By Sherry Rehman
TODAY’S Pakistan has gone through several important transformations, most notable of which is the country’s default inclination towards some form of democracy, even if its current avatar manifests as illiberal.
In this landscape of rising global populism, and a swing away from universal rights, women, the country’s still largely marginalised yet significant half, face a series of old and new challenges. This is not the Pakistan Jinnah imagined for women, nor the one Benazir lived and died for.
Still there is a palpable, unquantifiable change in the air. Sixty-four per cent of Pakistan is under thirty years of age. They sense and experience power and identity differently, with new tools of communication and knowledge-sharing.
The millennial women of Pakistan, its new generation, who did not see the street fight for fundamental rights that we engaged in against General Zia’s pursuit of legitimacy under the garb of Islamisation, have naturally grown up in a world where their freedoms collide with both new and old predations.
Those that have access to an education and the internet rail against the social and physical boxes we live in, and fight for room to express themselves freely, to breathe the air of public spaces, and to not be defined by others in making choices and life goals.
While demographics and technology have changed the way urban Pakistan thinks, structural and social discriminations continue to define a woman’s experience in Pakistan. The battle for old goals and new ambitions goes on.
Pakistani women were never silent. From the fight for the creation of Pakistan, through 1961, when women fought for a change to marriage laws, imperfect as they are, or the women’s movement triggered by Zia’s claustrophobic regime, we have spoken out.
Today, most of the better stories coming out of Pakistan feature women as their protagonists. Yet it is important to remember that these are the women who buck the trend. Many keep their eye on the ground, where real change and powerful forces of resistance to change collide often over women’s bodies and lives in deathly tableaux of medieval oppression.
Human rights defenders face a new era of challenges, where a tidal wave of extremism that we fight still finds takers in collective, private punishment councils. Today the defenders too find they are targets of the anger of armed extremists.
The battle around the world between moderation and extremism, between ignorance and education, between the past and the future is manifest in the struggle for women’s dignity and for women’s rights. History, religion, and geopolitics cast a long shadow on women’s lives everywhere, but deeply so in Pakistan.
The resolution of this struggle will determine what kind of a people we are and what kind of a society we embrace and want to build for our children and ourselves.
It is easy to box Pakistan in one category of bombs and bullets. What many fail to see is that Pakistan is also very much about women who are committed to paving the way for an inclusive tomorrow. Experience shows us that even the worst democracy opens doors for an empowerment dividend, and women are often the first to use the vote and claim their place under the sun as citizens with rights to negotiate.
We are witnessing this truth unfold, albeit slowly, in Pakistan today, as more women run for public office and many exercise their right to vote for the first time. Democracy has given women across the national spectrum a voice in ways that amplify their needs, their potential, and propel them to the mainstream. But democracy alone is not enough, anywhere in the world.
Democracy should ideally ensure that women are partners, not victims of change, and our parliamentary records show that women legislators are frontrunners in holding government accountable as well as in pioneering reform. For us, there is no turning back. Our media is constantly shining a light on abuse and exploitation, and Pakistan is now a noisy, contentious, fractious democracy, with the second-highest urban density in South Asia.
Despite crippling infrastructure odds, energy deficits, governance shortcomings, and a war against militancy and extremism that has scorched our earth, Pakistan with its women on the march, is on the move.
Social justice does not simply materialise, no matter how many laws we make. Laws are the foundation for change, but for reform to take root, the battle for one’s rights has to be fought at every step of the way. From leadership issues to activism at the workplace, from laws to society, from media portrayal to how women are de-activated as citizens, professionals, and community members, it is our duty and responsibility to change the prevailing narrative of women as victims.
As we celebrate International Women’s Day, we must demand the fundamental right to be judged by who we are and what we have accomplished, not defined by our fathers and husbands, but defined by ourselves. Rights don’t fall into one’s lap from a comfort zone. We must continue to push back, disrupt and defy emerging challenges, risks and problems women face at multiple levels.
It is not always easy, but what goal worth fighting for is ever easy?
(Sherry Rehman is Parliamentary Leader of the PPP in the Senate, and Chair of the Climate Change Caucus in Parliament and CPEC Committee. She has served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Washington as well as Federal Information Minister.)