OVER A COFFEE : Pakistani woman: is frailty still thy name? — Dr Haider Shah
As new opportunities become increasingly available, old definitions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ undergo a fundamental change
Two years ago on this day I had asked if frailty was still women’s name and today I am raising the same query again. The question is all the more important as the official United Nations theme for International Women’s Day is ‘A promise is a promise: Time for action to end violence against women’. Referring to the gang rape case of Delhi and Malala Yousafzai’s shooting in Swat, the Secretary General of the UN in his message for the day rightly stated, “These atrocities, which rightly sparked global outrage, were part of a much larger problem that pervades virtually every society and every realm of life.”
Society is a human invention and evolved from the hunting packs of our early forefathers who had to compete with much stronger and fiercer animals to stay alive. Morality is also not a straitjacketed notion as it keeps evolving over time. In Greece today one can see women participating in every walk of life. For the ancient Athens, however, women and slaves did not have a voting right, despite Athenians’ obsessive interest in questions of liberty and political engagement. For Aristotle, women being a defective form of humans, were inferior to slaves. We see such prejudices prevailing in the British society as well. In Shakespeare’s times women were not allowed to perform female roles in stage dramas and young boys would therefore perform those roles in accordance with the social taboos of those times. Women were denied voting right till 1928 despite a very spirited movement by feminist suffragists in Britain.
But societies gradually change for the better. They create more space for their neglected social groups by removing hurdles in their endeavours. We can identify three main hurdles. First, physical limitations; second, legal restrictions and third, social norms and taboos. Women are considered fit only for firing the imagination of poets and artists by their tender build and looks. Those occupations that require hardships or physical risks are therefore considered out of bound for women. These notions are also now changing. In Saudi Arabia, women may not be allowed to drive a car but in many countries besides driving buses they have been flying planes as well. To further slay the social taboo, women in India, Pakistan, China and even Afghanistan have recently joined military career as combat pilots. Recently, a local TV channel aired a show on three Pakistani girls who had climbed some of the highest and most dangerous mountain peaks. Enabling societies make conscious efforts to remove physical hurdles that come from nature. Motherhood is paid emotional lip service in our society, but how a working woman can be facilitated so that her motherhood service does not prove a death knell for her career. In developed societies special laws have been enacted to address this dilemma like situation for working women. We need to follow suit.
Custom is considered to be a primary source of law. Customs and usages often date back to the times when different social stratification was in place. As new opportunities become increasingly available, old definitions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ undergo a fundamental change. Notions of morality can therefore also change to a great extent. For instance, till a few centuries ago slavery was a thriving institution, not abolished by any social or religious system. Today it is universally banned, even if milder forms of slavery still exist in many parts of the world. Another good example is the minimum age for consensual physical relations in Britain. Even a genuine marriage with a girl less than 16 years old can result in a charge of paedophilia against the male spouse. Compare this to the popular play of Shakespeare where the heroine Juliet is only 13 years old contemplating marriage with Romeo. In Hindu scriptures divorce was not recognised but today in the Hindu Personal law there is not much difference between matrimonial rights of husband and wife. Thus, if evolution is allowed its natural course laws can be updated by the collective wisdom of a society exercised through the chosen representatives. Problems emerge when this evolution is artificially stopped by adherence to cultural norms or religious faith. If a comparison of substantive legal rights of men and women in areas of matrimony, inheritance, career, and recourse to legal justice is done for various communities of the world, it can be seen that while others have updated their legal systems we, in Pakistan, still have failed to do so.
Social taboos against women can be challenged with the help of education and greater media sponsored awareness. Many defenders of the old order invoke religious dogmas in order to sterilise the debate on gender equality. I have developed even higher respect for our rationalist forefathers like Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Maulana Altaf Hussain Hali and Bacha Khan who despite being practising Muslims spoke passionately in favour of gender equality a long time ago. Their dreams remain in tatters though. From domestic violence to terrorism, we see images of Fakhiras and Malalas all around. Whether a woman demands her right in parental property, or shows a passion for education, or volunteers for administering polio vaccination drops to innocent children, a bullet is often waiting for her in certain areas of the country. All this must change. But nothing will ever change unless women themselves become champions of their cause.
Frailty’s name might have been woman in the past for understandable reasons. To know if it has changed today we do not necessarily need to look at the west. The answer can be equally clear if we cast a glance over pure eastern cultures like China, Japan and Korea. The world has increasingly become gender neutral. We better change as well.
The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of the Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org