Women’s empowerment in Pakistan, a road yet to travel to an equitable society

The dilemma of Pakistan's conservative society, fearful of the feminist uprising, and — the quest for women's empowerment in the lower rungs of patriarchy.

Raza Dotani
By Raza Dotani - Learner 12 Min Read
Aurat March Participants (Women's empowerment against patriarchy in Pakistan)
Images: File / Aurat March participants celebrating, Karachi, 2022 / ANI (left to right)

On International Women’s Day, March 8, I was given the opportunity to talk on patriarchy during an online seminar on women’s empowerment in Pakistan. At the outset, when I raised two concerns, it seemed to send the male folks into a frenzy. Firstly, I suggested that only women, rather than men, should be asked about their experiences since they are more qualified to speak about women’s plight. Secondly, I urged that we avoid using religion as a pretext for everything, which I found to be misguided and unproductive. As I voiced these objections, they grew increasingly defensive, and the atmosphere turned into a typical Pakistani debate where women’s plight is discussed entirely by men, with little to no input from women themselves.

It is common to see in discussions about the difficulties women face in domestic and social settings that women are relegated to the sidelines, while men take centre stage with their opinions, judgments, and arguments. However, it is women who experience the suffering firsthand. Here’s the thing: it’s the victim who feels the pain, not the person who inflicts it, or the bystander.

From upbringing and education to religion and politics, we’ve been fed a narrow view of society that paints us as noble, upright people. But the reality is darker and more problematic. We’ve inherited countless societal issues disguised as family values, religious beliefs, and cultural traditions — issues that have thrived in the shadows for too long.

In Pakistan, empowered women are perceived as a threat to religion and society, facing dismissive attitudes disguised as religious or social values. This regressive mindset is deeply ingrained in our culture and passed down from generation to generation, infecting even the most educated and elite families. Instead of embracing highly aware and empowered women, who refuse to allow their rights to be trampled, they prefer the less educated and subservient women, who can be controlled without objection.

Labelling women’s uprisings as indecent won’t solve anything. Grant women their rights and build a safer society for them, will not be any such indecency.

The Aurat March serves as a compelling example. Since its inception, it has faced relentless accusations, misguided assumptions, and slanderous attacks. The reality is that the march strives to reject the patriarchal system that denies women’s equal share in property, treats girls as inferior to boys, and deprives women of access to justice while punishing them for crimes they do not commit. The movement challenges societal norms that reduce women to the status of slaves. The uprising advocates for equality, a principle deeply rooted in the Islamic concept of Musawaat.

It’s bewildering how people are quick to blame the entire women’s rights movement for promoting profanity and an anti-Islamic culture. It’s perplexing how those people can espouse the teachings of Islam, which emphasise peace, patience, tolerance, justice, and equality, yet still perpetrate heinous acts of violence, such as throat-slitting, burning people alive, and mob lynching. Let us not forget the tragic murder of Mashal and others who have suffered similar fates.

When women, exhausted by the deep-rooted oppression and pervasive harassment they face in their homes, streets, markets, workplaces, and educational institutions, speak up about their suffering and display their anguish through some hard-hitting slogans and brazen posters, the sick mindset can’t digest it. Let’s recall that when some paintings advocating for women’s rights and welfare were painted on walls in Islamabad in 2020, they were met with an intolerant response, with some labelling them as obscene.

How can you profess to uphold the teachings of Islam and claim a safer society when you label art as anti-Islam, denounce poetry and music, refuse to tolerate working women, turn a blind eye to the sexual exploitation of children in holy places, remain silent about growing cases of rape, and inspire those who burn humans alive? In fact, you pose the biggest threat to Islam and make society intolerable.

Embracing progress and letting go of patriarchy is a path to sidestep a more insecure society.

Let’s face it: — the answer to the question “Who is responsible for the most heinous crimes, particularly against women in Pakistani society?” is often the same: men. From abusing girls to assaulting minors, from harassing and raping women to usurping their property shares, and from committing domestic violence against women to denying them access to education, the list of offenses is long and disturbing. It’s undeniable that men hold the lion’s share of responsibility for these atrocious acts. Given this reality, how can anyone justify blaming women for their plight?

To put it bluntly, the Aurat March may have only begun in 2018, but women have suffered under the weight of oppression for far too long. If they are now raising their voices against this oppression, it is hypocritical to label their movement as anti-Islam, especially when so much patriarchal evil goes unchecked. It’s better to clean up your own backyard before dealing with the women’s uprising. Punish the culpable men, speak out against assaults, and issue fatwas against honour killings and property deprivation of women, there would be no need for the Aurat March. — No root, no fruit.

You must admit the reality of patriarchal oppression and dismantle the anti-woman mindset, or women will continue to raise their voices. Today’s educated woman understands her rights better than ever and will not be silenced until the required change is achieved.

The Pakistani nation has a pervasive tendency to conflate and distort every issue, whether it’s social, domestic, political, religious, or personal, by haphazardly linking it to religion, honour, and patriotism without any factual basis. Regrettably, the nation is notorious for believing false information, idle rumours, and sensational news without verification. Even more worrying, when someone challenges another person’s perspective, religion is quickly invoked in a misguided and misleading manner, despite having no knowledge of religious principles or history.

Rather than listening to the voices of women and educating ourselves about movements like the Aurat March and their true goals, we often choose to believe numerous misconceptions. One prevalent misconception is that the Aurat March has a Western agenda. In the West, International Women’s Day celebrates women’s leadership and their role in shaping society, while Pakistani women spend the day mourning the endless struggles they face – from rape and sexual harassment to social injustice and domestic violence.

An empowered woman refuses to have her rights violated, which is why even supposedly progressive circles often fall short in embracing women’s empowerment.

One of the worst allegations levelled against the women’s uprising is that it fosters vulgarity. However, the fact remains that the proliferation of vulgarity is not attributable to women, but rather to the dearth of sex education, which also gives rise to a culture of rape, molestation, and child abuse. Despite this, you have deemed sex education to be reprehensible for your children. It is worth noting that no woman, regardless of her creed or profession, will tolerate any form of immodesty or obscenity under any circumstances.

The patriarchal mindset often feels threatened by even the slightest mention of feminism or feminists, yet it never bothers to educate itself on the subject. To cut to the chase: feminists want an equal say in society, government, justice, and earning a living. Their crimes? — They reject dependence on men for wealth, property, relationships, or livelihood, which unsettles the patriarchy. Instead, they prioritise self-respect, worth, and their own voices, refusing to pursue men for money, love, fame, or any favours. Nonetheless, it’s not about rejecting family values, piety, religious beliefs, or social norms, but rather about ensuring that women are socially secure and economically independent within them.

For those who continue to cling onto their anti-feminist beliefs and feel attacked by the mere mention of feminism, I urge them to take a step back and examine their own knowledge. Hundreds of books, documentaries, and research papers exist that provide a comprehensive understanding of feminism. It’s important to educate oneself on the matter before forming an opinion.

Let’s call a spade a spade! If you disagree with the women’s uprising, — that’s your prerogative, — feel free to criticise it, but back up your arguments with valid points and concrete evidence. If you dislike feminism, oppose it with conviction, but take the time to educate yourself on the subject before making sweeping statements or assumptions. Moreover, learn about the values of equality and tolerance in Islam, explore the history of different humanitarian movements, and broaden your knowledge beyond textbooks. Also, read about the wisdom of Baba Bulleh Shah, the poetry of Ghani Khan and Faiz Ahmad Faiz, the teachings of Maulana Wajihhudin, the legacy of Bacha Khan, and the activism of Asma Jahangir.

It’s high time we move away from conservatism and embrace progress. If we don’t, society will continue to spiral into an insecure and unjust state. Beyond women’s uprising and feminism, we need to establish a society that values tolerance, equality, and justice, respects human rights, cherishes dissent, embraces religious diversity, empowers women, and punishes criminals.

Life without dignity and self-respect is a hollow existence; empower every woman in your family to thrive with pride and honour.

It all begins at home. — If we want to achieve a real change, we must start by looking inward and taking action within our own households. We must first kindle the torch of empowerment within our homes, and accord equal esteem to the voices of women, as we do to those of men. — Life without dignity and self-respect is nothing but a hollow existence. Every individual deserves to live with pride and honour. True honour lies in empowering women to live with self-esteem and grace and supporting them in their achievements, rather than forcing them to bow down to male authority. Healthy relationships built on mutual respect, support, and equality benefit both partners. The desire for women to be subservient is not a badge of honour, but rather an act of shamelessness and dishonour.

A key to creating lasting change is through the proper education and training of our children, particularly our sons. It’s a harsh reality that when a daughter or sister makes a small mistake that might harm the family’s reputation, she is immediately shamed and punished for dishonouring the family. But, if a brother or son commits a larger mistake, he is often let off the hook. We need to stop this inhumane and discriminatory behaviour towards our children, regardless of their gender. It’s essential to teach our sons and brothers not to hurt women verbally, physically, mentally, or in any way, and to treat every woman with the respect she deserves.

A pivotal step towards creating a robust and prosperous society is teaching financial empowerment to our children. While formal education is essential, it is equally crucial to instil a business and leadership mindset in the younger generation. By doing so, we can prevent them from being swayed by extremist ideologies, sectarianism, linguistic prejudices, and anti-woman sentiments.

As a fervent advocate of this approach, I have been investing my time in imparting cutting-edge entrepreneurial acumen to my siblings to shield them from the perils of the conventional employment culture. My aim is to spare them the hardships and betrayals that have shattered my own dreams. — Preparing your children for financial stability doesn’t require too much effort. Simply provide them with modern tools, effective guidance, and the right platforms. The ultimate goal is to raise a family where every member is self-sufficient and financially independent, contributing to the prosperity of the entire household and the wider community.

It is incumbent upon us to ensure that future generations inherit a secure and equitable society, lest they’ll not forgive us and history will judge us harshly.

Another significant role we must prioritise as parents and guardians is ensuring that our daughters receive the same educational opportunities as our sons. Too often, parents limit their daughters’ education due to a fear that they may make immoral choices, while hypocritically allowing their sons more freedom. However, this fear is directed towards men, whether they are male teachers, officials, classmates, or simply men in society. It’s crucial that parents do not hold their daughters to different standards than their sons, and instead provide equal opportunities and freedoms for both genders.

The more educated and literate our girls are, the stronger and more self-aware they will become. A well-educated woman has a better sense of self-respect and does not succumb to men’s manipulation. Instead of restricting women’s opportunities, we must address the root cause of the issue — the greed and entitlement of men.

To foster a safer and more peaceful society, we must take gradual steps towards dismantling the patriarchal system. This deeply entrenched system is one of the primary culprits behind the plight of women in our society. It’s high time we recognise that a mother, elder sister, or educated wife is as capable, if not more so, of leading and managing a family as a father, elder brother, or husband. What we need is moderation and equality, not just within families, but across all aspects of life. By eradicating patriarchy, we can put an end to domestic violence, social injustice, and other age-old problems that women have been grappling with for generations.

To wrap up, speaking out against conservative and patriarchal societal norms, rigid family values, and religious hypocrisies is a difficult and unpopular task. While you may disagree with certain points I made, it’s important to understand that disagreement is a hallmark of a democratic society. Establishing a tolerant and peaceful society is a responsibility that we owe to both present and future generations. To fulfil this responsibility, we need to start by looking inward and making changes within our own homes. Our future generations will judge us based on the kind of life we have lived and the examples we set for them. It’s up to us to ensure that we leave behind a legacy that they can be proud to follow.

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By Raza Dotani Learner
IVLP fellow, a maverick blogger, promoting youth and women's empowerment — activist advocating for civic voices and digital literacy, — and entrepreneur helping businesses thrive online.
  • Well written and addressed the topic boldly. Your point about gender discrimination between male and female children by parents really resonated with me, as it’s something I’ve personally experienced.

  • Bro when these women cross limits, only their families suffer and have no place in society. You can achieve empowerment any time but once honor is lost, you can never regain it.

    • Blaming women for others’ actions is harmful and shifts responsibility away from the perpetrators. It’s our collective responsibility to create a safe and just society. First, we must address the issues, then we could confront any person, man or woman, for their wrongdoing.

  • Women are their own problem. As you have said, ‘first learn something and then criticize.’ They should also first understand all the ups and downs, and the true values of Pakistani society, before talking about any so-called uprising. Women can be their own problem at times.

    • Thank you for your comment. I believe that the issues facing women in Pakistani society are not simply a matter of personal choices or individual responsibility, but rather systemic inequalities that need to be addressed. Women should have access to equal rights and opportunities, and it is our collective responsibility to work towards creating a more just and equitable society for all.

  • A lot of what you mention is right. We need to work towards women’s rights and take action against discrimination. But you should stop using “man” as a strawman. Putting blame on a whole group of people without any real explanation, is a simple logical fallacy.

    You generalized the whole thing and put the blame on just “men”. No solutions offered as well.

    Its time you realize that instead of blaming everything on men, you try to offer some solutions. Again, this article looks less like an article and more like a rant.

    • Thanks for your comment, Moiz. While I understand your concern about generalizing and blaming all men, I want to clarify that I am addressing the patriarchal system and religious extremism that perpetuate discrimination as well as violence against women in the society. I am talking about men, those who commit crimes, rape, violate the rights of women, and oppress them, and those who harass and sexually abuse women and children. — Half of my article offers practical solutions to address the issues and pave the way for a more equitable society for both men and women.

  • I am really impressed with your writing style. Keep it up! The way you describe a sensitive topic in an easy-to-understand manner is truly impressive. This was such thought-provoking article.

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