“The fastest way to change society is to mobilize women of the world.”

– Charles Malik

The world observed International Women’s Day on March 8 to commemorate and honor those women who made history not as monarchs, political leaders, or presidents but as ordinary citizens by struggling to make this world more equitable for women and a better place for future generations through their collective will, perseverance and sacrifices. It started as a National Woman’s Day in the United States on Feb 28, 1909, declared by the Socialist Party of America. Later the International Women’s Day (IWD) concept was approved in 1910 during the second International Conference of Working Women held in Copenhagen, attended by 100 women from 17 countries representing unions, socialist parties, working women’s clubs etc. First IWD was observed on March 19, 1911 when about one million women (and men) attended rallies across Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland demanding women’s right to work, to be trained, to vote, to hold public office and end discrimination.

On this day I reflect upon my being a woman---my personal struggles, internal as well as external, to ensure that not only I am treated as equal but that my daughters have the confidence and skills to stand on their own. I was perhaps ten or eleven years old when my grandmother, who was always lamenting the fact that she was never given an opportunity to attend school, said something which had a lasting impression on me---“Don’t even think of getting married till you complete your education and make something of yourself.” I am grateful to my father for the opportunity to get the best education he could afford, which gave me the confidence and courage to become my own person and, later in life, to defy all efforts by others to impose their decisions on me, to curtail the choices I could make, and to conform to the established hierarchy. But besides education it was also the mindset. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your permission”. I thought about my place in this world and rejected all philosophies, all dogmas and all traditions, no matter how exalted and how revered they were in the society I grew up in, which are degrading to women and which make them feel inferior to men. Somewhere along this journey I realized that as a woman I have the power to change this because I am the architect of future generations. My ability and role to raise children gives me an unparalleled power to shape the thinking and vision of the future generation. If mothers are self confident, independent and make their own decisions, they act as role models for their daughters and train their sons to respect women. This is why I am sad to see women who not only act submissive but also deny their daughters the same opportunities for self advancement that they give to their sons, forcing them to be subservient to the male will, brain washing them into thinking that their value as human beings is inextricably linked with their ability to get married and bear children. It makes me angry to see women who point fingers at girls who have the courage to stand up against the tyranny of the society, who want to be independent, want to compete in man’s world, want to defy sexist traditions, and want to write their own destiny. I salute women who fight for their right to be financially independent---the first and foremost step towards becoming self sustainable. Until and unless women have the financial power they will be at the mercy of those who feed them. The surest way to bring equality between men and women is to give women equal opportunity and skills to earn their living.

Yes, I know that there are biological differences between men and women, but those differences should not become barriers against their personal ambitions and fulfillment. Motherhood should not be celebrated with bogus poetry and useless slogans but by practically supporting mothers to pursue their goals and aspirations. Their biology should not be an impediment to their social, economic and political equality. We need to acknowledge that women are at par with men in their mental and intellectual faculties. Men need to understand that the differences between them and women are meant to complement each other and are not a licence for them to overpower women. It is unfortunate that mankind has squandered a valuable resource for advancement of humanity by annihilating the creative and intellectual capabilities of women through the centuries.

So, as we celebrate the achievements of the past, let’s not forget what remains to be done. There is still not a single country in the world where women can claim to have all the same rights and opportunities as men. The majority of the world’s 1.3 billion poor are women. On average, women receive between 30 and 40 percent less pay than men for the same work. Women also continue to be victims of violence: rape, domestic violence, war crimes, and honor killings causing disability and death among women worldwide. It is our collective responsibility to continue this journey till all inequalities, all discriminations, and all prejudices have been dismantled.

This day make me think of the women of Pakistan also, where girl infanticide is not practiced but where their souls are crushed, personalities mutilated and talent obliterated from the day they are born. Their birth is tolerated at best and mourned at worst. When the family resources are limited, they are the last to eat and receive medical care. They are deprived of the educational opportunities and made to feel a burden on the parents. They spend their lives trying to please everyone and yet never succeeding. In the name of protecting their honor, they are imprisoned in the four walls of the house and in the name of protecting men’s honor they are killed, maimed and raped.

Oh, how do I long for them to come on the streets for their rights! I dream about them standing up against those traditions, customs and teachings which make men throw acid on them, make families mourn the birth of a girl, deny them their right to education, to hold public office, to participate in community life, to move freely, to earn their own living and their rightful place in the society. I wish on this International Women’s Day there were a million women on the streets all over Pakistan demanding what they should not have to demand for i.e. dignity, equality, justice, and freedom because it is their birth right as human beings. Aren’t these the ideals for which men have fought and given their lives for throughout ages? Why should women be deprived of them?

Women of Pakistan have even a greater responsibility. Being the victim of discrimination and injustice, they can empathize with others in the country who are marginalized, disenfranchised and discriminated against. Isn’t dignity, equality, justice, and freedom a birth right of every human being, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity and religion? Women have the power to end bigotry, intolerance and hatred, if only they knew and believed what Karl Marx said, “Everyone who knows anything of history also knows that great social revolutions are impossible without feminine ferment.” And last but not the least, women should remember, rights are never granted, they have to be seized. So, ladies, stand up and claim what is yours, don’t plead for it!

n    The writer is a physician based in the US.

    Email: shahnazk@gmail.com