice against the injustice that is perpetrated against them.

Women are beginning to feel empowered – if not on the ground, at least in their minds. Many of them have begun to fight back on an individual basis. There are examples which are indicators of the change that is coming.

Without these efforts, it would not have been possible for many rape victims to come out openly about what they have suffered and seek justice even against heavy odds.

The role women are now attempting to play in seemingly “non-women related” issues such as war and peace and international politics is significant. To mark the international women’s day this year and to commemorate 25 years of its existence, Tehrik-i-Niswan has produced a new theatre play “Zikr-i-Nashunida”.

It is not the typical March 8 play lamenting the plight of women, though that does emerge from it. But more important, according to its director and choreographer (who also prepared the script), Prasanna Ramaswamy, it celebrates the female strength which embodies and sustains life, despite the continuous onslaught of destructive activities of the power mongers.

She says, “The imaging of war on television has benumbed people and war has come to be seen as an event with accompanying data. But actually its impact is felt for decades and decades by the people who suffer tragedies, the communities that are dislocated and the environment and economic resources that are devastated.”

In the play which was being rehearsed last week, the words of the female cast had a powerful effect, “We are women. We are the dispossessed of war. We have been left with memories.”

Prasanna believes that art may not change society immediately. But it contributes tremendously towards starting a process of change by sensitizing people, permeating a message into their consciousness and starting a discourse.

Prasanna comes from Madras and is a committed pacifist who uses her art to promote peace. She describes her cooperative venture with Sheema Kermani, the director of Tehreek-i-Niswan, as an “endearing and rewarding experience”.

This is a new aspect of the women’s struggle in Pakistan. As the borders between India and Pakistan gradually open up one can expect the women of the two countries to join hands for a common cause.

While working jointly, as this play underscores, the women on both sides of the borders can work together for issues which are of common concern to them. Peace should be item number one on their agenda.

If the threat of war constantly overshadows them, can they be expected to work for their economic and social development? As Prasanna says, “Gender politics is present in issues of war and peace but it is not there in black and white. It cannot be defined as a man versus woman issue.”

True, the approach to war and peace is not determined by biology. There are militant women and pacifist men. But the fact is that given the situation obtaining in South Asia, men are preponderantly running the government’s show while women are most prominent in the nascent peace movement.

One just has to see the number of women working for the Pakistan-India Forum for Peace and Democracy, and other forums trying to promote peace in South Asia. In governments, men are the ones taking decisions on vital matters of life and death.

India’s ruling Congress Party is headed by a woman, Mrs Sonia Gandhi. But it is now established that the presence of one or two women in a large majority of men does not affect decisions reflecting a potential gender bias.

Thus peace has also been added to the feminist agenda, which already includes female literacy, resisting violence, legal rights of women, female economic empowerment, reproductive health, and equal gender role in political decision-making apart from many others. It is a massive agenda but the struggle must go on.