Gender malaise

LOOKING at the poor status of women in Pakistani society, it’s hard to imagine that Pakistan has been a signatory to three major international agreements on women’s empowerment: the International Confe­rence on Population and Development in Cairo, 1994; the UN Conference on Women in Beijing, 1995; and the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women in 1996.

Pakistan has also signed on to the UN’s Millennium Development Goals and Sustainable Development Goals, which include gender equality. Yet despite this enthusiasm, the country has been unable to meet any of the targets set by these international agreements. For the last two years, the country has found itself in second to last place on the UN’s Gender Gap Report, ahead of only Yemen and Syria — two weak nations ravaged by war. So what has gone wrong in Pakistan?

Pakistan has not yet committed to an overarching ‘gender equality act’, in which systemic discrimination against women is declared punishable by law, with fines, jail terms, and repercussions for businesses, organisations, and individuals made part of the legal code of the nation. Because of complex political, societal and religious constraints, it has instead adopted a piecemeal domestic approach to fulfilling its international commitments, enacting a National Plan of Action for Women in 1998, the creation of a National Commission for the Status of Women (NCSW) in 2000, and in 2002, a National Policy for Women Development and Empowerment.

Is Pakistan ready for a gender equality law?

Various women empowerment plans and policies usually refer to Article 25 in the Constitution, which pledges equality for all citizens and equal protection under the law regardless of sex, bans discrimination on the basis of sex, and declares that “nothing in this article shall prevent the state from making any special provision for the protection of women and children”. Yet the vital issue of women’s empowerment was demoted from federal to provincial jurisdiction in 2010 with the 18th Amendment, just as revisions in the draft of the National Policy for Women Empowerment were scheduled for 2012-2013, putting on ice hopes for a solution to a national problem.

Another part of the Constitution appears to limit the scope of Article 25; the Objectives Resolution, which states that Pakistan’s laws must be in conformity with religious doctrine, was a preamble until 1985, when Gen Zia added it to the Constitution in Article 2A. Today, laws which make distinctions between men and women on this basis cannot be challenged because this would be equivalent to challenging Pakistan’s ideo­logy. These laws include qisas and diyat, where the blood money received for murdering a woman is less than for murdering a man; the law of evidence, in which two women’s testimony equals one man’s; and various other statutes, in which, according to Ayesha Khan, senior researcher at the Collective for Social Science Research, “evidentiary,

punditry and compensatory prescriptions are inherently equal”.

Khawar Mumtaz, who has been NCSW chairperson, argues there is space for diverse interpretations of Article 2A, which mean that women’s rights, roles, positions and responsibilities can be quietly strengthened without running into severe opposition from religious groups. Another approach, Ayesha Khan notes, is to stay away from issues of doctrine, focusing on affirmative action policies, such as reserved seats for women in elected bodies, reform in election laws, and increasing numbers for women in government service, as well as enacting and implementing protective legislation — laws against violence against women, sexual harassment, domestic violence, etc.

There has been some progress in both areas, but not enough; in 2018, quotas for women in government offices range between only five to 15 per cent, while the 2017 SECP Companies Act declared that public companies need have only one woman on their board. A domestic violence bill was declared un-Islamic and then defeated in parliament. Fragmentation of a national gender policy into provincial policies, lack of political will to iron out contradictions in the Constitution, and a lack of resources and staff at NCSW, the nation’s major statutory body dealing with women’s empowerment, reflect a flagging of efforts to institute gender equality.

So a national gender equality law for Pakistan, it would seem, is not yet a possibility. But as Khawar Mumtaz says, the malaise could be a sign of a bigger problem: that “society has not come to terms with the concept of equality of citizens”.

Perhaps we as Pakistanis are not truly invested in the idea that women and men should have equality. Perhaps we’re too comfortable with the illusion that our current laws treat women with fairness rather than justice — gender equity, not equality — but then, we’re nowhere near that in 21st century Pakistan either.

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