Looking beyond International Women’s Day

It is that time of year again when the entire world celebrates International Women’s Day. We here at this newspaper were heartened to see images of women taking to the streets to participate in rallies across the country. It is symbolically important that women be seen; particularly in vast numbers in the public sphere.

Yet once the lights go out, then what? Admittedly the British High Commission seized the moment by announcing the Asma Jahangir Scholarship, which is to be awarded to the top female candidate selected for the Whitehall-funded annual Chevening Awards programme. And while it is only right and proper that Pakistan’s most vociferous defender of women’s rights be honoured in this way — the state cannot afford to rely on such outsourced tokenism.

Not while women like Asia Bibi remain on death row. Not when young activists like Malala have yet to see action taken against would-be assassins. Not when the memory of Shama Bibi, a young and pregnant Christian woman being burned to death along with her husband on false charges of blasphemy, is still etched into the national psyche.

Because bluntly put, for all the brave women who came out on to the streets yesterday there was an even greater number of the equally courageous who did not have the luxury of taking time out of their economic servitude to participate. We understand that it is up to the more powerful, even when only marginally so, to take to the streets on behalf of those who cannot. That it is how it should be. Though the risk is that the voices, the stories of the latter get drowned out.

According to the World Bank, women constitute around 22 percent of the national labour force; with only 3 percent employed in the formal sector. Let that sink in for a moment or two. For this means an alarming 97 percent of working women are exploited. With no basic minimum wage; no employment contract. In short, with no rights.

Gender must be put at the heart of Pakistan’s class struggle. For working-class women suffer a double burden of oppression; with little- or no-income minority women enduring this triple-fold. This means supporting initiatives such as the Pink Rickshaw project introduced by the Punjab government back in 2015. This means those in progressive circles understanding that while it is imperative to empower women by raising awareness about fundamental rights — it is not their job to ‘educate’ poor women about abstract theories. It is their duty to listen to these women and to learn about their struggles to be better informed and thus carry movements forward.

Working towards this would be the most fitting tribute to women like Asma, Asia, Malala and Shama.  *

Published in Daily Times, March 9th 2018.