When Benazir Bhutto got elected as the first woman premier of a Muslim country in the winter of 1988, it was a spectacular feat in the real sense of the word. With understandable awe, the whole world admired this achievement. A woman had been elected Prime Minister (PM) of a country which had just passed through a decade of regressive and draconian military dictatorship.
Inside the country, the progressive sections of Pakistani society were ecstatic, their imaginations brimming with hopes for an era of enlightenment. Unfortunately, in part for internal naïveté coupled with incompetency of her government and the external manoeuvrings from key state institutions — her government could neither last beyond eighteen months nor could her government bring any long term improvement in the lives of Pakistan’s women or its masses.
Benazir’s second stint as PM was also mired in political instability, lack of her own commitment to create a political consensus, and stories of her husband and his cronies’ corruption. True, Pakistan saw an increase in resource allocations and provisions for women in the form of setting up a bank for women, a women’s division in the federal cabinet, appointment of some women judges and a couple of women police stations.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that in general those measures could not go beyond a cosmetic level and hardly helped any ordinary women. For instance, none of the anti-women laws pertaining to adultery and fornication were changed until, ironically, another military dictator repealed them in 2006. However, it must not be forgotten that every time she was elected,she was not allowed to govern her full terms. Twice,her tenures were scuttled prematurely, whereas social changes take years to set in following consistent and conscious reforms coupled with affirmative actions so that women can assume an active role in public life.
According to World Bank figures, no more than 5 percent of the women in Pakistan have a bank account, which speaks volumes about the level of freedom and equality they enjoy. These statistics look even more appalling once one realises that women constitute around 49 percent of the country’s total population
One of the indicators of women playing their due role is their presence in public life, especially their participation in the labour force. Sadly, women constitute no more than 22 percent of this country’s workforce; and that too mostly in informal sector. Only 3 percent of women in the workforce are in the formal sector. According to World Bank figures, no more than 5 percent of the women in Pakistan have a bank account, which speaks volumes about the level of freedom and equality they enjoy. These statistics look even more appalling once one realises that women constitute around 49 percent of the country’s total population.
We see girls consistently outperform boys in schools, colleges and universities — yet these girls and women just disappear in the haze of our patriarchal society, which terribly needs to reclaim women in public life. How important is it to empower women and make them an equal partner in political and economic activities can be gauged using the IMF’s estimate that closing gender gaps in economic participation could boost GDP in Pakistan by up to 30 percent.Women’s emancipation is a prerequisite for the development of Pakistan.
Beyond tokenistic steps such as the establishment of a women’s bank or bringing a low-caste Hindu woman to the upper house of the parliament, what’s required is a nationally shared programme on women inclusion in public life, which is adhered to by different successive governments. Such a programme will have to be outrageously ambitious, with revolutionary changes. Taking steps such as requiring all government departments and private sector industries to reserve up to 40 percent of all jobs and at least 30 percent of management jobs for women, and to encourage women recruitment in sectors beyond education, health, and assembly line jobs in factories.
It must be complemented with initiatives such as “women on wheels” that the Punjab government launched on a limited scale. This kind of programme must be extended throughout the country so that the first cohort of mass women workers has an incentive to come out and play their due role. Induction of women in the police force with a ratio of 40 percent in rank and file and 30 percent in the leadership role will go a long way in changing the social norms of our society.
Imagine how fast our societal mores will be changing for good when we start having almost an equal number of women in judiciary, banking, security forces, lawyers, businesses, and other sectors of workforce. While currently girls, despite having gone through professional or higher education, are encouraged to just marry and discouraged to work and contribute to national economy, such reforms mandated through legislation have the obvious potential of revolutionising our society, polity, and nation as whole.
However, this requires political character and will from our leaders, who are sadly more interested in convenient tokenism which is hardly significant when it comes to improving women’s status in this country.
The writer is a sociologist with interest in history and politics of Pakistan. He’s accessible at Zulfirao@yahoo.com
Published in Daily Times, March 8th 2018.