OVER A COFFEE: Between Lahore marathon and karo-kari —Dr Haider Shah
We seem to be finding it difficult to break ourselves free from the hold of stereotypical images of women that remain imposed on our thinking processes. De-learning what is obsolete and outdated is the most difficult part of a learning cycle
The International Women’s Day was celebrated on March 8 all over the world. While in countries like the UK, the debate centred on the disproportionate representation of women in boardrooms, in countries like Pakistan the question continued to generate a debate between feminist human rights campaigners and the denial mode-run religious establishment. In this backdrop, scenes of women running in a marathon in Lahore a few days ago were indicative of a new Pakistan. A Pakistan with the bold and confident Sharmeen, Arfa and Malala as its symbolic faces.
One feels very alarmed to see educated youth posting very irreverent comments on stories and pictures in the social media that depict confident and inspiring women. We seem to be finding it difficult to break ourselves free from the hold of stereotypical images of women that remain imposed on our thinking processes. De-learning what is obsolete and outdated is the most difficult part of a learning cycle. Many are failing to pass this compulsory phase and hence are lost in the transition from antiquity to modernity.
The Family Fun Race in Lahore brings to my mind the Race for Life event; it is held in the UK every year and was conceived specifically for raising awareness of women’s cancer. Starting in 1994 with 680 women participants in London, subsequently it has grown to become one of the UK’s largest fundraising events. According to an estimate, so far 4.7 million women participants have jogged in Race for Life across the UK, raising over £327 million for the Cancer Research charity. The event has become a fun day for the whole family. The Lahore Fun Race can also become a family fun activity day if we stop treating women as mere baby-making and cooking machines. In ancient Athens women were not allowed to take part in the Olympic games and only men would run in marathon races. We don’t want to bring ancient Greece to Lahore and other cities of Pakistan in the 21st century. Do we?
While I was busy thinking about the right of women to participate fully in all sports and our duty to provide an enabling environment, my glasshouse of the imagination was shattered to pieces with the stone of a single news item that appeared on news channels. In Shikarpur, a tribal jirga (council of local elders), declared two women kari, i.e. liable to death for bringing disrepute to their family. In another incident a husband shot dead his wife after declaring her a kari. A few days ago in a separate incident in a village of Muzaffargarh, a group of over three dozen men paraded an elderly woman naked around the village after accusing her son of forcibly marrying a girl. The Uzma Ayub case in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is still in the court with all its gory details. Due to the electronic media we have a much greater exposure to these obscenities of our social life that in the past remained hidden under sheaths of silence. These incidents are a stark reminder that we do not live in one Pakistan but many Pakistans. The Pakistan of a few major urban centres like Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi is entirely different from the Pakistan of the tribal areas and much of our rural belt. When we call for equality for women we must first determine which Pakistan we are referring to. I have been proposing a three stage framework for categorising gender equality and here it is reproduced.
Gender equality can be seen as a progression of three stages. First, equality in survival rights. This is the very basic level. Women need to be treated at par with men in terms of their lives. A woman should get enough food, clothing, shelter and medicine to have an equal survival chance. She should not be used as a reward or penalty to settle family or tribal feuds. In this regard, in societies where tribal notions of honour prevail, women do not have equal survival rights. They regularly get killed to satisfy the perceived sense of male honour. Second, equality in positive development rights. A society where women, by and large, attain equal survival rights, thanks to urban life, they then strive for equal development rights. These mean equal access to education, job, choice of life partner, sports, and career enhancement. Where women are denied equal access due to social taboos, for instance, they are not allowed to play sports or study abroad, or legal reasons — they are not treated as an equal witness — the feminist struggle is for attaining this stage of equality. In societies where women attain the second stage as well, the natural progression is towards the third stage, i.e. equality in negative rights. This means women treat themselves no different from men in taking part in activities that are generally not considered good for personality development. For example, British women are equally affected by the drinking culture and certain feminists want better education for women to control their drinking habits.
It is not the 21st century in all parts of the world. Different communal groups are living in different periods of time as is reflected by their social customs and ways of life. In Pakistan the vast majority lives in rural and tribal areas. This is the real Pakistan and it is still in the tribal phase of evolution. Due to petty political expediencies, the state has not helped these areas to expedite their transition to the 21st century. The constitutional and legal system of Pakistan cannot work in communities that are frozen in time. In a previous piece I had referred to the proactive role of the Supreme Court of India in castigating tribal culture based on local legal arrangements. The Indian court not only declared all extra-constitutional arrangements as illegal, but also ordered registration of disciplinary cases against police and district administrations in whose jurisdiction any tribal jirga decides honour killing kind of cases.
Abraham Maslow had pointed out in his motivation theory that for a drowning person, survival is more important than caring about his hairstyle. Similarly, our women rights activists need to remember the distinction between equality of survival, development and negative rights. While ensuring equal survival, our focus should be on attainment of equal development opportunities. This, in turn, should not mean undue preference but rather removal of social and legal restrictions so that a level playing field is ensured for both men and women in all walks of life.
The writer teaches public policy in the U.K and is the founding member of Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org