Aug 7, 2012 - published work, women    4 Comments

Gender-neutral Pakistan, a distant dream

Earlier this year, I conducted part of a gender sensitization workshop organized for government officials. I had the most diversified group because it had representation from all across Pakistan. We had people from the big cities as well as smaller towns and villages such as Khoshab, Noshki, Dadu, Dera Ismail Khan and Ghotki. 
During a session on gender and leadership, I asked everyone to name a leader they like and admire. It could be a community leader, a politician or a sportsman.  I asked them to name a person who is alive (otherwise I would have gotten Iqbal and Jinnah as most admired leaders), brought changes in his/her community, challenges the status quo and has managed to inspire at least one person. All 25 participants came up with a man’s name including the usual suspects such as Imran Khan and Shahbaz Shareef to some really off beat choices such as Mushahid Hussain Syed (seriously!) 
We discussed each and every name and why they admire them and people came up with some really odd reasons. One guy, who quite obviously has worked with Mushahid Hussain Syed in the past, liked him because of his English language skills and his ties and the guy from Dadu thought President Zaradari was the best leader to have graced this land because of his policy of reconciliation. 

I asked the participants if they had any female leaders around them and the only leader they could think of was Speaker National Assembly Dr Fehmida Mirza. When I asked them why they thought she was a leader and what kind of changes had she brought, either in her community or workplace, they could not think of any reason other than stating her office and the fact that she is the first female speaker.

I then decided to throw in a couple of names, who I thought would generate debate about types of leadership roles. I suggested Bilquis Edhi, the woman, who started the first adoption service in Pakistan and gave home to thousands of unwanted babies. I then took the name of Mukhtaran Mai, a gang-rape victim, who challenged every patriarchal and misogynist person, the system and law of the land, opened up the first ever girls school in her village and has been battling the perpetrators of her crime for over a decade.

Participants grudgingly agreed that Bilquis Edhi is a leader but also mentioned that she could not have done it all had she not been married to the most dedicated and well-known social worker of the country. The reaction on Mukhtaran Mai was anything but civil. With the sole exception of two women, everyone said that she is not a leader despite evidence to the contrary. She was called everything from a gold-digger to a publicity whore to just plain old whore and a bad example for other women. When asked to give reasons for their repugnance, they failed to come up with a solid reason other than her bringing shame to Pakistan in the international community.

The reaction of the participants was reflective of the society we live in. People are threatened by a woman who is not even a direct threat to them and is only challenging misogynist laws and the system by asking for a fair trial. She and all the other women stand no hope of living in a more gender-friendly society, which will remain a distant dream for a very long time. All gender sensitisation workshops will fail if we do not make serious effort to radically alter the stereotype images of women and girls in our textbooks, popular media and homes. Presenting an alternative, more gender-neutral environment is our only hope of providing a safer society to our daughters.

 First published in The Express Tribune.

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4 Comments

  • I would also say it is hard to come up with names of women leaders simply because there are so few of them. I love strong female role models but even I have to think to come up with a handful. That also, of course, is indicative of the gender inequality inherent in our society.

  • Hmm. It must have been an insightful experience for you. Sad, that there should be such few women leaders that would come to mind, and a truly brave woman like Mukhtaran Mai should be rejected as a role model.

  • محترمہ

    اگر آپ دل سے پاکستانی معاشرے میں تبدیلی کی خواہش مند ہیں تو آپ کو عام لوگوں کے ساتھ ایک مخلصانہ رابطہ قایم کرنے کی ضرورت ہے- یہ اسی صورت میں ممکن ہے اگر آپ ایک غیر زبان میں لکچر پلانے کی بجانے اردو میں لکھنا اور تقریر کرنا شروع کریں- آپ بھی شاید اپنی انا کے ہاتھوں مجبور ہیں- آپ کے لئے شاید مغرب زده پاکستانیوں اور امریکہ / برطانیہ کے لوگوں کی داد وصول کرنا زیادہ اہم ہے- آپ اس چھوٹے سے حلقے میں محصور ہو کر “مہذب” لوگوں کی داد وصول کیے جائیے اور اپنے لوگوں
    !کو برا بھلا کہتی جائیے

  • I more than agree with you on this…

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