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Where are women going? And how do they get there?

Having a firm sense of direction is not only beneficial on a practical level, but it can also provide a greater sense of coherence and clarity for a whole range of issues. As a feminist, I periodically ask myself about the direction that Pakistan is headed on the issue of gender. And how can Pakistani women best achieve equality in all areas of their lives? Or put in simple terms ‘where are women going? And how do we get there?’ Discrimination against women is endemic in our society and cuts across all political affiliations, state institutions and the whole of the private sector.

In examining the systematic and deep-rooted discrimination against women in Pakistan, it is necessary to differentiate between the position of women under the ‘law’ and their position in the wider society. On the legal side, progress has undeniably been made (although there is still some way to go). Article 25 of the Constitution says: “All citizens are equal before the law and are entitled to equal protection of law.” It also states that “there shall be no discrimination on the basis of sex.” There are additional pro-women laws that have been passed by successive governments. However, if achieving equality between women and men could simply be achieved by passing laws, there would be nothing to discuss. There can be no better guarantee of women’s rights than the Constitution. It is the highest legal authority in the land. Unfortunately, laws in themselves cannot bring about social change without the will to do so by both the government and the wider society.

Ending discrimination additionally requires there to be a critical mass in favour within both the state and society as a whole. Article 25 provides, in the clearest possible terms, an answer to the question ‘where are we going on the issue of gender?’ Our destination is equality. The complex and much harder question to answer is how as a society do we get to this destination? In examining this issue we need to look beyond the law and look to the social reality of women’s day-to-day lives and how this can converge with women’s legal rights. Currently, there is a significant disconnect between the two.

Pakistan is not alone in facing this disconnect between the legal equality ‘granted’ to women and the social reality (I put the term ‘granted’ in quotation marks, as regrettably women throughout the world have invariably been ‘granted’ equal legal status by men). Most, if not all, societies that have passed laws on equality face the same problem, how can you achieve the equality of women in the wider society? We only need to look at the position of women in the UK to see what a huge challenge this is. The UK passed the Equal Pay Act in 1970 and passed the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975, yet in 2017 following the publication of the salaries of its top earners, the BBC was rightly heavily criticised for blatantly discriminating against women by paying them less than their male counterparts for doing the same job.

With over 40 years for successive British governments, with substantial resources at their disposal, to achieve equality, the BBC fiasco showed what little progress had been made. Britain’s failure to eliminate discrimination in the workplace over a 40-year period tells us it is simply not a matter of resources and time. If it were, discrimination would have been eliminated in the UK. Resources are only part of the equation. What is perhaps the key in eliminating any form of discrimination is the view taken by the wider society and societies’ support for change. The views of the wider society on any particular issue can be shaped by either governments or civil society groups, or a combination of the two. However, where the institutions of the state are weak and/or inflexible, it is civil society groups and activists that are best placed to influence and shape society and to bring about meaningful change. For example, faced with intransigent state institutions at the state and federal level, it was civil society groups in America that drove the civil rights movement in the 1960s. The civil rights movement achieved far more for the rights and for the improvement of the day-to-day living conditions of African-Americans than the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution (abolishing slavery) did. Yes, the abolitionists of the 19th century were successful in ending the legal status of slavery, however, little else changed for the ex-slaves. They still worked on the plantations and continued to have no legal rights, and were not socially free. It was only the social movement led by African-American activists that was able to bring about any meaningful and tangible change for the lives of African-Americans.

In much the same way, it is the women’s movement in Pakistan, together with other pro-equality civil society groups, that can help us to arrive at our destination of equality between women and men in both the private and public spheres. Women’s participation in the workplace still has a very long way to go. In the context of our predominantly weak state institutions, it is civil society groups that are best placed to be the engine for meaningful change and to remind the state of its responsibility towards the women of Pakistan.

As meaningful change is most likely to occur through Pakistani social groups, what role, if any, should outside international donors play? While international donors and organisations can undoubtedly assist, this cannot be done in a ‘top down’ manner. Nor can it be effectively done through international management organisations monitoring funded projects. Donors and international groups can lobby parliament to pass laws, but it should be remembered that Pakistan’s primary problem is a social not a legal one. Meaningful and lasting change for women can only come from within our society and led by Pakistanis, with the support of likeminded international non-governmental organisations.

Despite the substantial challenges we face, such as the institutional bias against women by state institutions and the current social reluctance to accept the extent of discrimination women face on a daily basis, I believe we can and will make progress in redressing the imbalance between women and men that currently exists in Pakistan. If, as women, we can better mobilise ourselves socially and through the ballot box, we can shape the debate on gender in Pakistan in our favour; and in turn in favour of wider society.

Jatoi, Benazir. Where are women going? And how do they get there? The Express Tribune, October 4, 2017.

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