Karl Marx said: “Social progress can be measured by the social position of the female sex.” Thinking about this has always depressed me because the social position of the female sex is abominable in Pakistan.

A society’s moral strength and its claim to democratic values should be judged not by the number of elections or the quality of electoral process, but rather by its ability to safeguard fundamental human rights, treatment of minorities and weaker members, i.e. women, children and poor, how it deals with dissenting opinions, equitable allocation of resources, a decent space for the expression of individualistic viewpoint, ability to challenge the groupthink and inclusion of all voices in the debate on important issues and legislative process.

Sadly, for the past several decades Pakistani society has been sliding downward in all of the above accounts. Minorities have become more marginalised. Women’s rights, which have always suffered because of traditional practices, have been further eroded. And economic disparity has no end in sight.

But recently, the passage of women protection bills in the corridors of Pakistani legislature, the Supreme Court’s decision to grant voting and other rights to khawaja siras, and reversal of the ban on music concerts in educational institutions in the Punjab Assembly, has renewed my faith in the future of progressive forces in Pakistan. These may be small steps and we can either look at them as “too little, too late” or “better late than never.” I choose the second option.

Social position of women in Pakistan:

Pakistani women have suffered quietly for decades in the name of customs and tradition. They have been burned, maimed, stoned, and murdered right under the nose of the law enforcement authorities and rather than getting justice, they have been further victimised. The saddest truth is that the perpetrators of these crimes have included their own parents, in-laws, husbands, brothers, fathers and other close family members - exactly those who are supposed to be their protectors. Women deprived of education, lacking self-confidence and zero economic viability have been a fair game for all. All women, urban and rural, rich and poor, young and old, educated or otherwise, are susceptible to such treatment. Those women, who want to stand up on their own and have the courage to defy these practices, are sidelined and marginalised as being “feminists” promoting “Western” agenda, while those who are proud of their traditions of oppression of women have powerful social, political and economic clout. So, the recent developments are by no means small and inconsequential steps.

Pakistan has been a signatory on the international declarations and agreements relating to women, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. But in practice, it has been mostly lip service. Finally, a concrete step has been taken to honour these commitments by the passage of the National Commission on the Status of Women Bill 2012. The main objective of this Commission will be to work towards fulfilling the above responsibility, as well as the constitutional promise of promoting social, economic and legal rights and emancipation of women. It will have women’s representation from all provinces, as well as FATA, Azad Kashmir, Gilgit-Baltistan, the Islamabad Capitol Territory and minorities. The other two bills are Prevention of Anti-Women Practices (Criminal Amendment Bill) Act and The Acid Control and Acid Crime Bill 2010. Under these bills, forcing women to marry, bartering them to settle disputes, depriving them of inheritance, throwing acid on them and other such practices have become punishable by imprisonment, fine or both. While one actually wonders, why it has taken so long to do this, but at least, finally it has happened!

Rights of the transgender persons:

Khawaja siras or hijras are one of the most marginalised groups, not only ostracised by the society, but also abandoned by their own parents at young age; they are left to fend for themselves, forced into begging and prostitution, living in isolated groups in slums. Deprived of their rights of inheritance, voting, education and finding a gainful employment, they live on the fringes of society.

Under these circumstances, recent news of the Supreme Court taking notice of this situation gives some hope that their lot is about to change. Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry has directed that NADRA waive the requirement of gender verification of eunuchs by medical board and create a column on the registration card where they can list their sex as she-male. Also, parents abandoning transgender children and gurus forcing them into prostitution will face criminal charges. Provincial governments have been asked to safeguard their inheritance and other fundamental rights. But it is also imperative that people rethink their attitude and practices of treating these unfortunate people. It is shameful for any society to let down those who need help the most.

The state of art and culture in Pakistan:

Recent news of the Punjab Assembly’s decision to overturn the ban on musical concerts in the educational institutions in response to protest from various stakeholders is an indication that the progressive forces are finally learning to assert themselves. Pakistan used to have a thriving art, music and film industry. In the past few years, artists have been not just discouraged, but actually harassed. It is time to reverse that trend and counter all prejudices against artists and all art forms. Art, in all its dimensions, plays a pivotal role in not only encouraging creativity and innovation, but also is an important medium for the expressions of societal trends in human thoughts and social and political issues.

These are all welcome and long-awaited changes and signs, albeit weak, of social progress and definitely a message that all is not lost yet; though not yet time to celebrate, but a hope that there is life in what was beginning to look like barren ground. And even though implementation of these bills in their true spirit will need perseverance and commitment from all, the real challenge is to change the public’s mindset and beliefs. Legislation and mandate from the top is effective to set the ground rules and push the agenda of social progress forward, but the sustainable change can only happen when people embrace these ideas in their hearts and minds. For this, there is a need to develop a comprehensive public awareness and education programme.

This is not just the government’s responsibility. There is dire need for the progressive forces in Pakistan to come forward and play an important role in countering the depressing, retrogressive thinking that has taken hold of the mindset of the people of Pakistan in the last few decades. While honouring one’s cultural heritage is important, there is need to recognise and refute those customs which are oppressive and unjust. Even though traditions give a sense of stability and continuity to the society, if permitted to extend their authority beyond a certain limit, they can also sap it of energy and vitality that is so crucial for the development of new ideas. Initially, all new ideas, philosophies and customs are revolutionary, but over time if not reassessed or re-examined for their usefulness and relevance to the changing times, they become symbols of status quo themselves. The key to social progress is the society’s ability to stay vigilant in this regard. Whole civilisations have been doomed because they failed to embrace new ideas, new concepts and change their behaviour accordingly.

And, last but not the least, it is always the young and the young at heart who have been at the forefront of this change. Considering that almost 60 percent of Pakistan’s population consists of young people, it should not be so difficult to embark on that road.

The writer is a physician based in the US.

Email: shahnazk@gmail.com