Pakistan: Change slow to come for Pakistani women

South Asia Citizen's Wire
City dwellers now enjoy new freedoms, but in rural areas old rules still apply.
ISLAMABAD -- At the Hot Spot café, a renovated railcar with retro movie posters and New York-style cheesecake, Sana Qudsia is taking the first tentative steps toward women's liberation, Pakistani-style.
She is enjoying a milkshake on a sunny afternoon with a man who is not related to her. Her light crimson shalwar kameez is fitted to her petite frame and she wears a stylish scarf draped around her shoulders, her hair in a ponytail. She doesn't have to be home until dinner time.

"Things have really changed in the last few years," says Ms. Qudsia, a 21-year-old business-administration graduate who lives in Islamabad with her parents. "It used to be if police saw me walking with a boy in a park together, they would arrest us unless we showed them a marriage contract or paid a bribe."

Pakistan is still a conservative Muslim country and the mullahs remain a powerful force, but in Islamabad and other large cities, such as Karachi, there are small but promising signs of change.

Last year, a group of female film stars performed The Vagina Monologues in the capital, daring to laugh at women's sexuality in a country where many women cannot even show their elbows in public. The performers had to rehearse secretly in a house out of town and hire bouncers in case militant youths tried to stop the show.

But it went off without a hitch, and the actors recently followed up with a sequel. "Just the fact that they discussed these issues and linked it to other topics involving the plight of women was amazing," said a diplomat in attendance.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf often mentions the need to improve the status of women in his speeches, and has made a priority out of reforming the Hudood Ordinance, legislation that includes a version of the 7th-century zina (fornication) law. Under this law, a woman who complains of rape must produce at least four male witnesses. If she fails to prove that the intercourse was forced, she is convicted of adultery.

A female MP and lawyer from the governing party is overseeing an effort to repeal the 1979 ordinance and amend the blasphemy laws that allow the imprisonment of those accused of taking the name of Allah in vain. Yet while the urban elite may be feeling the winds of change, the majority of the country's rural population still live under the old rules, where honour killings take place and husbands are known to burn their wives with acid.

In Peshawar, capital of the North West Frontier Province, bordering Afghanistan, the ruling coalition of religious parties introduced sharia law last year, further restricting the rights of women. Plans are under way to build a women-only university. All females over the age of 12 (Muslims and non-Muslims alike) have been forced into purdah (head-to-toe veiling in public places) and male doctors have been told not to treat female patients, although this has not been enforced.

The provincial government has also banned music on public transportation, confiscated billboards and greeting cards with images of women, and burned thousands of "un-Islamic" videocassettes, compact discs and even deodorant sticks (in the mistaken belief they were sex toys). The six-party governing alliance, known as the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA), has created a special department to enforce public morality, similar to the ministry for the prevention of vice and promotion of virtue set up by the former Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

"It is the Talibanization of the North West Frontier province," complains Afra Siab Khattak, chair of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and an opposition politician. "It's a scary place to be a woman . . . With more segregation, men are more curious and poke and stare more. It's intimidating."

The commission attempts to monitor acts of intimidation against aid workers and human-rights workers, as well as acts of violence against women, most of which goes unreported.

Mr. Khattak says General Musharraf is partly to blame for the current climate, saying the military dictator "appears to be going to the left, but is actually going to the right." He accuses Gen. Musharraf of pandering to the mullahs.

Other analysts agree, pointing out that it was Zia al-Haq, the general who ruled the country from 1977 to 1988, who first formed a strategic alliance with the radical religious forces and implemented Islamic laws.

"Traditionally, the Islamist parties have been natural allies of the army, as against the democratic forces in this country, and this is an alliance that is yet to be questioned under the Musharraf regime," concluded Ajai Sahni, editor of the South Asia Intelligence Review, in a recent article in Asia Times magazine. "The threat of a collapse into fundamentalist anarchy has constantly been held out to the world as justification for the continuation of authoritarian rule by the military."

Haji Ihsan ul-Haq, secretary-general of the MMA, denies that his party is oppressing women -- although he would be scandalized to see Ms. Qudsia sitting in a café, her head bare, with a young unrelated man. The bawdy humour of The Vagina Monologues would be utterly unthinkable.

Seated cross-legged on the floor of a religious bookstore in a Peshawar market, Mr. ul-Haq defends his party's record on women. As he sees it, the MMA government is asking "Islamic men" to accept their responsibilities -- to provide for their women and children -- and teaching women to be "in purdah and remain in their jurisdiction."

"Go around the whole province and you won't even see one single incident of a woman being treated badly," Mr. ul-Haq said. "We haven't imposed a Taliban-style system. Look, I'm sitting before you and talking to you. Islam says to cover your head, but we are only preaching and not imposing."

But his platform rings hollow to activists and human-rights workers, who say they have received anonymous threats for their attempts to work with women.

"It is a stigma to work for a non-governmental organization here in Peshawar," said Jamila Akberzai, with the Afghan Women's Welfare department. "They think aid workers are destabilizing family life by asking women to raise their voices for their rights."

Mr. Khattak adds, "Conditions are better today in Kabul than here."

by Marina Jiménez
The Globe and Mail - August 2, 2004 - Page A9