Browsing "women"
Dec 31, 2012 - published work, women    5 Comments

Death of a woman

The gang rape of a 23-year-old medical student in Delhi and her subsequent death is a horrific reminder of how women are treated in this part of the world. Though the appalling incident happened in India, it made all the women in Pakistan empathize with their sisters in the neighbouring country because it could very easily be one of them. Things are just as bad, if not worst, for the women in our society and we realize that it is not just the six men who had committed that heinous act are the criminals. The societies that perpetuate the archaic notions of misogyny and make excuses for such acts by pointing towards a woman’s mobility or clothing are responsible for it.  

That rape incident did not happen in isolation. The crimes against women are on the rise, especially in our part of the world — be it rape, domestic violence, mental, physical or sexual abuse, threats of such abuse, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty to move around, to choose a life partner or to seek education or health care. Women are generally viewed as secondary citizens, incapable of making decisions for themselves. Women who dare to exercise that right are judged and at times punished by society for doing so. A fundamental attitudinal change in the way women are viewed by society is required. They are not viewed as active, smart, thinking individuals but as vessels that carry future generations during the gestation period, objects of desire or derision and the carriers of honour of the male members of their families.

One thing that comes to the fore in the aftermath of the Delhi gang-rape case is the need to make ethics a part of school curricula everywhere and a part of a massive media campaign because we desperately need it. We teach useless skills in schools all over the world but what about the behavioural codes regarding women in public and private spaces? What constitutes acceptable behaviour and what is deemed inappropriate? Are they taught about the consequences of inappropriate behaviour or do they believe that they will be not be apprehended because society is permissive of their misdeeds and will let them go with the attitude that “boys will be boys?” Are they taught how to approach women, which should be a taught skill in societies as segregated as ours. Laws ensuring women’s rights and safety are necessary and should be strictly implemented but they can only work when society in general changes its attitude.

It is sickening to live in a world where a medical student is gang raped because she dared to step out in the evening and wanted to use public transport or a teenage girl, Malala Yousufzai, is shot in the head because she just wanted to go to school. They shouldn’t have to become either a victim or a hero; the Delhi girl should have remained a carefree medical student and Malala should have stayed the student whose biggest problem should have been acing her calculus exam. Instead, they have turned into symbols of courage and valour. At state level, we need legislation to be amended and better implemented to ensure the safety and participation of women in society. Collectively we need rule of law to ensure safety of all citizens, esp women. Individually, the least we can do is raise the next generation of men to respect women and accord them the same dignity that they seek as human beings.

First published in The Express Tribune

I did not want the first post of the year to be this grim and sombre but I guess we live in times when we are capable of being just that – grim, sombre and insipid. 

To be a woman in Pakistan

Out of the four Pakistanis who made it to Foreign Policy’s influential Global Thinker’s List for 2012, three are women. Congratulations to those who made the list but irrespective of what Foreign Policy’s selection criteria for the list is (a 15-year-old student’s intellectual contribution to the society cannot be measured with that of a parliamentarian who has worked on important legislations affecting millions), it must be noted that in a country like Pakistan where women are constitutionally and legally considered of lesser worth, where they are valued less in cases of Qisas and Diyat, some are at least making a name for being fearless and courageous thinkers. They are doing things that one would not associate with people who are handicapped by their very state for being women.

Every citizen has a social contract with its government. The notion of that social contract implies that the people give up some rights to a government or other authority in order to receive or maintain social order where they are allowed to practise their religion, work freely and live in a secure environment. The state of Pakistan does not distinguish between its citizens when it comes to citizenship responsibilities. Women are expected to pay taxes when they are involved in economic activities, they vote in the elections and help select the government and are expected to observe the criminal laws enacted by one’s government.

However, the state of Pakistan does not deliver to its female citizens when it comes to equal rights. It is very unfortunate but the Pakistani constitution does not view women as equal and productive citizens of the country. The state views them as Muslim daughters, wives and mothers and values them according to their assigned roles in society — not as individual citizens with rights and aspirations of their own. Take the imposition of laws such as the Hudood Ordinance which gave control of a woman’s body and sexuality to the state and other members of her family. The fact that a woman’s role is considered a reproductive one and not a productive one in the society helps in reducing her worth and legally formalizes the gender inequality in the society. There is the Qisas and Diyat Law, or the Law of Evidence, which institutionalised a reduced value assigned to a woman’s testimony based on the assumption that a woman’s role in society is different, or perhaps less productive, compared to that of a man.

It is not just that but these legal and constitutional inequalities have also made certain types of criminal activities such as honour killings, domestic abuse and violence within families and tribes ‘compoundable’ — i.e., they are treated as crimes against the individual rather than as against the state.

Every year, November 25 is observed as International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. It is usually observed in Pakistan as well. This year, it will be followed by a 16-day-long campaign called Take Back the Tech against gender-based violence. Campaigns such as this can only work when the women are allowed a level playing field which, unfortunately, is not the case in Pakistan. The very political parties who depend on their female voters to get to assemblies have continuously thwarted attempts to pass a much needed domestic violence bill in the parliament. If a country cannot acknowledge that a woman needs to be protected in her home, its government cannot be expected to protect her.

First published in The Express Tribune

Nov 13, 2012 - rant, women    4 Comments

Do not expect others to feed you if you decide to procreate nine times

Warning: This is a rant. 

Not only English newspapers generally carry more news stories on and about women, their stories are generally more nuanced and gender sensitive in comparison with Urdu and vernacular press. This story that I am going to discuss was published in Express Tribune and it does not pass judgment on the women it discussed but I strongly believed that in this case, the story could have done it with a bit of analysis on the socio economic mores of the society.

The story narrates the tale of two women, Humera and Suraya. They both lost their husbands to the civil unrest and target killings in Karachi. It has been two years since Humera’s husband passed away but she is still not working and expects other people to financially help her run her house. It must be noted that Humera is a middle aged woman and has 9 children – some of them are adults and one of her daughters is married – yet she does not leave her home because she fears that people will question her character if she leaves her house. The woman lives in Kati Pahari, a colony of working class people in Karachi adjacent to North Nazimabad which is a middle class area and if only Humera and her adult daughter go to North Nazimabad and work as domestic servants, they can jointly earn anything between Rs 12,000 to Rs 18,000 a month.

Suraya also lost her husband four years ago and but unlike Humera, she is financially independent. Not only is she working and supporting her two daughters, she is also paying off her husband’s debt and living a life of dignity.

There is a woman who had nine children – if people like her or her husband are approached for family planning, they generally deny any such services and say that children are God’s gift and they bring their own food with them. However now that she cannot feed them, she expects other people – who go out of their homes and work hard to earn money – to feed them while she just stays at home because she fears her virtue would be tarnished! Hello, you have nine – NINE – children and you still care about what other people have to say about your virtue? What is more important for you as a mother, your virtue or your children’s food? There is also a sense of entitlement that now she is a widow, other people should help her. She says that she constantly thinks about ways to feed her children but she has never thought about doing an honest day’s work to many some money. Here is a woman who is refusing to act like an adult and take responsibility. If there is any place in Pakistan where people can break taboos and do things differently, it is Karachi and if someone refuses to do that, they do not deserve any sympathy. Had that woman been living in Badin, Sadiqabad or Akora Khattak, her excuse had been valid because there are no opportunities to work for anyone in those areas but this is nothing but an empty excuse in a city like Karachi.

I read the story and then I read it again. For starters the writer squandered the opportunity to draw comparison between people who work hard and the others who prefer to live their lives as parasites and society’s reaction to both parasites and the hard working people. Suraya – the other widow – should have been written as an exemplary character who defied the odds and is living a better life because of three major factors/decisions that made her life better – one, she was educated by her parents, two, she had just two kids instead of nine, three, she chose to work and live independently instead of relying on others. As it was a feature, not a story breaking news, the writer had an opportunity to dig deeper and touch upon the malaise that is holding our society back. I know reporters are supposed to be neutral but this country is going to the dogs, our birth rate is the highest in the region and we are a water insecure country – no water after 2030 for Pakistanis – it’s about time everyone should go militant on issues of family planning and innovative ways of farming. 

I know that this is a fairly politically incorrect piece of writing and not a cohesive one at that but I had to get it off my chest. I judged a widow for being lazy; having too many children and called her a parasite, but it is about time we call a spade a spade and appreciate those who want to be productive members of the society.Women staying at home is a very urban phenomenon, its about time we learn from our rural sisters who have always worked outside their homes and contributed to the economy – even when it is not officially acknowledged.

Response to a comment

This is in response to Anon commenter who apparently is a regular reader but chose to not disclose his/her name. I wonder why? 
I have absolutely no idea if this particular woman chose to have 9 children but she chose not to work and is asking for alms to support them, that, in my opinion is criminal behavior for a mother. 
You second point is that Pakistani wives do not have the luxury of choice to say no to their husband whether they want to have sex or multiple number of children and that I have unlearned/erased everything I know about gender inequality, traditions and male dominance. 
I would like to point out that accidents and tragedies provide everyone with fascinating opportunity of choice – of either becoming a victim or becoming a person who fight and defy odds. The woman may not have had a choice when her husband was alive but she had the choice of either becoming a victim (Hai Allah mein bechari bewa meray itnay bachay meri madad karo) or a fighter (Screw traditions, I am gonna get out of the home and try and carve a better life for my kids). Unfortunately she chose to play the victim card and for that, I will judge her. 
Your third point was that it is easier to leave two kids at home instead of 9. I find it kinda baseless, I mean this woman is middle aged and has married off one daughter. I am sure at least three of her children would be adults who can either work or look after the younger ones. The argument that she cannot leave them at home does not hold true here. 
In addition, I would like to point out that this is not about just a case but how we tend to side with the person who plays the victim instead of the one who fights things out. If anything we need to support those who decide to take charge because we can do with more doers and less parasites.
I would also like to say that media generally portrays the stories of victimhood which perpetuates the stereotype of bechari aurat and from what I have learned about gender, social structures, feminism, we do not need that, we need stories (I have written about Nazirapreviously) that break the shackles and glass ceilings.

Too young to wed

United Nations (UN) agencies are generally criticized for not doing enough but they should be commended for coming up with quality research from time to time, which can and should serve as harsh reminders to governments across the world that they need to get their acts together. The UN Population Fund recently released a report titled “Too Young to Wed” on child marriage, which should alarm all governments in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. The two regions have the highest and second-highest percentage of women, respectively, who are married off before they turn 18 years of age.

International conventions declare that child marriage is a violation of human rights because it denies children the right to decide when and who to marry. A country like Pakistan, which is a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), needs to align its local laws regarding child marriage, as both conventions categorically state that appropriate measures will be taken to abolish traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children, such as child marriage.

The evils of child marriage are many. For starters, it cruelly snatches the childhood away and thrusts a child into adulthood well before her time. It directly threatens the health and well being of young girls as complications from pregnancy and childbirth are cited as the main cause of death among adolescent girls aged 15-19. As the numbers of girls who are married as children grows, the numbers of children bearing children will increase and deaths among young girls will rise, further deteriorating the child and maternal mortality rates.

In the case of Pakistan, religion is also cited as a reason for child marriages as it is considered advisable to marry girls off soon after they reach puberty. This, however, is just an excuse. Medical science tells us that puberty only marks the beginning of a gradual transition into adulthood. Religion also asks its followers to educate their children and to follow the path of moderation and if any attention is paid to these other two recommendations, child marriage would become a distant dream.
Girls’ vulnerability to child marriage increases during humanitarian crises when family and social structures are disrupted and many parents marry off their daughters to bring the family some income or to offer the girl some sort of protection. Humanitarian workers noticed a surge in child marriages during the internally displaced persons crisis brought on by the floods of 2010 and 2011.

The child marriage issue is central to many development goals. By dealing with just the child marriage issue, governments can work towards closing the gap in the Millennium Development Goals of eradication of extreme poverty, achievement of universal primary education, promotion of gender equality, reduction in child mortality, improvement in maternal health and better ways to combat HIV/AIDS.

Our own government needs to start a multi-pronged strategy to deal with this issue. First, all provincial governments need to be fully committed to criminalising child marriage and streamlining local laws according to the CEDAW and the CRC. They not only need to invest in female child education but also must invest in campaigns to encourage the maximum number of parents to enroll their children in schools. Contraceptives should be easily and readily available and most importantly, decent employment opportunities should be made available for both parents. A family that can feed and educate its children is less likely to marry them off.

First published in The Express Tribune

Sep 17, 2012 - published work, religion, women    6 Comments

A woman’s clothing is her own business

Barring random news items and a few opinion pieces, the Hijab debate has never really been part of the national narrative of Pakistan. Those who wanted to wear hijab/niqab/burqa wore it and those who preferred the traditional shalwar kameez duppatta chose that without any problem. Unlike Saudi Arabia, Iran or Turkey, there never was governmental coercion or pressure on women to go for particular type clothing or to ban a particular type of clothing in state institutions. A woman’s clothing was her own business as it should be anywhere in the world. However, things are changing and with the celebration of World Hijab Day which had tacit approval of the government and the patronage of the first lady Nusrat Pervaiz Ashraf who presided over the Hijab Conference organized by Jamaat-i-Islami, things are moving in the direction where state is turning partisan.

The first lady of Pakistan, during the aforementioned conference supported Muslim women to wear a hijab, saying that women could do what they wanted as long as they respect the “limits set by Islam”.

The first lady’s speech encourages women to follow the ‘limits’ set by Islam, but no one can agree on what it entails; one school of thought believes that there should be no hindrance to anyone’s education – including women – while the other believes that women should only be allowed access to education if there are segregated educational institutions for them, right up to the higher education. Another school of thought believes that women need no access to higher education as their true calling lies in maintaining a household and raising children. If the speech of the first lady is carefully viewed, she perhaps supports the third version of ‘limits set by Islam’. In her speech, the first lady urged women to strengthen the ‘family unit’, which she said was central to Islamic teachings. As if this was not all, she also regretted that “Pakistani women were starting to forget how important family and hijab were.”

For starters, there is no direct relationship between a woman’s hijab and her care giving responsibilities towards her family. Secondly, Pakistani women have not forgotten how important family is for them. If anything, family interferes with their performance at work because of the overwhelming demands of their families on their time. Thirdly, positioning hijab with better motherhood and more fulfilled family life puts the women who do not wear hijab but are just as, if not more, concerned about their families, in an uncomfortable situation in a homogenous society like ours.  If such views gain official state patronage, it can and will act against the women who do not abide by this particular view.

The first lady ended her speech by calling Fatima Jinnah and Benazir Bhutto “role models” for Pakistani women. However, she failed to point out that neither Benazir Bhutto, nor Fatima Jinnah followed those particular limits she so favoured in her speech. Both Ms. Bhutto and Ms. Jinnah were highly educated women who studied with men; they did not limit themselves to raising children or their families and had highly visible political careers. Ms Jinnah was so dedicated to her political career that she did not even marry and have a family of her own and Ms Bhutto was back in her office a fortnight after giving birth to her second child. Last but not the least, neither wore a hijab but favoured the traditional Pakistani dupatta. 

There are many issues that plague Pakistani women that can do with the attention of the first lady; it would be advisable if she focuses on them instead of the hijab/duppata debate. 
First published in The Express Tribune

PS: The comments that are posted on the Express Tribune website are priceless, there are at least two which basically say that hijab is NOT a choice. Pretty interesting, eh?
Sep 4, 2012 - religion, women    19 Comments

Women in the mosques and khutbas

We had a few relatives over during this Eid and post lunch discussion veered towards eid khutbas that my relatives attended. Someone I know was singing praises of a certain maulana sahib who delivered an awesome khutba during the Eid namaz. As a rule, I have not seen people getting this excited over a khutba so I asked my cousin what it was all about. I was quite taken aback when I heard what the topic was. 

Considering we have had that awful incident where Shiaswere taken off the bus and brutally killed just a week before the Eid, I thought the khutba must have denounced that heinous act and had something about Muslim unity and how shedding the blood of another brother would earn the killers a spot in hell. Turned out that the khutba was about women’s place in the society, how important a woman’s piety is to the fabric of society, how important it is for future generations that they are raised by stay at home moms and how important purdah is to avoid fitna and fasad (chaos) in this society. He also said that women should be kept busy (by keeping them pregnant or lactating) so that they would not stray. There was a lot more to it but I don’t want to repeat it here. I want this blog to be a misogyny free space.

Not only was I flabbergasted that my vilayat educated cousin was mesmerized by the profundity of an obviously misogynist khutba which doubted women’s ability to either earn or make any independent decisions or remain faithful to their husbands but I was also lost in the peculiarity of it all.

For starters, a khutba like this on Eid!!! It was Eid, not a bloody women’s day when men feel threatened! Secondly, it was unnecessary because I have not seen any women leaving their husbands and children and running  away with hot lovers who look like Abercrombie and Fitch models and last but most important point to be pondered  was why the maulvi was giving a khutba about women when he had none in his audience? Women are not allowed to attend prayers in the mosques and their absence makes it impossible for them question any such pearls of wisdom which basically deny their right to movement, education, employment and family planning.  Looks like misogyny is so rampant that women are not even worth preaching directly, they are given sermons indirectly through their sons, husbands, fathers and brothers about the virtues of a pious Muslim woman. There is no public space for women to speak out in any case, looks like it will soon shrink into nothing. 

PS: Everyone who is sending me threatening messages, leaving abusive comments here (I moderate them so they will never be published here, this blog is PG 13) and on twitter saying that there are some mosques in Pakistan where women are “allowed” to attend prayers, I just want to say that yes, there are exceptions to the rule but that does not mean that we stop questioning the questionable norms because of those few exceptions.

Aug 14, 2012 - published work, women    4 Comments

The overwhelmingly male story of Pakistan

The story of Pakistan is overwhelmingly male. Whether we discuss politics, economics, history, literature or entertainment, we tell the stories of men and we tell them with a dominant male perspective. Take Independence Day celebrations in the media for instance; there are stories of valour of our soldiers, fighter pilots are glamorized, farmers are shown driving a tractor tilling the land, male welders are working on a construction sites and boys playing cricket in the grounds of Minar-e-Pakistan. If we are lucky there are a couple of mentions of women; usually an elderly maternal type is shown who is praying either for the country or its soldiers defending the borders or perhaps a teacher or nurse.
If such a representation is to be believed, then a very small percentage of our population is female and this is the country of men. Those who do get the representation are the chador clad virtuous women who either pray for the men who are out living their lives or are in care giving roles, the rest do not count.
The concept of chardeewari and women staying inside is a very urban middle class notion and a considerably small percentage of our population falls under this category. The fact that our national narrative is designed accordingly and has no place for women who do not cement the patriarchal notion that only a woman who is covered in a chador is virtuous and worthy of respect and can be the face of a Pakistani woman is mind boggling. A visit to any village in most parts of the country would discredit this notion. Women work in their homes, outside their homes, they work long hours in the barns and the farms and contribute significantly to the economy. Their contributions may not formally be acknowledged in the GDP but their productivity is part of the society and economy.
The popular model of women that gets space in the national narrative is not only misogynist — showing women in supporting roles only, as if they are not capable of living a full life — but is also very classist. Most women cannot afford to stay at home and thus must work — at times, harder and for longer hours than men, in order to make ends meet. If the chador clad stay-at-home woman is peddled as a socially desirable model that receives representation in the national narrative, then the country is doing utmost injustice to the majority of women who cannot afford this way of life.
What about the contributions of urban women who do not abide by the chador and char deewari philosophy? Should they be excluded from the national narrative because they do not conform to the popular idea of what is considered appropriate for women? They live and work in Pakistan, contribute to the economy, pay taxes and are waiting for the day when they, too, will get their rightful space in the national narrative, right beside the soldier, the doctor and the farmer — and not in the role of a caregiver. By default, women are caregivers; if she is a mother, then she is the primary caregiver. However, defining her by just that one aspect of her life and ignoring others is tantamount to making her half a person.
This Independence Day, let’s pledge to make an effort to provide space to everyone who is a part of this country and have them become a part of the national narrative. That is the only way forward. The women are half of the story of this country, let the other half be heard.

Originally written for The Express Tribune
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.

This all pervasive misogyny

Every country has its fair share of misogynist politicians trying to tell women not to drive or have abortions, wear or not to wear burqa or contest elections, but Pakistan beats them all with the likes of Sheikh Alauddin who not only is openly misogynist, he is also ill mannered enough to call his colleagues – female members of Punjab Assembly – all kinds of names, names so impolite that not only some of the TV channels refused to air his tirade against women MPAs before censoring it, but the speaker of the assembly also had to get those nasty bits removed from the records. 
Women MPAs protested against his spiel about the non virtuous nature of his female colleagues, but when he refused to stop, Seemal Kamran, an MPA Pakistan Muslim League-Q threw a shoe at Alauddin and all hell broke loose. Ms. Kamran was barred from entering the assembly premises by the Speaker next day, was involved in a skirmish with the security guards and when she later tried to file an FIR against Sheikh Alauddin for harassment and misconduct at workplace, she was told that an FIR can only be filed against an MPA after directions from the speaker of the assembly.
It is sad to realize that misogyny is seeped so deep in our society that a woman as powerful as one sitting in the assembly cannot file a report against a co worker for workplace misconduct and harassment despite video evidence. It is so ironic that a place that is supposed to make laws for workplace harassment houses some of the worst offenders who have no qualms in calling their colleagues circus whores (the exact words of Sheikh Alauddin were maut ke kuwo-on mein nachnay wali aurtain among other things).
While some TV channels showed restrain and did not air the abusive language of Shaikh Alauddin, some other TV channels aired selective footage where Seemal Kamran threw a shoe at him but aired it with sensational copy and did not show the abusive and misogynist behavior and speaker’s lack of response which prompted that incident. People who have witnessed the assembly proceedings say that Kamran’s response may seem a little over the top but the women in Punjab assembly are only returning the favour after putting up with four years of verbal & physical abuse during assembly sessions. No wonder legislation against misogynist practices, domestic violence runs into snags repeatedly because our assemblies are full of people who consider misogyny a way of life.
It is also to be noted that Shiekh Alauddin’s rant against women MPAs has openly mocked the constitutional provision of reserved seats for women by calling them the group that violates the sanctity of the house. Election commission of Pakistan should take notice of this at soonest of it wants its authority as the supreme body for electoral process to be respected. 
Women rights groups demands action against Member Punjab Assembly, Sheikh Allauddin for using abusive language for women members of the house on 20th June 2012 which of course is an appropriate demand, but it is not just the action of one man, the incident represented a mindset that cannot accept women either in public spaces or in a position of power. We must condemn people like Alauddin for their reprehensible behavior but the society in general and women’s groups in particular need to look for ways to redress the way we view women in public spaces and positions of power and deal with this all pervasive misogyny. 
Originally written for  The Express Tribune, this is the unedited version.
Jun 11, 2012 - published work, Sindh, women    11 Comments

The real Qaum ki Betiyan

Courage is not confined to people with college education living in fancy houses, it resides within every person but very few are brave enough call upon that reserve and make a difference – to their lives and to the communities they live in. Shabana and Nazira are those who not only have oodles of courage but they challenge others to call upon their reserves as well.
Shabana is a social mobilizer working with rural communities in Mirpur Khas (For Takhleeq Foundation) and give them basic training on a number of issues ranging from health, hygiene to start up businesses and gender rights. Once she was holding a meeting in the house of a Muslim woman and a few Hindu women also came in to attend it. One came with her toddler who was thirsty and asked for water. The host initially tried to ignore the child’s request for water because she did not want a low caste Hindu boy to drink from her glass but when the child repeatedly asked for it and other people also asked her to get him water, she brought him some in a dirty broken cup. The child refused to drink from the dirty broken cup and started crying. The mother of the crying child was frustrated and slapped her child to discipline him while crying herself at the humiliation.
Shabana was quietly viewing the whole incident but did not say anything. She asked the hostess to get her some water and when she brought it – in a fancy glass – both Shabana and the child drank water from it. Some women were scandalized but most just watched Shabana sharing the glass with a Hindu boy and then cradling him in her arms during the discussion with the group. After working for 16 months in the community Shabana’s perseverance, patience and courage has made such differences that the women eat and drink from the same plates and glass and some have even saved up enough to start their collective businesses.
Nazira – another woman of courage – is a low caste Hindu from a village in Southern Sindh; married off at 15,  and like all women from poor disadvantaged families, she too grew up malnourished and without education. Her husband was another poor man who has never been to school and had no ambition in life. He would only work when he feels like it and would expect Nazira to provide food for the two of them by earning wages as a farm worker. By the time she turned 16, Nazira has had her first child, a boy, and she was bewildered with the ever increasing responsibility that she had to shoulder – as a wife, a mother and the sole bread earner of the family. She has had two more children – another boy and a girl – in next five years while working full time as a daily wage worker in farms and other people’s home. When she has had her daughter, she told her husband that she is not going to have any more children. Her husband, a lazy man who worked sporadically and that too to just support his personal whims,  refused to agree to it and tried everything – from coaxing her to beating her black and blue but she remained steadfast in her determination and sought medical measures to ensure that she does not procreate any more. The husband just upped and left afterwards, leaving her to fend for herself and her three children.
Nazira is 27 today and is working as a labuorer for a community infrastructure development programme run by an NGO (Care International) with regular income, medical insurance and a saving plan which helps her save money for future investment. She has lost her home in rains last year but she is happy and content. Her oldest son goes to school and the second one will start it later this year. She has some livestock and looked up by the women in her community as a courageous woman who has worked hard in changing her life. Many other women – both Hindu and Muslim – adopted family planning measures emulating Nazira.
Shabana and Nazira may not be called heroes by many but what they are doing is amazing at many levels because it not only challenges unhealthy practices in our society but also give the communities much needed role models. They are the real quam ki betiyan, who are quietly working, contributing to the GDP, contributing to the society and bringing about the real and much desired change.
Nazira and her two younger children in front of her shack, the eldest was in school when we met

Originally written for The Express Tribune, this is the unedited version