VIEW: Frailty, thy name is woman? —Dr Haider Shah - Friday, March 18, 2011

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It is high time our women heeded the call of Maulana Altaf Hussain Hali who, more than 150 years ago, had called upon the Muslim women to shun their chains and benefit from modern education

On March 8, the whole world celebrated the International Women’s Day. In Pakistan, thanks mainly to the print and electronic media, the day did not pass unnoticed. However, the honours of the day were fairly and squarely won by his highness Mr Jam Tamachi, chairman public accounts committee of the Sindh Assembly. He reminded me of Michael Caine who, in the movie ‘Surrender’, plays a novelist and after being badly burned by an ex-partner tells his lawyer friend that he plans to move to Kuwait “because women cannot vote there and they flog them”. It is now for our investigative journalists to find out what kind of mental torture poor Tamachi has been through which made him complain so spitefully against women. I would have brushed aside Tamachi’s clarion call with a grin if there was not a serious overtone attached to it. In an ironic way, Tamachi deserves appreciation for saying something that others believe and practice but are reluctant to admit publicly.

About a year ago I had a chance to spend some time with senior officers of the bureaucracy in one of the prestigious training institutions in Pakistan. They were all decently educated officers with decades of experience in governance. As such the sample represented the most educated section of society. It was interesting to see that their views on gender equality were not much different from characters like Mr Tamachi. As is customary in our society, they also fervently believed that glossy phrases like, “maan, behan aur beti ka darja” (the status of mother, sister and daughter) and “haya ka zewer” (the ornament of modesty) seal any debate on women’s rights.

Not a long time ago, the broad daylight murder of a Peshawar girl Saima Sarwar by her family members in the office of Hina Jilani where she had taken refuge after a troubled marriage made headlines in the local and international media. While the world was aghast with horror, local communal leaders openly supported the killers who eventually not only walked free but their social status also did not suffer much. Similarly, a few years ago a Balochistan senator, Israrullah Zehri, proudly claimed that killing women is their culture and no one should object to that. He later became a minister in the federal government. In the world famous Mukhtaran Mai case, many educated Pakistanis were more perturbed by the bad image she had brought to Pakistan and less troubled by the fact that women are killed with impunity and used as a penalty to settle family feuds. It is, therefore, fair to conclude that Jam Tamachi does not speak for himself alone but rather he was betraying the mindset of a male-dominated society and hence must be taken seriously.

Male chauvinism has a very long history and, to a varying degree, remained visibly present in almost all cultures. The ancient Athens that prided itself on democratic and intellectual identity did not grant voting right to slaves and women. Plato and Aristotle write that nature always intends to make a man only but when it fails it then makes a woman as a defective form of a human. A Russian proverb says there is only one soul in four women. The list of such quotes and proverbs is very long but the purpose of mentioning this is to show that prejudices against women are deep rooted in all human societies. Even in the west, emancipation of women has only happened in the recent past. For instance, it was only in 1928 that British women achieved voting rights after a long struggle by the Suffragette movement.

As a student of organisational theory, I find it important that while declaring the need for a change we must also clearly state what we want to change to and how would we get there. In terms of gender equality, I view it as a three-staged progression. The first stage is of equality in the ‘right to life’. In many parts of Pakistan, the birth of a female is greeted with sorrow or anguish. She is often deprived of good food and clothing. Treated as a property, she passes from one possessor called father to a new possessor called husband through a contract in which she is an unequal partner. She is often killed or traded freely to salvage the family honour. Once this level of equality is achieved, the second stage becomes important, which is equality in ‘developmental rights’. This stage comprises those rights that are essential for leading an independently successful life in the 21st century. These rights include freedom of physical movement, getting education to the highest level, choices of a career and of a life partner. In Pakistan, the majority of women still remain deprived of these rights. Either social norms or religious bigotry deprive them of the opportunities to realise their full potential. They are made to idealise a burqa (veil) and a husband’s home as their primary goals of life and not encouraged to aspire to fly in a space shuttle like Sapna Chawla or Sunita Williams. The third stage of gender equality pertains to ‘personal choices’. These can be both positive and negative and women may claim that if men can drink, smoke and flirt, why can they not do the same? From a women’s emancipation point of view, such rights are important only when the first two stages of gender equality have been attained in a society.

Frailty’s name was woman in the recent past. But now even pure eastern cultures like China, Japan and Korea have increasingly become gender neutral and have come up with legislation to ensure that women advance in all walks of life and contribute to the national economy. Unfortunately, in Pakistan social norms and legislation do the opposite. Nothing will, however, change unless women themselves become champions of their cause. It is high time our women heeded the call of Maulana Altaf Hussain Hali who, more than 150 years ago, had called upon the Muslim women to shun their chains and benefit from modern education. They need to tell all Tamachis and Zehris that women may be treated as half by certain legislation but they are full human beings and deserve to be treated as equals.

The writer teaches in the UK and is the founding member of Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at

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