The 2020 report of the World Economic Forum on Global Gender Gap Index ranked Pakistan third-to-last, at number 151. The country is said to have managed to reduce the gender gap by 56 per cent but has drastically slipped down from its 2006 rank of 112, positioning itself in the bottom 10 in three of the four main categories of the index. But what do these poorly performing on-paper figures suggest? How different are these figures from any other South Asian country that is run by a similar patriarchal framework? More importantly, what challenges do these figures pose to Pakistan’s feminist movements?
Benazir Bhutto, who is often criticized for her disappointing actions on behalf of Pakistani women as the first female Prime Minister and a prominent Muslim world leader, was assassinated in 2007. The potent symbol of Pakistan’s potential women empowerment that she was, her death snatched away the poster person of feminist dreamers and doers alike from the political canvas of Pakistan. Despite being labelled as an ‘imperfect feminist’ by the international media, Bhutto’s demise got her media attention and threw light on the then-existing bureaucratic machinery that forced this label upon her image outside Pakistan, hindering her plan of action. Bhutto’s assassination episode was coincidental to the onset of a crucial period for Pakistan’s feminist movements which had begun to benefit from the advent of independent news channels and social media. It was the start of a period which allowed women to share their ideas and beliefs.
Becoming a part of these advancements, in early 2009, an eleven-year-old girl wrote a blog under a pseudonym for BBC Urdu detailing her life during the Pakistani Taliban occupation of Swat Valley, her native in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Malala Yousafzai considers Benazir Bhutto her role model. After surviving a failed attempt of assassination by Taliban extremists as a retaliatory measure against her activism for the education of women, Malala rose to become the new face of feminist movements in Pakistan and a Nobel Peace Prize winner too. Apart from Benazir Bhutto and Malala Yousafzai, many other feminist activists have contributed to the struggle against discrimination right from the time of formation of Pakistan. Their endless struggles have often been overshadowed by a chaotic conflict between the outspoken Sharia advocacy of 84 per cent of Pakistan’s population (according to a PEW opinion poll) and the Universal Human Rights Declaration (which is believed to be trespassing the religious and cultural setup of Pakistan with incompatible western reforms).
A wide gap between the ideologies of conservative Pakistanis and their liberal counterparts has reduced the argument related to women rights in Pakistan to merely a debates that news channels telecast during primetime. The third set of people and seemingly the most rational ones believe in reclaiming religion by fixing the misinterpretations and manipulations that have been done to the Sharia laws in the interest of men. Amidst so many ideologies and dilemmas, the real sufferers are the subjects of these discussions who live a miserable life in the sixth most dangerous country in the world for women (Thomson Reuters Foundation Survey, 2018).
In a recent incident on 13th September 2020, a woman was gang-raped at gunpoint near a desolate highway in Lahore. The investigating officer blamed the survivor for being out late at night and that too without a man. This sparked protest all across Pakistan and became the rallying point of outrage. This incident forces us to wonder that if misogyny and gender biases exist at all levels in their country, who are the women in Pakistan really fighting? Yes, unlike women of any other South Asian country, these women are fighting an age-old institution of patriarchy starting from the domestic level alongside a stereotypical portrayal of Pakistani women with oft-used tropes that push their opinions under the carpet of ignorance.
In recent times for the good news tabloids, Pakistani women have chosen to amplify their voices by organising events like the Aurat March- a political demonstration organized in different cities annually, broadcasting podcasts on YouTube channels and private media platforms, and by blogging about their struggles. A very lauded example of changing scenarios in Pakistan can be seen in the drama web series- ‘Churails’, which depicts the changing social dynamics of women in Pakistan. The series breaks long-held stereotypes about Pakistani women and thoughtfully portrays the LGBTQ+ scenario of the country’s population. Like any other country with the problem of gender bias, Pakistan too has challenges on a much-enhanced scale with religion, customs, and the traditional upbringing of its people as the deciding factors. The deep penetration of egalitarian goals in the female class of the country has a long way ahead.
Graphic by Anjali Dinesh