Love and hate for women activism in Pakistan

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By Benish Saleem

The month of March brings transient but palpable tensions in Pakistan as ‘Aurat March’ (women march) approaches and demonstrators (women) take to the streets to claim their rights. There was a fierce debate, not too long ago, about the protection and empowerment of women rights in Pakistan but the recent Pandemic has shifted the patterns of debate towards coping with another crisis (coronavirus).

The history of Women’s mobilization in Pakistan is not as old as it seems as up until recently, the rights have been recognised in the legal framework and women are given the privilege to enjoy some of the very basic rights like divorce and inheritance, protection at work and public places against sexual harassment and domestic violence. Not to mention, all these reforms did not happen overnight and went through different periods of acceptance and opposition. For instance, the Domestic Violence Act that was deferred in (2009) and finally accepted in (2012) is the prime example of government’s sluggish response to the reforms.

The two contradictory, divergent views about how women rights should look like is the representation of the repulsive behaviour towards the acknowledgment of those rights. The two contending groups, that don the TV screens right before the March and sensationalise the matter with completely different visions—one touting the gendered modernization and the other condoning the norms and customs—only add confusion and anxiety to the speculation.

The debate is not who is wrong or right here, as the general consensus is hard to reach in a country where there are patriarchal attitudes intertwined inextricably with cultural and faith based practices. The intent is to highlight the real damage that occurred to the old and long-standing women organisations of Pakistan who have fought relentlessly for the rights of women. Due to their continuous efforts and indelible contributions, Pakistan has been able to see the legal reforms to secure some of the basic rights aforementioned.

The valiant women in Pakistan very well know how to survive but just need respect and encouragement by the society. The vendor shown in the picture is one of such courageous women who is selling vegetables and fruit in Lahore and is the only sources of income for her family.

The comprehensive damage to their role perhaps was caused by a much hated slogan (My Body, My Rights). An Amnesty International campaign, introduced globally in 2014 in response to the anti- abortion laws was focussed to give women a complete bodily autonomy and control of one’s body as human rights. “The right when to marry and have children, access to health, sexual and reproductive rights and be able to make such decisions without fear, coercion and discrimination and violence” (Amnesty International 2016). This is a global women rights campaign, aiming at all nations with a broad message and individual countries are free to focus on a particular theme. The real trouble began when it was widely misrepresented in Pakistan as something to promote vulgarity, obscenity and western culture. Part of the blame can go to the women activists who touted the campaign for their own vested interest and without any clarification that led the nation to believe that their women are being corrupted.

The theme of this campaign is global, and so are the ramifications of it. Individual countries need to look at the campaign based on their own restrictive settings. We can not implement everything put forth in a global campaign but we can pay attention to the good parts of it such as the reproductive rights, the right of when to get married etc., could have been delineated clearly in order to avoid disinformation. Apparently, unclear message has caused damage to the gains achieved by repertoires of women activism. It is an admitted fact that the reproductive rights violation and oppression is prevalent in Pakistan as women have always been considered subservient and expect to capitulate to the demands of their husbands. The results are – high maternal death rate–and weakened mental health. The proliferation of such acts is even higher in the least developed areas where parochial attitudes take over the logic and the women’s ability to reproduce is violated every year. Same way the right of when to get married is also overwhelmed by the constrictive thinking in the poorer areas, forcing girls to drop out of school and coerced them into marriage.

The contentious politics is to be blamed about polarising the matters when it comes to Women rights protection. There are many organisations who are invested in providing long-term benefits but their work can greatly be undermined by the over-ambitious activists —with ambiguous message. Already, the attention towards discriminatory practices against women has been scant. Whether, it was the issue of acid throwing or punishment for honour killings—the efforts to ameliorate the matters were slow and insufficient. The biggest hurdle that stand in way of considering and accepting any right for women can largely be ascribed to the misogyny institunalised in the minds of the people who have no idea that religious and cultural practices are two different things. For instance, taking and giving Dowry is a cultural practice that has no place in Islam. Yet, the practice is minimally condemned and widely practiced. Contrary to it, Islam has given the equal and highest rank to the women in society and protecting and ensuring the provision of such rights is very much an Islamic Practice. To date, there are no separate institutions in Pakistan to regulate Women laws and to ensure they are viable. That lack of regulation gives rise to the sctivists with their own personal agendas — some of whom can completely disregard the Islamic precepts while others promote global women rights, meanwhile adhering to the religious principles.

 (The writer is a journalism student at the University of London Birkbeck and is an active member of university’s student union). Email: beesaleem216@gmail.com)