Pakistan: Women Rights & Ground Realities

An investigative report of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) claims that one woman is raped every hour, while another is killed on the pretext of karokari.
According to a Human Rights Watch report 95 percent women are the victims of domestic violence. Under pressure from the male relatives, the decaying concepts of family honour and economic dependence the victims seldom raise their voice against the cruelty. If someone dares to speak out, her voice is suppressed either by the family elders or police and other law-enforcement agencies, including the flawed judicial system, writes Simy Zafar (General Secretary of the Working Women Organization).
The woman was carrying an infant in her lap. Accompanying her were two little girls, four and five years old. Her spouse was resting behind them. As there were not many passengers onboard, both the seats beside him were vacant. The take off was delayed for more than an hour. During this time the woman was taking care of the children while their father did not bother to help. The flight took almost two hours to reach Lahore from Karachi. During this time, the woman fed the infant and the girls, took a morsel or two while adjusting her headscarf, which would slip down every now and then. During this time the husband moved only once for admonishing the girls. This made me wonder why the woman was not asking her spouse to help. Is she afraid of him or does she thinks that her husband has no obligation to help her?

It is a reflection of the overall attitude of our society towards women. She is considered as a creature created to serve as a mother, a sister and a wife. Yet, it does not matter how they treat her in response.

It is evident that the birth of a girl is not welcomed in our society. This discriminating behavior is well reflected in the report about crimes against women in Punjab during the past five years.

At least 9,679 women were killed, among them 1,638 were the killed by their fathers, brothers or husbands. Around 8,041 of them were slain over property issues, family disputes and dowry issue. The report also reveals that 3,379 victims were burnt alive or fell prey to acid throwing.

There is no mention of the thousands of women that are sacrificed under the societal norms of karokari, watta satta, vani and the infamous Hudood Ordinance. Of the total women languishing in various prisons of the province, 60 percent are facing trial under the Hudood Ordinance, most of them the victims of sexual abuse. Instead of being provided justice, they were put behind bars.

Various tactics are employed to maintain negative societal attitudes against women. They are deprived of their basic right to education and are harassed, both physically and mentally, when they step out of their homes. Character assassination faces those who work outside their homes. Women are portrayed as their own enemies. In almost all genres of literature and media, especially in TV plays, women are assigned roles of hatching conspiracies, lying and cheating. Religion is used as a weapon for proving that women are inferior to men. Religious misinterpretations are used as a cover-up against all injustices and abuses.

The most lethal tactic applied against women is robbing them of their self-confidence and self-esteem. Mothers, sisters and daughters are facing adverse conditions and abuse only because they perceive that they deserve whatever they are going through. They are forced to believe that the major threat for them is only another woman, whether inside or outside the house. This propaganda is hurting the status of women in society. Why it is that the life of a woman is considered so cheap that she is killed before birth, when she is just a fetus. Since her birth, she is burdened with family norms, socio-economic compulsions and religious commandments, or killed in the name of honour. She is often exchanged like a commodity as a payoff to settle family feuds and property disputes.

The responsibility for all this falls on the flawed system, where all the resources are accumulated in few hands. These few employ every tactic and strategy to exploit these resources without giving anything to the needy. They keep frightening the 'have-nots' of instability and uncertainty, so that they do not question this exploitation.

This system originating from the higher authorities trickles down to towns, villages, localities and homes where men, after suffering bitterness, failure and deprivation all day long, return home to vent their feelings by shouting and beating their spouse, offspring, mother and sisters.

In our society where people have been divided in the name of caste, creed, region and language, another divide perhaps the greatest one is in the name of gender. If the men and women of the 'have-nots', which forms an overwhelming majority get united, they would become a threat to the affluent minority who enjoy all the perks and privileges.

The most important question is how to revert this situation. The answer is that it is only possible when the women start believing that they are lesser to none and realize their rights by raising a voice. They can change the situation they are in.

Men from the deprived classes also need to understand that their socio-economic compulsions would lessen only when their women would be safe both inside and outside their homes. Their mothers, sisters and daughters have to be free to decide about education, employment and their lives.

The International Women Day is celebrated with fervor both by the government and the media. It is a good omen and more voices should be raised for women rights. However, the enthusiasm must not remain restricted to one day only. Forcing the government to ensure education for all, both boys and girls, is our collective duty. There must be equal employment opportunities while abusers of women must be taken to task by granting them exemplary punishments. To make the deterrence more effective, the criminal should also be subjected to social boycott. The legal system should be simplified and afforded free of charge. The law-enforcement agencies must investigate crimes against women on top priority basis and should be held responsible for any lapse in this respect.

Although, an increasing number of women are now working outside their homes, the fact is that they are doing so due to economic compulsions. Creating an atmosphere where women can work with peace of mind is the need of the hour. This will help the families in realizing that their daughters like their sons can accept their economic burden and feed themselves as well as their families. Giving a practical form to these measures is the actual way to defend women's rights.

July 2009

By Simy Zafar

Source: Working Women Organization