VIEWED from afar, Pakistani women seem to be doing quite well. The rates of urbanisation in the country have risen and more women than ever now work outside the home. While most of these women have informal or low-skilled jobs, many also work as doctors, lawyers, journalists or have other white-collar jobs. All of them bring in money and resources for their families, which in some cases helps the latter move up the class ladder.
But a closer look at Pakistani women is not so gratifying. The rates of violence against women continue to rise, there is little or no enforcement of domestic violence laws, no effort to require employers to provide any minimum guarantee of safety while they are on the job. In the words of one working woman, “we are still living in a world that was entirely and completely designed for men”. She meant it not in the abstract sense, but quite literally — that is offices and other public buildings were designed only keeping men in mind. Despite this, women are still persisting and subsisting, trying as much as they can to improve their economic power in the hope that they will simultaneously empower themselves.
This last bit is the problem. Unique cases aside, most women who work outside the home are finding that even though they have increased economic value, this does not translate to a better, let alone more empowered, life. As soon as they return home, they are greeted by an avalanche of demands and requests. Mothers-in-law continue to scheme away, husbands continue to be demanding and kids, often schooled by the same scheming in-laws provide their own negative commentary. Dinner still has to be bought or cooked and there is cleaning up to do. The next day it all begins again.
This picture might be acceptable to some since the worse scenario may include actual threats of violence and more specific attempts at manipulation and machinations. The question posed by all is: why, given women’s improvements in the economic sector, have there not been any complementary attempts to improve the other factors that also shape women’s lives?
The ideal educated and employed Pakistani woman is only a doll. She can say sentences that are expected of her in any given situation.
We had the mantra (popularised internationally by aid agencies) that equates economic empowerment as the sum total of empowerment. Before that, there was the education story, where education was supposed to be the single factor that would make things better for women. Neither seems to have worked.
Although middle-class girls began to be educated, unsurprisingly outdoing their male counterparts in all sorts of exams, nothing else changed. If uneducated girls were being given away in marriage before, now educated girls were being married off by their families. The use of education was rationalised in relation to them being better at gendered roles, caregiving, house management, child rearing etc. The housebound mother with the Ph.D could be better at helping her daughter with her math homework, so that daughter too could grow up to be an educated housebound mother.
These examples are notable because it reveals that neither education nor economics has done much to change the social and cultural forces that leave women trapped. The new Pakistani woman, now equipped with a degree and a job, is still getting pushed around, sidelined, harassed and intimidated. A patriarchal political system, smugly oblivious to the pressure faced by the country’s female population, does nothing to make things better. The reserved political seats, Pakistan’s great gift to its women, are filled by women who are often seen as showing up simply to fulfil promises to the brother or father or husband whose influence might have helped them to the position.
The problem is in the last factor. When ‘empowerment’ as a term began to be owned by aid groups and NGOs it was untethered from its political roots. Accordingly, women began to aim for degrees and jobs rather than organising to create political and social transformations in their lives. Politics was dangerous and bad and dependent on the creation of a collective political consciousness. The battle thus, was abandoned before it even began. Men make the laws, they govern the social mores and the dimensions of cultural acceptability.
The ideal educated and employed Pakistani woman is thus only a doll. She can say sentences that are expected of her in any given situation, she can be dressed up in T-shirts that say ‘empowerment’ in large letters, she provides polite answers to just about everything. But women are not dolls and their inner lives cannot be suppressed forever, nor can they indefinitely be programmed to do a patriarchal society’s bidding for all time to come. This, at least, is what they must tell themselves as they wait for a political and social transformation that is far more elusive than even the cure for Covid-19. And alas, there is no vaccine for misogyny.
As the age of the NGO and an aid-dominated global picture dissipates, there will be time to account for the costs it has accrued for millions. The excision of politics or political (and social and cultural) transformation from the recipe towards female empowerment has left women with all the ingredients of success but without a stove to cook them properly. Educated women will read this, employed women will read this, they will nod and shrug and agree or disagree but then they will go back to what they must do to survive — they will shut up and put up.
One wonders whether the pain of so many seething and suffering souls inside a country can become so intense as to unleash a revolution or really even some small change that attests to the fact that the life of the woman who goes to university or school or work is valuable, worthy and at least a little bit free.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.