4th March, 2014
Successive governments have perfected a ploy with which to address any issue they have no intention of resolving. They set up a committee or department to look into the matter. It drags on for years or decades until it is forgotten or dissolved. It’s the same for women’s rights and issues…
– Najma Sadeque
What’s there to celebrate on March 8th? The road to hell is paved with good intentions. It’s easier to be wiser in hindsight. That goes for political strategies too. Bhutto had some good intentions for women. When some people who had his ear heard about a group of women (which later evolved into Shirkat Gah, and which much later launched WAF) who were drafting recommended changes in all the laws pertaining to women, they asked us to send over a copy because he would certainly support it. I don’t doubt he would have, but he didn’t last long thereafter.
There were no photocopiers in those days, only carbon copies. There were only two copies. We sent them one, the original I think. Don’t know where the other disappeared to. The concerned people didn’t even have the courtesy to return what they could no longer use. One was later told that once governments take something, solicited or otherwise, they never give anything back.
Gen Zia got urban, educated women activists all worked up and angry. Would there have been a women’s movement had there been no Zia, who hit on the idea of Islamizing people who were already Muslims? It was said he legitimized keeping women underfoot to prevent Benazir’s return; that it was at his bidding there were efforts to make woman leadership unIslamic. Who knows? The movement may have been delayed, but it would have still been necessary to deal with the existing sorry social attitudes towards women, male chauvinism, and violence against women — which were not covered in the statute books.
But Zia did become a thorn, and it was necessary to take a stand against him. It also gave opportunists and extremists to firm up their positions. Hand-picked religious scholars were officially given a say, but did not cover the entire spectrum of thought; let alone women’s thoughts. The constitution was sufficiently warped, making it a nightmare for all. By the time Benazir Bhutto became prime minister a lot of damage had been done. But she was confident. Over confident, some of us thought. We were reminded her key party people were mostly feudal, that her father was one too, even if not a practicing one, and he had yielded to extremist pressure and gave them tremendous muscle by declaring a sect non-Muslim.
It became apparent she was naïve too. Shortly before coming into office, she invited two small groups of journalists, one of men, the other of women, four each, to meet with her privately. What was she going to do for women, was an obvious question, we put? Everything that should be, she promised. But that was not the immediate priority; right now, it is important that we, I, get into power. After that, the rest will be easy.
As it turned out, it wasn’t easy, especially once Zardari came into the picture. He wasn’t working against women, but he was only working for himself, and that became a serious problem. It was worse, the second time round, after he became president.
Just before that General Musharraf overstayed his welcome like military leaders are wont to do. He wasn’t against women; in fact, like General Ayub Khan who enabled better Family Laws, he was very liberal. But he was clueless about most economic matters and much else.
Nawaz Sharif wasn’t against women either. — But not to the extent of rocking the boat or women getting an equal or upper hand. He is narrowly pro-big business, industry and trade, not for people at large.
The activists began to see everything from the legal point of view. If it was in the constitution, and changes for the better could get into the law books, that would make everything work. Or so we thought. Because that was the basis on which all countries operate and acquire legitimacy in the eyes of other countries. But it didn’t work — except at the international level. Certainly not at the domestic, the internal level. – The laws were not even comprehensively representative of the people.
Founded on the legacy of British colonialism, it needed drastic updating. Some of it was good, but it wasn’t enough. It did not take into account the domination of feudals and others, visible and invisible, who were above the law. Law and order is imposed by implicit force. When that force is entrusted into hands of men who do not believe in nor want women’s equality, women cannot have expectations.
Consecutive governments have perfected a ploy with which to address any issue they have no intention of resolving. They set up a committee or department to look into the matter. It shouldn’t take more than weeks or months, but drags on for years or decades until it is forgotten or dissolved. It’s the same for women’s rights and issues.
Activists absorbed into the NGO sector do a lot of work with women. Those in healthcare delivery – most and desperately needed – do best, followed by education and other social services. Some legal services, for the few who could be accessed. Land, labour and farming rights are left untouched. Advocacy touches mainly the urban educated, even if carried to the countryside, but excludes the largest sector of all — rural women workers and factory and contract (home-based piece work) labour. There are scattered groups but not a unified women’s front. It is difficult because of entrenched male attitudes among political leaders, feudals and even labour, as some scholars point out.
You can’t change male attitudes by law or ordinance. In fact, some women workers groups are dominated by male leadership where women don’t have a say!
Not that marginalized women don’t want windows to the world. But they also want to be given tools, such as better marketable skills, with which they can improve their own condition. A woman with earnings in her hand can cope better in difficult circumstances. All too frequently, when men are unemployed, or won’t work because they are addicts or drunks, women and girls are the only breadwinners. She acquires more respect in the eyes of others, including the men. With economic strength, she can assert herself – and her rights — somewhat more. Most political and social rights can’t be won without economic rights. If women at the lowest rung are to be helped, there needs to be, for example, focus on contract-labour rights (which would help men too). Because, women factory workers and home-based piece-wage workers, like women peasants, are among the most exploited of all, on whose sweat tens of thousands of small industries boom.
Knowing the family laws seldom help in tightly-knit communities. A woman may win her case in court, but where does she go if ostracized? The state provides no shelter, no financial support, no rehabilitation; and she cannot relocate as a single woman, especially with young dependants, in a hostile society. She has to stay put. A token shelter or two won’t do.
Many women would prefer it, if for example, activists worked on the men and the government towards making violence against women punishable in smaller, quick- justice courts, and make sufficient examples of them to become a deterrent for all.
Instead, the status quo coddles extremists and feudals in upholding ‘the right to beat women’ and have control over every aspect of their lives. Government and politicians are silently complicit in this.
Not all women want to leave home, children and community when otherwise
responsible men turn violent when in a foul mood for totally disconnected reasons. They instead want their husbands to know it is wrong, and to stop. If men remarry or abandon their previous family, there is no protection for the latter who may fall victim to traffickers. If awareness is to be spread, it needs to be most spread among men. Women already know they’re getting a raw deal. But if economically empowered, they may be able to actively join the struggle for their rights.
This article was published in The News International, YOU Magazine, 4th March, 2014