The incredible women of Pakistan

By Talat Masood
Published in The Express Tribune on April 12, 2023

At a time when the country is passing through multiple crises and hopes seem to diminish, any ray of light gives some confidence that not all is lost. What keeps the spirits alive that there are few leaders out there who may not be in the forefront but possess qualities that bring a good name to the country and keep the flag flying high. Interestingly, a large number of them are women. As recently reported in the press, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, the Osar winning director, will become the first woman and person of colour to direct a film in the Star Wars franchise. Ms Chinoy has also directed several episodes of Disney TV show and many documentaries. She keeps going unhinged by what some conservatives may think in the pursuit of her work and passion. Malala Yousafzai, the icon, female education activist was the first Pakistani women to win the Noble Peace Prize when she was 17. She is the world’s youngest Nobel Prize laureate and the second Pakistani to receive the honour. Her pursuit and passion for promoting girl’s education nearly cost her life but she remains undeterred. Not only is she the promoter of girl’s education in Pakistan but is now equally a strong advocate for it in the developing countries. Then there are those women who in their field of activity have been powerful voices and their contribution is no less significant. They are in parliament, bureaucracy, judiciary, foreign service, information technology and the private sector. No less valuable is the support of women health workers who risk their lives going to far-fetched places in pursuit of eliminating polio, or work in hospitals or in the fields picking cotton or thrashing wheat. There are many more, the list is long. They may not be necessarily that visible but their contribution in their own fields is substantial.

What is more significant is that despite not being afforded equal opportunities, and even discouraged especially by certain segments of the society, these women still stand out. This indicates our leadership needs to focus on providing equal opportunities to girls and women in the field of education and ensure that their talent is best served in the interests of the family and the society at large. This is more applicable in the context of our rural areas than cities. True, in villages our women work in fields, run schools and perform as doctors and health workers but much more needs to be done especially in changing the mindset of the society. It is a common saying when you educate a girl you are indirectly educating the entire family. We have the classic example of Bangladesh whose growth strategy was based on women contributing to the economy equally. Another example in the developed world is of Sweden and other Nordic countries which by giving equal rights to woman have strengthened their economies. The most encouraging aspect is that Islam encourages education of women and this is borne by our history.

The unfortunate aspect is that the political leadership, so engrossed in its petty squabbling and infighting, has no time to address these critical issues. The education of boys and especially of girls is neglected and seldom any attention is given to it. According to latest statistics, the female literacy rate in Pakistan is 48% compared with 70% for men, and approximately 22.5 million children do not attend school, the majority of which are girls. The low literacy rate of 48% is a reflection of the criminal neglect of girl’s education that has serious long-term consequences for the nation. What is alarming is that by grade nine only 13% of girls are still enrolled in school. Their dropout rate is very high and what is most distressing is that many a time, no consideration is given to even those girls who have been high performers in their school.

Moreover, in our society expectations from women are far more even by South Asian standards, with the exception of Afghanistan. Although they do vary, depending on the cultural background of the family and its economic condition. Generally, they are expected to take care of the children and elder parents whereas now especially in the West and also in China and the Far East it is considered as a joint responsibility. When career women try to assert themselves, it could well end up in separation or worse divorce. Despite the handicaps and limitations imposed, many women have excelled in their field of activity and are carving their own careers and pursuits. The critical transformation in Pakistan society will only come about when there is a realisation that women be given equal opportunities to contribute to the well-being of their own families and the society in general.

In Bangladesh Hasina Wajid is considered a fairly successful Prime Minister. Her main contribution has been improving the economy and focusing on population control. She has however been authoritative and suppressed the opposition. In Pakistan, circumstances did not allow Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto to actualise her full potential but despite the limitations her contribution to projecting the image of Pakistan and serving the interests of the poor was significant.

In Pakistan, women have mostly taken to the medical profession and teaching. But lately, Pakistani women are excelling in information technologies and are recipients of global awards. It would be in the national interest if there is a fair representation of women in parliament, bureaucracy, judiciary and educational institutions. Experience of our country and abroad confirms that inclusion of women results in the overall improvement in performance of the institution and the organisation. Greater participation of women in politics would help in putting across the challenges they face and how legislation and administrative measures can help to ameliorate their collective well-being. We have some very able and dedicated women legislators but we need more of them in accordance with the basis of their population especially from the smaller provinces and less developed areas.

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