Monday, March 29, 2010

Winds of Change

Human societies have, traditionally, been male-dominated owing to the male’s superior physical strength. However, as higher intellectual concerns gained importance, women began to assert themselves and change became inevitable in the status quo, with some cultures being more receptive while others resistant.

Over the last hundred years, Western societies have seen a change in attitude, with emancipation and empowerment of women bringing about a major revolution in their status. Unfortunately, Eastern societies by and large still remain mired in centuries-old traditions strongly emphasizing stereotyping of gender roles. However, despite widespread gender-bias in these societies, women are surprisingly resilient and competitive. Many Eastern nations including Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, the Philippines and Turkey have, or have had, women Heads of State, and Bangladesh stands out with a female PM as well as a female head of opposition.

Conversely, when we look at the wider picture closer to home, the status of women presents a dismal picture. They are encouraged to be submissive, dependent and subordinate with the majority having little or no control over any kind of economic or political decision-making, as well as in everyday issues like marriage, dress code, access to basic health facilities and career aspirations. Men, on the other hand, enjoy a privileged existence. A male child has priority over his female sibling in access to food, education and health. Not surprisingly, the percentage of males outnumbers that of females in Pakistan, a trend opposed to that prevalent in the rest of the world. The Demographic and Health Survey of Pakistan in a report (1992) declares the ratio of men and women in the country as 108:100 – one important cause of this discrepancy being the high mortality rate in childbearing young women.

A major obstacle in the way to empowerment of women is gender bias leading to economic dependence. The UN Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM) ranks Pakistan as 100th among 185 of its registered countries. Social constraints prevent many capable women from pursuing active careers and achieving economic independence. According to recent Government of Pakistan figures, the percentage of working women in Pakistan is only 14% - a bleak picture for the future of a country that badly needs as many working hands as possible in order to not only improve its standing among the developing nations but, actually, to survive.

The predicament of the lower class woman is worse than that of the middle or upper class female, though all suffer due to unjust social practices. They are battling domestic violence, Karo-Kari, marriage to the Quran, Swara, Wani, honour killings and much more, besides other less severe forms of discrimination from close family members. Due to economic pressures, female employment is much higher among low-income groups than in the middle or upper class. Unfortunately, these working women do not benefit from their hard work, as they are not independent decision-makers in the use of their earnings.

For the middle and upper-middle class female, social pressures generally dictate career choices. Medicine and teaching appear to be the most sought after fields, albeit per force. Though both provide excellent career opportunities for women having an aptitude for these professions, many enter these fields for lack of other available options. As a result, they experience little or no job satisfaction and are unable to contribute productively. Only a small percentage of women rebel against conformity, defy tradition and venture into male-dominated fields, risking the wrath of their own family as well as censure from society. These women have to struggle hard to secure their rights in the workplace. The attitude of male colleagues is often discouraging, as they become wary of competition from those widely acknowledged inferior. Women who aspire for higher management positions meet stiff resistance; while for those who manage to climb the corporate ladder despite all odds, success is attributed to unjustified means rather than competence.

Recently however, a change has been observed with women – though still a minority – competing and succeeding in diverse technical fields, joining private organizations or working as entrepreneurs, and getting noticed for their silent contribution to the dwindling economy. They are also making a mark in the political arena with a record number of representation as women legislators in the political decision-making bodies that were traditionally considered male-dominated power houses.

One encouraging factor for women in Pakistan, resulting in an increase in participation in non-traditional fields is the burgeoning of the NGO sector over the last few years. It has provided a wide range of job opportunities to women with good salary packages. The ‘glass-ceiling effect’ felt and resented by a large number of women working in many of the government and private organizations, in which the power hierarchy does not allow women to go beyond a certain level despite fulfilling all pre-requisites, has been challenged by these NGOs who offer jobs on the basis of qualifications. They install women as programme coordinators and send them out in the field to prove their worth, rather than settling for locally-accepted select set of positions. In this regard, the foreign donors having humanitarian, or female-friendly, agendas are playing an important role.

In the Pakistan Armed Forces, women have been working as doctors and nurses in the Army, Navy and the Air Force. Recently, more steps have been taken to contribute towards their empowerment by introducing the first ever induction of female cadets in the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) as fighter pilots. In the Army, besides working in the Army Medical Corps (AMC) that proudly boasts of having two female Major Generals, now other options are also being made available. The creation of 34 new vacancies for women, initiated in 2006 in the Pakistan Military Academy (PMA) has been widely welcomed. The newly inducted female cadets, after getting two-years training at PMA, will be adjusted in the ISPR (Inter Services Public Relations), AEC (Army Education Corps), ASC (Army Signals Corps) and the Army’s law department – the JAG (Judge Advocate General) Branch.

The Pakistan Armed Forces are generally considered female-friendly organizations and their command structure caters to the social needs of females. Female officers are not posted to what are known as ‘hard-areas’ to avoid social problems. Female officers, who are spouses of Armed Forces personnel, are also posted to stations accommodating both simultaneously. However, the trend in the society of bias towards female colleagues extends itself here too and, sometimes, senior male colleagues are observed dealing with their female subordinates with undue harshness. Credit for a job well done is, many a time, not generously given while male colleagues attribute even genuine appreciation from superiors to mere indulgence.

The latest developments in the amendment of the misused Hudood Ordinance, it is hoped, will prove to be a step forward for women of Pakistan. Despite having certain good aspects to it, this 27-year old law failed to provide protection to women against injustices. The perpetrators of Hadd crimes compounded the misery of victims by manipulating loopholes present in this law. The Protection of Women’s Rights (Criminal Laws Amendment) Bill, passed by National Assembly on November 15, approved by the Senate on November 24 and signed by President Musharraf on December 1, aims to address grievances of oppressed women by putting an end to exploitation. However, strong opposition to the Bill’s implementation is expected, since any amendment in the controversial Ordinance is perceived and projected as un-Islamic and representative of some ‘Western agenda’ by some parties. These hardline religious parties need to deliberate on this issue with an open mind and understand that the purpose of WPA is to change man-made discriminatory laws and unfair social practices, not to challenge the Hudood set in the Quran.

Despite all odds, Pakistani women have come a long way in the last sixty years and will continue to move forward in order to secure the rights denied to them by an intolerant and biased society but promised by the Constitution of the country, as well as the religion it claims to represent. The winds of change are blowing on the horizon and it might be wise for all concerned to make way for the emancipated, motivated and self-aware woman of today.


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