LAHORE - It may be astonishing for many in Pakistan, but it is a fact that women in UK also face discrimination and inequality in a society which is otherwise much more advanced in many respects compared to the developing countries.

Claire Maxwell, a renowned teacher, women right activist and Co-director, OASIS School of Human Relations shared this fact with TheNation in an exclusive interview. She visited Pakistan on the invitation of the Centre for Globally Responsible Leaders at the University of Management and Technology, Lahore in connection with International Women’s Day.

Claire also shared her life’s work and experiences, especially her work in the social sector in terms of empowering women. “Yes, women in UK also face discrimination. But we have state structures around us to take action and feel supported in taking action if we so wish. And whether women take action or not is another matter entirely”, she observed when asked about the status of women in UK.

She informed that women in the UK were fortunate to have their rights enshrined in the constitution and also had the backing of the state in terms of their equality. “However, it is only in historical terms a relatively recent event”, she added. 

When asked if the women in UK took action against discrimination as a rule, she replied there were some very high profile cases of women taking action against quite significant financial institutions and sometimes state institutions. “But there is also a disadvantage for women who are not so well educated, whose voices may not be heard as effectively as women who are from middle class and who’ve been well educated”, Claire remarked.  She said there were also some institutions and experiences in UK where sometimes people saw women as less than a man.

When this scribe asked her to pinpoint any single institution in the UK which she thought was more oppressive towards women, she answered that it would be unfair to pick out one institution over another, as oppression and discrimination ran through the veins of every institution in every place she had ever visited. “And this happens everywhere”, she said.

Asked to share her observations in Pakistan with regard to women rights, Maxwell said she came anticipating that the voice of Pakistani women would be less heard than that of men. But from what I’ve seen here in observations on the street and the University here; “I’ve have my stereotypes shattered”.

She said she had found instances of women in Pakistan speaking their mind and being more assertive than I could ever have imagined. “I think the women in your country are also very assertive. So I have seen completely the opposite”, she further said.

Claire, however, believed that there were parallels between the situations of Pakistani women and women in the UK, because, “we are women”.

“Yes…it happens everywhere because the history of women is that we are not equal to men. If people grow up with that mindset then they treat women as unequal to men and it takes intervention by the state to make laws that say that it is unlawful to treat women as second class citizens. I know that enshrined in my country is the legal right to be equal but that does not mean that men treat me as equal on a day to day basis all the time”, Maxwell explained her point in detail.

On empowerment of women, she said they could be empowered by the society in which they live through legislative statutory mechanisms which make them free of some of the establishment discriminations that hold them back. About the role of education in empowering women, she said the institutions that teach women need themselves to be empowered first to make changes. “But fundamentally, women themselves have to want to be empowered in whatever shape or form that empowerment may be to them.“

Maxwell said that there was an external societal view that could support a woman but she herself has got to believe that feeling powerful and acting upon that power made sense to her. When asked what drives him in life the most, she said that it was providing opportunities to people, particularly women, to release their potential to make a difference as much as possible to the society or the individual for the better. “So it is helping people to find their voice that drives me.“

Responding to a question about removing the gulf created between Muslim world and the West, she replied that it could be bridged but only through will and desire. “If I want to hold prejudice and hatred in my heart no amount of platform will get anything done. I can only stress the role of education and so institutions like UMT are important”, she affirmed.

Talking about her personal feelings in this context, she said: “I was beginning to live with a degree of fear - fear of Muslims, Islam – and if I continue to live with that I would separate myself out from my fellow human beings. And so part of my journey here is also to re-establish trust and connection.“

While responding to a question, Claire said she experienced a country that was facing huge challenges and she also experienced shifts and movements. “In this university (UMT), there are people being educated who, from my understanding of it, historically may not have had a chance to get to a university and that in itself is a commitment to the youth of Pakistan”. She said she experienced a university that was willing to bring in somebody from the outside and allow different ideas, they may be sympathetic but they were coming from a different voice to be heard. “That can only bode well and is an indication of change within the country,“ she concluded.