Gender inequality has plagued Pakistani society, affecting females of all ages. The World Economic Forum states that Pakistan has the least gender equity in the Asian and Pacific region. While a democracy aims to ensure basic human rights, in democratic Pakistan, a mere claim to be educated can endanger the life of a woman. Culture and tradition, expectations, and the law, all contribute to this problem. To address the issue, all three of these factors should be targeted systematically.
One of the hindrances in the progression of women is culture and tradition, which legitimises patriarchal ideals. A necessary condition for equality is recognition of women’s capabilities of contributing to society and the realization that this contribution equals, if not in many a case, surpasses, that of their male counterparts. In occupational matters, this condition is absent, as culturally men are thought of as breadwinners for the family. The findings of a study concluded that this preference is based on the assumption that masculinity will enable men to be better breadwinners. Along with this, a conservative mindset restricts women from actively participating in the workplace, as it is thought of as the space appropriate for men alone.
This way of thinking not only harms women of working age but also the young girl, as her parents are unwilling to educate her because they believe her role is confined to household chores. More focus is given to her performance of household chores, as it is believed that she is better off learning to take care of the house rather than going to school. With 50% of girls not attending primary schools, and 75% not attending secondary schools in rural areas, it is evident that this idea permeates through Pakistani society and plays an active role in preventing girls from being educated.
Traditions also play a huge role in shaping expectations. A study on ‘expectations’ revealed that the ideal woman is characterised as one that is submissive and fulfills the demands of her partner. The woman is expected not to challenge any unfair restrictions that are put upon her by her husband. This negative perception of a woman who challenges patriarchal ideals results in more women accepting their roles, and strengthens the control of men over women. Some informants also conceded that seeking the permission of their husband before doing anything was extremely necessary, and they would be unable to do things on their own accord. As girls are brought up to conform to this image, the submissive nature becomes a part of their personality. It ensures that they do not fight back when their partners or society discriminates against them.
There is also another factor that affects gender equality. Culturally, boys are deemed superior. When a daughter is born, she is made to feel unwanted, and less attention is given to her development. From a very young age, she is made to internalize the opinion that she is not as important as other boys of her age.
In certain communities in Balochistan, especially those along the Makran coast, women have suffered from honor killings. In these cases any act can be seen as a source of dishonor for the family or society, and women can be killed. Women are the biggest target of honor killings; in 2011 alone at least 943 women were killed and in 2013, more than 869 were targeted.
This is the most troublesome part of gender discrimination. The law does not punish individuals who think they are dispensing ‘justice.’ The 1990 Qisas and Diyat Ordinance gives too much control to family members over females. The perpetrator of a crime against a woman may be pardoned, or compensation may be accepted as a legitimate means of settling the matter. At times, families are forced into accepting compensation. This law, thus, remains flexible for those who wish to exploit it. Although there are instances when the perpetrators of honor killings and acid attacks are brought to justice, in a significant number of cases, they go unpunished as the law enforcement agencies have no writ and cannot interfere with tribal and conservative set ups.
The phenomena of acid attacks are extremely troubling as it casts a rather shameful light into the mindsets of certain men in our society. In most cases, the man tries to force himself onto a woman and when she shows restraint, he throws acid on her in order to disfigure her face. Such attacks cause severe physical, emotional, and social trauma for the victims. In 2011 alone, there were 150 reported instances of acid attacks. In Pakistan, the main motivation behind these attacks is marriage proposal rejection and religious fundamentalism.
The law also aids patriarchy and gender-based discrimination. Women receive little legal aid to assist them in proceedings for divorce, which makes them more reluctant to pursue their rights. Furthermore, the negative connotations attached to divorce also ensure further dominance of the man, as the woman has to stay in a marriage despite her will.
In Pakistan, legislators are silent on the matter of rape within marriage as it is not criminalized. Therefore, these unfair laws play a huge role in safeguarding and abetting gender discrimination and influencing societal perceptions.
Having established how gender inequality stems from a skewed perception of women’s role in society, we must understand that solutions to this pandemic should aim at altering mindsets. The promotion of education is a pivotal solution to challenge and dispose of patriarchal ideals. Institutions need to alter their curriculum to instill values based on equal treatment. In Punjab, the government is already taking initiatives to enhance female education. Punjab Education Sector Reform, under the control of the Department of Education, has led to new teachers being hired and the educational curriculum being improved. Most importantly, female students have been given grants to ensure that they receive a quality education. It is necessary for the government to continue and widen such initiatives to curb this problem of gender inequality.
A disparity in the amount of female entrepreneurs is not just a product of mindset, but is also representative of a lack of opportunity. It is suggested that to improve this, schemes to encourage female entrepreneurs be set up. One of the suggestions is to provide preferential loans, on low interest, to women who wish to take up such initiatives. The International Labor Organization claims that a lack of education, as well as a shortage of tools that aid women to engage in business ventures, hampers their progression. For this reason, education needs to focus on ensuring that women gain the necessary skills required for them to succeed. Moreover, women should be encouraged to participate in technological and vocational training that facilitates their transition into the job market.
NGOs such as The Citizens Foundation and The Kashf Foundation in Pakistan are working tirelessly for the aim of women empowerment. The Citizens Foundation operates numerous schools which are focused on education for women while The Kashf Foundation gives economic support to women who are deprived of such a privilege. Besides these, The First Women Bank and Pakistan’s Small and Medium Enterprises Development Authority also aim to enable women to step into entrepreneurial shoes. It is important for society to understand how deeply gender inequality affects women, and continue such initiatives. Furthermore, the government also needs to be more supportive of education for women, as well as their involvement in the business world.
The writer is a student at Aitchison
College, Lahore.