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Ominous silence on status of women in Pakistan

Jan 23, 2009

Notwithstanding the fact that the Constitution of Pakistan guarantees gender equality, the irony is that women in the country continue to be discriminated against. Any attempt to improve their status is met with opposition from regressive clerics and feudal lords, says Sarwar Bari, national coordinator of Pattan Development Organisation.

For many years we have been witnessing women being prevented to participate in the electoral process both as voters and candidates. Shamelessly, despite their cutthroat competition, the religious and so-called liberal parties engaged in this fraud. And the Election Commission of Pakistan has never taken any action against this clear violation of its code of conduct.

In addition, the state has been ominously silent on the closure and burning of girls' schools and women's colleges in some parts of the country. It also must be noted that recently, when the Islamic Ideological Council announced some pro-women recommendations on divorce, the mullahs aggressively opposed them, while the so-called pro-women parties did not bother to defend the recommendations.

Is it not an irony, especially when the Constitution of Pakistan (Articles 25 and 34) guarantees equality between the two sexes? Let us not forget that Pakistan also signed the Convention for the Elimination of All Kinds of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

Hidden contradictions

In order to achieve the objectives of CEDAW, Pakistan has also launched a Gender Reform Action Plan. In short, it could be concluded that the constitutional and policy framework of the state of Pakistan is externally pro-women, but inwardly it has no shame when its own laws are violated. This hidden contradiction needs a comprehensive analysis. Space constraint allows only a brief examination.

In order to understand this contradiction, we need to understand the social basis of the Pakistani state. The Pakistani state is heavily dependent on mullahs and feudal/ tribal sardars for its ideological and political legitimacy, respectively.

The feudals and the tribal chiefs mischievously managed to keep their constituencies backward through conspiracies and manipulation of development policies. As a result, they have been controlling their respective vote banks for so long.

Vote banks

Most mainstream political parties, we know very well, often tend to issue party tickets to those candidates who have their own vote banks since most, including the PPP, have small ideological vote banks of their own. It appears that often a combination of vote banks of the party and of powerful individual determines success in election.

At the time of allocation of portfolios these powerful feudal/ tribal chiefs would often grab crucial ministries. Along with this, they would also hold important positions in the political parties. Thus, they control both the government and the party's policymaking institutions. They use this power as a tool of patronage in their constituencies and within parties.

In constituencies their cronies suppress any dissent and resistance and inside political parties they outmanoeuvre any progressive move. Consequently, they have made political parties dependent on them.

They don't take much time to switch their loyalties when a Military General takes over power. Nawaz Sharif was left alone when Musharraf sacked him. This was a replay of 1958 and 1977. Most feudal and tribal chiefs provided readymade political support to legitimacy-starved usurpers.

Nexus between dictators and mullahs

In the presence of such feudal/ tribal chiefs no military dictator was afraid of holding of elections. With a little help from the police and revenue departments "positive" results could be achieved. In return, they are given a free hand in their constituencies.

The political leaders who were overthrown by the military dictators would once again take back, with all privileges, the positions they had been deprived of ten years ago. In short, these chiefs are the political need of both the civilian and the military dictators.

As for the mullahs, though they played no role in the creation of Pakistan, they managed to assert themselves through the civil bureaucracy, and the rootless (those who had left their constituencies in India) and conservative politicians in the early years of the independence.

The Pakistani state was under tremendous pressure from powerful secular and nationalist politicians of East Pakistan, which is now Bangladesh, the NWFP, Sindh and Balochistan. In order to gel the conservative forces against the secular and socialist groups, the term ideology of Pakistan was coined.

Onslaught on Jinnah's vision

The Objectives Resolution was their first onslaught against the vision of Jinnah and the people of Pakistan. This was just the beginning of the so-called Islamisation process in Pakistan. It provided the mullahs a power to define and interpret actions and policies of the governments and politicians from the religious perspective. They never stopped afterwards. They continued their theocratic invasion against the society, the politics and the state.

Converting the Ahmadia sect a non-Muslim through constitutional legislation was their second major victory. Sadly, in the 1977 election camping, Bhutto made it one of the major achievements of his government. While Bhutto was proudly claiming it, most mullahs were now using the rest of the secular politicians through the platform of the Pakistan National Alliance, a coalition of nine parties against Bhutto. Its main slogan was the introduction of "Nizam-e-Mustafa."

The PNA launched its anti-Bhutto campaign. Under pressure, Bhutto banned alcohol and gambling and introduced Friday as a weekly holiday. He failed to appease the mullahs. They wanted Islamabad, not Islam. When Zia imposed his dictatorial rule, he fully used the mullahs against the secular parties, and in return he had to share some power with them. His Islamisation drive tremendously boosted the role of the mullah. These consequences are still being felt today.

Jihad in Kashmir and Afghanistan

For a long time the Pakistani establishment used Islam as a tool for the liberation of Kashmir. This would naturally enhance the status and leverage of mullah in politics and society.

Gradually the dependence of the state on the mullah increased. The Afghan jihad further entrenched the relationship between the state and the mullahs.

After the withdrawal of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan, the mullahs were trained to fight in Kashmir.

The jihadi groups and their patron religious parties were given a free hand to raise funds in the name of jihad, intimidate democratic elements and suppression of women. They played the role very well.

Gender awakening

However, the continued subjugation of women is no longer possible as gender awakening is spreading fast. The mullahs see it the greatest threat to its values. Wherever they got some influence, they put women in the four walls of the home. Cases in point are Afghanistan, Swat and FATA. For the feudal and tribal chiefs keeping women under the control of men in the name of honour and traditions is vital as they play a crucial role in the rural and tribal economies.

In their view, any alternation in gender power relations and family structure would disrupt the production process. Therefore, any dissent and resistance is crushed brutally and often-local sardars provide full protection to those who commit crimes against women.

In return, those responsible for the crimes vote for the sardars. We know very well women voters matter little in election campaigns. The candidates and parties don't approach the female electorate directly. Male members of families who have full control over their women play this role. It is the political economy of gender relations, stupid.

As long as the state is dependent on these two retrogressive forces we will neither see any improvement in the status of women nor in governance in Pakistan. The implementation on the Constitution of Pakistan, the CEDAW and the MDGs will remain only a dream. The unholy alliance of mullahs-feudals and the state will not let us, and the world, have peace.

Breaking the unholy alliance

The democratic forces and women of Pakistan must consider this unholy alliance as the most serious challenge. If women do need to alter the decadent repressive family structure and want to evolve a democratic family they have to organize themselves at local level. They must use their voting power as a tool for gender change. They should form alliances across social groups i.e. trade unions, peasant associations and artisans, etc.

The women councilors can provide leadership at local level. The CSOs must use intelligently the space that is being created by the Constitution of Pakistan, pro-women policy framework and the commitment of the state of Pakistan, which she has given to the international community under the CEDAW, MDGS and other covenants. A section of media also appears to be pro-rights and democracy.

Thus, it could be argued that the required ingredients of a peaceful social change are very much present in the country. It needs a platform. Its birth can weaken the stranglehold of the anti-women forces and their relationship with the state. We must remember that only democratic and enlightened social forces will transform the nature of the Pakistani state.

Source : The News
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