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.