Equality is a complex and contested subject, debated among philosophers and thinkers for centuries, without reaching a consensus as to what it means, why it is important, how to measure it and, most importantly, how to achieve it. As inequality, in all its dimensions, is increasing in the world, the question of equality is becoming more urgent and important. Since it is a vast and complex subject, my focus here is on the situation in Pakistan.

Unfortunately, we, as a society and state, do not meet even the most primitive criterion of treating all citizens as equal. Our social and state institutions are built upon inequality. Whereas in most of the civilised nations there is at least some debate in the public, civil society, academia and even the government officials on this issue, in Pakistan there does not seem to be even the consciousness about the breadth and depth of inequality prevalent here.

Equality, in its essence, means that all human beings have to be treated with the same respect and dignity regardless of their race, religion, colour, ethnicity, gender, nationality, vocation, etc. It means that all should have their fundamental material, emotional, intellectual and spiritual needs met and everyone should have the opportunity to develop their talents to the fullest. And since human beings are connected to and dependent upon each other for meeting this goal, they should be able to contribute to the collective wellbeing of the society to the fullest extent as their talents, energy, and skills allow and in return should benefit from the collective resources for their own needs.

This brings us to the difference between equality and equity.

From the above statement, it should be obvious that all people are not exactly the same and equal either in their talents, skills, aspirations and energy or in their needs. Thus, by equality, we really mean equity that means, “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his need.” This slogan is popularly associated with Marx, but, in fact, originally it is by Louis Blanc, according to Allen Woods. The only way this can be achieved is to abolish all those reasons due to which one person is born with an advantage over others and organise all human relations and institutions where each child born in this world has exactly equal opportunity and rights to exploit his or her natural talents and abilities. This would be the ideal situation and we should continue to strive for it. However, a tremendous amount of struggle is required by humanity to reach this stage.

Meanwhile, we have to continue to endeavour to get closer to this goal. So, refocusing our attention on Pakistan, we have to reorient and reshape not only our social and state institutions, but also our mindset and thinking. While it is difficult to divide inequalities into separate compartments, some areas do pose greater threat to a large number of citizens as well as a challenge to national unity and even survival.

Economic inequality: This is the most prevalent, pernicious and glaring dimension of inequality. It not only leads to material imbalance, but also gives disproportionate advantage to some in the political and social arenas as well, leading to perpetuation and self-reinforcement of this inequality. In a world where formal slavery has been outlawed and abolished, bonded labour continues to thrive in Pakistan; whereas in most of the civilised world, the vocation of personal servants has been either abolished or is regulated through laws with some minimal protection against abuses, it continues unabated in Pakistan: day labourers, wage workers, peasants and others who are part of the informal sector of economy continue to be vulnerable to serious abuses.

Social inequality: No nation can survive if it continues to treat some segments of its population abominably. Anyone who thinks this is a strong word, just has to look at the behaviour of the majority towards religious minorities, women, poor, khawaja saras, children and now even various sects within the religious majority. Granted there are many who do not condone this behaviour, but by just being quiet on these issues they are accomplices in these crimes. I use the word “crime”, instead of “discrimination” because: while a few decades ago Christian minorities were considered untouchable, now they are a fair game for everyone on various pretexts; from some disagreements over Shia rites, it has come to Shia genocide; from not allowing girls and women to attend schools, it has come to killing those who do.

Political inequality: It is difficult to separate this from economic and social inequalities and frankly it is not unique to Pakistan. However, Pakistan being a small country, the impact is much larger. When a very small elite class, interconnected through family and political affiliations and money interests becomes the sole decision maker, sidelining 99 percent of the population, it turns democracy to plutocracy. This is the very foundation of inequality.

Also, sadly, in Pakistan, inequality has been institutionalised through the constitution where minorities have been stripped of some fundamental citizen rights to contest for the top decision making positions in the state’s political structure as well as the freedom to choose their own representatives.

The question is: how we embark on this road to equality. There is no magic or readymade answer. However, a few points can be made. Equality cannot be imported and it surely will not be granted by the goodwill of those who are benefitting from this system. It has to arise out of public debate, self-realisation, consciousness and then struggle by the masses. It is also important that the victims of the system should pool their resources and struggle from one platform. After all, if you are being killed because you are a Christian, Shia or woman, does it really matter if the killer belongs to a certain religion, race or gender? If you are poor and hungry, does it matter whether you go to a Masjid, Church or Mandir? If you are not allowed to even sit in the presence of some powerful and mighty person, does it matter whether that person is a Punjabi, Pathan, Baloch, Sindhi or Urdu speaking?

If we want to survive as a nation, the nation of Pakistan, it will have to be on the basis of equality of all citizens. We need to develop some insight and start addressing these troubling questions or we are digging a hole for our own burial. On second thought, maybe vultures will get us sooner.

The writer is a practicing physician and resides in Florida. She is a founding member of Rise for Pakistan and International Youth Movement. She is a founding member and was the chairperson of the Human Development Foundation, and has served on the board of PAKPAC. She is also a life member of APPNA.