The other half | Irfan Hussain

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WHEN Mukhtaran Mai was gang-raped in the village of Meerwala in 2002 with the approval of the village council, there was universal outrage. But as happens so often in Pakistan, opinions soon diverged.

In 2005, she was placed on the Exit Control List to prevent her from accepting an invitation from Amnesty International to an event in London on the grounds that she would “project a bad image of Pakistan”.

Recently, she was in Los Angeles to watch an opera called Thumbprint that told her story. But in this staged version, her rapists were given the death penalty, whereas in real life, they still live in the same village, and according to Mukhtaran, taunt her on the streets. Despite her suffering, she has spent the money she received from donors around the world to set up girls’ schools and a women’s shelter. The daughters of her tormentors have been welcomed to these institutions.

Women are rising to the top in the most successful countries.

While her courage and endurance might be rare in Pakistan, her suffering is not. Women are raped, beaten and subjected to ‘honour’ killing every day without social sanctions or state intervention. Meanwhile, according to an education ministry report, virtually half the country’s girls do not attend school; this figure is as high as 78 per cent in Balochistan.

One reason for these abysmal statistics is that girls — especially in the rural areas — are not expected to have careers, so parents prefer to have them doing housework at home instead of going to school. But the appalling conditions of state schools are another important factor: far too many don’t have electricity, running water or proper toilets. While some improvements have been made in Punjab and KP, the rest of the country lags far behind.

Meanwhile, women in other parts of the world have made giant strides in their quest for equality. In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attack at London’s Borough Market, Cressida Dick, chief of the Metropolitan Police, made an appearance to reassure survivors. Prime Minister Theresa May, considerably weakened after the recent general election, still commands the Conservative Party.

She is currently negotiating with the Democratic Unionist Party for a deal that will allow the Tories to stay in power despite their failure to obtain a majority. The leader of the DUP is Arlene Foster, another powerful woman currently basking in her newfound role as kingmaker. With her party’s 10 parliamentary seats, she is playing hardball and demanding Ј2 billion in development funds for Northern Ireland.

In Scotland, two more steely women confront each other: Nicola Sturgeon of the Scottish National Party is still first minister despite seeing her party’s majority drop dramatically. This is partly due to the resurgence of the Scottish Conservatives whose leader, Ruth Davidson, has 13 MPs. Both women have redrawn Scotland’s political map.

In France, Marine Le Pen was badly defeated in her presidential bid, thereby demonstrating that the French have no stomach for the brand of extreme right ideology she was peddling. In Germany, Angela Merkel is by far the most powerful leader in Europe, and will probably win her fourth term as chancellor later this year.

I could go on, but I’m sure you get my drift: increasingly, women are rising to the top in the most successful countries in the world. I’m not suggesting that women’s empowerment is the only factor behind the prosperity and stability in these states, but it is an important one.

Study after study has shown that countries that invest in the health and education of girls have higher levels of economic growth and lower rates of population rise. Sadly, in many Mus­lim countries, there is a common misconception — reinforced by ignorant clerics — that women must stay at home.

Pakistan is fortunate to have a number of extraordinary women who have made meaningful contributions to society. But the vast majority are condemned to illiteracy and forced marriages that have little love and no companionship. Uneducated themselves, they cannot help school-going children to make them productive, healthy citizens of tomorrow.

A brief overview of Muslim countries, especially of those in the Saudi orbit, shows how little progress women have made. Even in Iran, where there are more women enrolled in universities than men, a dominant male culture permeates society. Nevertheless, Iranian women are free to choose their professions, something their Saudi sisters can only dream of.

Ultimately, women in backward societies are kept underfoot because insecure men feel the need to assert their control. This worked when physical strength was a major factor, but now technology has changed the equation, and women are able to perform almost any task a man can. As a result, more women are rising to the top of their chosen fields.

The fact is that if half the population is not allowed to contribute, societies like ours are bound to lag behind.

irfan.husain@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, June 24th, 2017