Ever wonder how much the world has changed for women in the last two decades? In the South Asian region, women empowerment is a hot issue today. In Pakistan, too, the masses are familiar with terms like gender equity, gender disparity, gender based violence, women entrepreneurship and gender advisors. These issues are frequently discussed and analysed on TV channels, newspapers, seminars and radio shows. Various platforms have been developed in different sectors to empower women and advocate female literacy in Pakistan. Gender-friendly policies have been formulated by the government to encourage participation of women in the economic sector. But is the average Pakistani woman an empowered individual?
In Pakistan, media has played a significant role in identifying and highlighting some crucial gender issues like honour killing, acid victims, rape, brutal mutilation, stove burning and domestic violence. But it has been totally oblivious to the daily dilemmas of an average woman. It has assumed that if a woman is not a victim of serious abuse, she does not have any other problems in life except for maybe a broken nail or hair fall. This is absolutely ridiculous!
Most TV programmes and commercials portray a ‘complete’ woman — someone who is always ready to sacrifice her own happiness and career for her home. Someone who doesn’t even flinch at her husband’s affairs, verbal/physical abuse, rude in-laws or a miserable life in general. She always serves, with a smile!
In all successful and popular TV plays, the heroine is a quiet, simple and selfless creature and the vamp is usually a career-oriented, assertive, stylish and confident individual with a strong voice. Same is the case with the TV commercials. A perfect wife, as shown in the advertisements, is someone who cooks, cleans and happily serves her family. Not a single advertising agency has dared to show a strong working woman. Where is the empowerment and what is the message we are conveying to the general public?
Taking a closer look at the life of an average Pakistani woman would reveal that in most cases she is an insecure and suppressed victim of constant abuse, even in her own home. Her self-confidence and self-esteem are usually shredded to pieces on a daily basis by her life partner. In a typical Pakistani household, wives and daughters are meant to be seen, not heard. If a husband yells and abuses, he is being a man, but if a wife answers back, she is being difficult. Even today, an assertive, strong and confident woman is perceived as a threat to her family and the society.
Upon visiting the “peaceful” and “happy” homes, one can often observe the underlying stress and suppression in the air.
After witnessing a really ugly scene (one of many) of a volatile husband humiliating his beautiful wife (a doctor) at a party, I had to ask the wife why she takes these public humiliations. Her husband cannot do this to her. She calmly corrected me and said, “He can, hence he does.” Confused, I asked her why does she not just walk out of this abusive relationship? “I cannot so I do not,” was her simple reply.
Most empowered (financially independent and highly educated) women of this society carry dark little secrets and bruises of domestic abuse. As this abuse is usually emotional or verbal, it is not taken seriously and is accepted as an essential part of the package called marriage. You object to this and demand respect at home and in the society and your social status of being a married woman is under threat.
During my survey on women empowerment in a modern university of Lahore, a bright and confident girl described the phenomenon quite accurately. According to her, at campus she feels secure, strong and appreciated but when she is home and her father comes back from work, she turns into a timid, confused and unloved creature — a photocopy of her own mother. There is an unseen dread in the air which makes her speak in muted tones, walk meekly and sit “properly”. And then the next morning, the jubilant and vivacious soul returns once she is inside the campus.
Basically, empowerment is the right of access to the 3 Es — Education, Employment and Entertainment.
Entertainment may seem to be the most unusual component here and it is an alien term for the women of Pakistan. Even though most young girls do get the opportunity to have some healthy fun through the concerts, funfairs, sports competitions and galas organised in their educational institutes, one cannot find any public parks where females can go and enjoy sports or just hang out.
For the older women, especially housewives, there are no means of entertainment. There aren’t any community clubs, social events or fun activities available for the average woman. Scientific studies have proved that socialising and having a good laugh with friends adds years to your life, in addition to having a positive effect on your personal well-being. But in the conservative society of Pakistan, it is the men who enjoy the right to socialise.
As a part of my survey, I had a discussion with a large group of housewives and a few interesting (if not amusing) facts were discovered. According to most of them, the weekend outings or family picnics (meant for the entertainment of women folk in most households in Pakistan) are more tiring than the regular week days.
As one of the stay-at-home moms, Salima, explained “If there is a family picnic planned for a Sunday, I have to get up early to prepare the lunch and snacks. Then there is the tiring task of dressing up the kids, packing the crockery (no concept of paper plates here, sorry!) and of course the picnic blanket, football, etc. Once we reach there, I spread out the food while others have fun. I cannot even lie down on the blanket and relax in the park (as ours is a conservative society). So I just sit and watch until it’s time to go back home where I unpack, do the dirty dishes, wipe the kids’ shoes (to save the carpets) and start preparing dinner. Where is my share of entertainment?” she asks in frustration. Everywhere I went for the survey, the story was more or less the same as that of Salima’s.
Education is the key to empowerment. Female literacy programmes do exist in Pakistan but due to the underinvestment in the educational sector, 1% of the GDP, girls’ education has failed to make visible progress. Moreover, the gap between male and female literacy rate is widening with each passing year. It has been established that female literacy is directly related to economic development as educated women have fewer children and provide better environment, education and nutrition to them than that which is provided by illiterate women to their children.
In the urban areas of Pakistan, most women do enjoy the right to study as much as they want (or till they receive a good proposal). But interestingly, most parents discourage their girls from taking music or performing arts as a career. Painting and sculpture is accepted (though with a frown) but dancing and singing are still considered taboo professions. Talented young girls with tremendous flair in music or performing arts are often frustrated at the obstacles and the social stigma attached to these forms of expression. Hence, some amazingly melodious voices will never be heard or appreciated by the world.
Financial independence of women is recognised as a crucial issue in Pakistan as women, constituting more than 50% of the entire population, are becoming a burden on the country’s economy. In Pakistan, there are jobs available for women, but still there are not many women in the work force. Among the many reasons that explain this trend, the most significant ones are family restrictions, society pressures, mobility issues, lack of skills, sexual harassment at the work place and lack of confidence. These issues hinder a woman’s career development and restrict her from utilising her full potential to become a productive member of the community. Society’s emphasis on a traditional role for women and to keep them “protected” in homes, limits the women’s mobility and their participation in the work force in Pakistan.
Empowerment of women will lead to a prosperous and bright future of this country, but the average Pakistani woman has to embark on a long journey before she becomes an individual with a strong identity. Unless the government develops extensive programmes to create a gender-neutral legal environment, closing the gender gap in health, employment and education and addressing structural barriers and social constraints, a woman in Pakistan will not be able to play any productive role in the economy building of her country.