It has been 69 years since Pakistan came into existence, and since then we have been mired in appalling dilemmas, and have confronted multiple issues. While the reason for most of our sufferings has been our prevailing socioeconomic conditions, what has essentially been a chronic predicament for us is the issue of gender politics that still is a great impediment to growth and development of our country.
When we talk about gender discrimination in Pakistan, we mainly focus the disparity in country’s male and female population. According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2015 by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum, Pakistan ranked 144 out of 145 countries, second to last, in terms of global gender equality. This is the third year on the trot that Pakistan has maintained the penultimate ranking. The only country where women face equality issues worse than Pakistan is Yemen.
Here the most pertinent question is: ‘why women are treated as inferior entities?’ Over the decades, we have seen how women’s exclusion from political and other arenas of life has become a major issue. This is because of the cultural restrictions on women due to which fewer institutions could focus on educating women or prioritizing them for jobs.
However, gender issues aren’t limited to inequalities between men and women in various fields of life rather the phenomenon of violence against women is also no less than a scourge of our society. Since 2014, according to the National Police Bureau, more than 12,000 cases of violence against women and girls have been reported, in which over 500 were related to domestic violence. Similarly, during the last seven years, Pakistan has witnessed an increasing trend of honour killings. This curse has been aptly showcased by Sharmeen Obain-Chinoy in her second Oscar-winning documentary: “A Girl in the River” which brings to light this impending and ongoing dilemma of our society.
However, what needs to be noted is that despite being the victims of cruel gender politics which entails notions like sexism and misogyny, we are also making efforts to eradicate this menace.
An example of this being that in 2015, students of New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia stuck sanitary pads all over the campus in a bid to raise awareness about rape and sexism. A year later, a simple college assignment at Beaconhouse National University (BNU) in Lahore started it in Pakistan as well. On April 7-8, 2016, a group of girls and boys decided to protest against the stigmatization of menstruation and the ‘sharmindagi'(shame) attached to it.
The protest was aimed at encouraging the public at large to accept menstruation as a normal fact of life, instead of treating it as a “dirty little secret” and brown-bagging sanitary pads at grocery stores. Such efforts and the ones made by Chinoy on international fora make us realize how important it is to eradicate the deeply-rooted misogynic and chauvinist mindsets that have permeated our society. Moreover, another initiative by women in Lahore is that of “Girls at Dhabbas”, a concept that reverberates female liberation. The founder of this enterprise, Sadia Khatri recently posted: “There isn’t anything about sitting at a dhaba having chai that particularly screams: look at my politics. But it becomes political because public space is contentious and political; it becomes feminist because I am a woman who needs to go through a certain mental and physical effort to be in that space; it becomes art because it is playful, it focuses on the ways we create pleasure – ordinary pleasure – in the streets.”
Through these movements what our general masses need to realize is that there is no shame in sitting at a dhaba, or playing a cricket match on the street, or riding a bicycle. By restricting the public space for women in our cities, we create the space for discrimination and violence against women.
Although, women are the victimized beings in our gender politics, what we forget while talking about gender issues is that the issue of transgender community. There are an estimated 500,000 ‘third-gender’ citizens in Pakistan, including cross-dressers, transsexuals, eunuchs, hermaphrodites, and transvestites. In 2012, the Pakistani government recognized the transgender population and a three-member bench of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, headed by the then-Chief Justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, ruled that the transgender community is entitled to rights guaranteed in the Constitution to all citizens, including the right of inheritance. Prior to this, as transgenders did not classify themselves as ‘male’ or ‘female’ on official documents, they were barred from fundamental rights, such as voting.
However, in May 2013 general elections, five members of the community contested polls. While their rights are guaranteed on paper, members of the transgender community still don’t enjoy these rights in practice. Government institutions and other governing bodies are known to harass these individuals. In case of any criminal victimization or even sexual harassment, these individuals get no support from the community or government institutions. Due to illiteracy, they have no job opportunities and financial security and thus most members of the transgender community are forced to make their living by prostitution or other immoral means.
Hence, to bring about a long-term solution to gender disparity in our country, we need to take more and more measures and to create more awareness among the masses. It is imperative for us to understand and recognize the rights of women and transgenders for they are not just humans deserving fundamental rights, but they, together with the rest of the citizens of the state, build the nation. It is important for us to walk on the notion of moderation.