One step forward, two steps back

By Najma Sadeque
Published: March 20, 2012

The landscape is changing. New settlements have sprouted where rural flood victims put down temporary roots. In one such place beyond our port city, a couple of hundred families hope to make their new home permanent. Most are landless and have nothing to go back to. Some own small patches condemned to annual flooding so that it’s pointless to rebuild homes there and worth cultivating only when the waters have receded.

Needless to say, women and children were hit hardest. The NGOs came to their rescue; and today, they have regained some semblance of normal life, although not ideal and still fraught with uncertainty. Initially, it seemed the crisis would have elicited greater male appreciation of how their womenfolk coped with crisis in ways that men could not. Not quite.

By the time the NGOs left and no more outside assistance was forthcoming, the women, true to their rural roots, had begun to grow vegetables around their homes to augment the household food supply, still carrying water, albeit short distances. But the men had also brought along some less admirable aspects of their culture with them, including maintaining social distance from those of another zaat, while their attitudes towards women remained intact. Some of the more responsible men went to town to seek work as daily-wage labourers. The rest spent their time typically twiddling their thumbs, or in the tea shop that a more moneyed entrepreneur from amongst them set up, complete with generator, TV and a satellite dish! The women stayed home, working.

A solid roof over one’s head makes a great difference when minding howling children, the sick and elderly, making food stretch, and enduring much else. The women snatched some time to do what they used to do before: intricately embroidering traditional dresses, which the men sold to city merchants who resold them for two to three times the price they were bought for. Each took two to three months to complete, and sold for an average of Rs6,000-7,000. But how much did the women get? At first, they wouldn’t say, later claiming it all went into the household kitty. Who controlled the kitty? No answer. Did they get a part of it for their labour? A few hundred, maybe; not necessarily. Nothing had changed essentially, except place of residence. Women remained all-purpose, unpaid workers with no rights. At this rate, it may take another 65 years for change to come.

Elsewhere, it’s no different for women who have made Pakistan the sixth biggest milk-producing country in the world. When dozens of generations have continuously treated women like commodities and beasts of burden, it is hardly surprising to find men who value their cattle or buffalo far more than they do their wives and daughters. So ingrained are attitudes, especially those with larger herds and, therefore, more money, some feel free to be insultingly informative to visiting urbanites.

“Anyone can get a wife cheaply if one does not restrict one’s choices to family demands,” echoed one particularly cold man, “There’s no dearth of available women — orphans, widows, dependant girls. Poor parents are happy to get rid of a daughter if any man will have her unconditionally, or as a second or third wife when they can’t pay for a dowry and a wedding. Whereas, a mature animal of good stock that promises many offspring, will cost at least a lakh rupees. Or sell for as much during Bakra Eid.”

“One may have to wait to have enough money to buy a worthwhile animal,” he adds for good measure, “But you don’t have to wait to get a woman.”

Year after year, various governments and politicians, the UN, the World Bank and scores of other more-or-less-powerful institutions repeat themselves on women’s rights. A special day is designated so that ‘everyone’, whoever, remembers their duties and obligations towards them. Most of the first two mentioned don’t really mean what they say and the World Bank and many member countries of the UN don’t mean it at all. It’s all part of an ongoing charade.

It’s not just the March 8 that stands for official observance as International Women’s Day. Otherwise, every day is Women’s Day, especially in the South. One can’t imagine how the majority world would proceed without women, whether it’s in the farm fields, in factories, in offices, in banks and other financial and investment organisations, and in homes where women shoulder all family responsibilities to enable men to escape drudgery and go out to work on a single job instead.

But in our subcontinent, one country is making rapid strides. For many years, Bangladeshi girls have been getting free school education up to Matriculation, complete with books and stationery. Now girls can avail free education till the Intermediate level (Class XII). It makes no difference which government is in power; they all want women to get ahead. Not that everything’s perfect; but they’re at it and getting there.

Bangladesh is not waiting for international institutions to ask them to initiate action. Already, men risk immediate arrest for ‘eve-teasing’, or when men harass females in the workplace. Senior citizens, receive a monthly allowance so that they’re not entirely dependent on family or other charity, with women getting preferential treatment. The poor just have to apply for it. Women activists have gone on to the next stage to press for more specific rights. Compared to Bangladesh, Pakistan is such a wealthy country — gauging from the staggering billions that are siphoned away from its coffers annually — that we could have, should have, done better instead of going backwards.

It’s difficult to get excited over the passage of a bill that makes violence against women a punishable offence provided it occurs within the jurisdiction of Islamabad and thereabouts. Clearly, it’s still not viewed as a universal, fundamental issue. And it doesn’t stop the same people going to their hometowns or villages outside the area to beat up their women there.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 21st, 2012.

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About denebsumbul

Documentarian, Activist, Journalist, Photographer, Capacity Trainer
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