Women hold up half the sky, said Mao Zedong. When early human society evolved to the agricultural period, women were consigned to the role of home-makers. Women are unfortunately treated the same way, even in the twenty-first century. Progressive ideas about women equality arose after the period of enlightenment and renaissance. Women had to fight for the right to vote, right to attain education, right to work outside homes and right to choose their partners. These battles are still being waged across the globe because a majority of societies still treat women as second-class citizens. Even in the (so-called) greatest country in the world—the United States of America—women earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man doing the same job. Popular media including Hollywood films and Soap Operas objectify and stereotype women.

In patriarchal societies such as ours, sexism, misogyny and discrimination based on gender is not only rampant but institutionalised as well. Following the partition of India, Pakistan became an independent republic. Many prominent women activists had played a role in the Independence movement. Fatima Jinnah, Raana Liaqat, Begum Shahnawaz, Salma Tasadduq were some of the courageous women to take part in the Independence movement. Mullahs such as Abdus Sattar Niazi and Maududi launched a campaign against educated, modern women leaders soon after Partition. Abdul Sattar Niazi tabled a resolution in Constituent Assembly to enforce ‘Purdah’ in the parliament and on the streets. Mullah Maududi wrote a tome titled ‘Purdah’ in which he argued that women should be given freedom of education but they should stay at home afterwards. He exaggerated threats to the ‘fabric of society’ posed by working women and employed hyperbole in describing ‘goods at offer’ if women were allowed to join the workforce.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, women activists gathered on the platform of Women Action Forum (WAF) to raise voice against the creeping conservatism brought to our society by Dictator Zia and his cronies among the Mullahs. A vanguard was formed which continued working for improvement in women’s rights for decades. In the last twenty years, members of WAF have been at the forefront of highlighting issues that plague our society including honour killings, forced abductions and conversions, domestic violence, early marriages and sexual harassment. An important aspect of women’s rights pertain to reproductive rights. In a society that views women as mere vessels for harbouring the next generation, there is an alarming lack of focus on reproductive rights of women. This issue is obscured to the extent that “Ministry for Family Planning” had to be renamed due to pressure by conservative elements. Despite countless hurdles, women activists were able to get important pieces of legislation passed by the national assembly, especially in the last few years.

In addition to improving health facilities for women and ensuring that they get married only when they are adults, attention needs to be paid to women’s Reproductive health needs during disasters and conflicts. During the last decade, Pakistan has faced at least three major ecological disasters and two of our provinces are facing violent insurrections. It has also been observed that women continue to bear the brunt of poverty and the heightened rate of poverty among the women is being recognized widely. Women caught in the cycle of poverty are denied access to critical resources, they have limited access to health services and support services. Their participation in the decision-making process at home and in the society is minimal. This effect can be called ‘Feminization of Poverty’.

A national consultation focussing on these issues was organised by a leading Women’s rights organisation in Islamabad last week. Speakers talked about the need to address gaps in state’s policies towards reproductive health and to strengthen the existing Health System Governance. The impact of growing religious extremism and its effects on women’s rights was also addressed. The relentless opposition of religious and political right in Pakistan to progressive perspectives continues to serve as a major barrier in the realization of an enabling environment where women can express, exercise and defend their rights. Religious fundamentalism restricts political, social, economic and cultural rights of women.

Family laws in Pakistan have been the subject of considerable debate. The issue of unequal apportionment of inheritance for girls and boys, lack of a specific qualification of nikkah registrars, and lack of enforcement of monetary decrees issued by Family Courts, especially those involving maintenance, still need to be addressed. Nikkah registrars especially need to be gender sensitized and cautiously ensure that the contract is fully filled out, so as to ensure rights of consideration and divorce for the woman.

Further, the procedure for women to obtain divorce is vague and leads to practical issues of not providing notice to the Union Council, whereby law deems a divorce ineffective. In recent years, this has led to women being accused of extra-marital relations or polyandry, because , for instance, there will be no proof of “revocation of divorce” by the husband as the law does not require him to provide such proof.

Educational, legal and social action is required to address the deluge of problems faced everyday by women in our society. State Institutions, political parties and civil society organizations need to work hand in hand for establishing an equitable society for women of today and tomorrow. Mass media has a crucial role to play in highlighting the stereotyping and unnecessary sexualisation of women prevalent in our society. We already have had a female Nobel winner, a female Oscar Winner, Female prime minister, female foreign minister and female Speaker of National Assembly. Maybe we need a Female military dictator now to sort out these issues?

 The writer is a freelance columnist.