by Samia Altaf
Over the past week, Pakistan has been consumed by the Aurat (Women’s) March, which was held today, March 8, International Women’s Day, in all the major cities of the country. The march’s aim is to highlight the continued discrimination, inequality, and harassment suffered by women. There are some people against it who argue that the march should not be allowed, but the Islamabad High Court has rejected the petition that asked for its cancellation. So the march happened.
Those against holding the march tot up the unprecedented rights and respect Islam affords to women, further endorsed by the constitution of Pakistan. They count the many recent women-friendly pieces of legislation enacted by the government of Pakistan, such as the law against workplace discrimination. In addition, they argue, privileged and educated women already have all the opportunities they want. They cite numbers such as the statistic that more than 50 percent of graduating doctors every year are women. Women politicians are increasing in numbers, women managers, CEOs, etc. are represented in almost all industries. And of course unprivileged women are equal participants in the labor force whether they want to be or not.
Those for the march argue, rightly, that women friendly-legislation is just paper, since those laws are not implemented. They speak of onerous and time-consuming cultural practices that place the management responsibilities of home and children exclusively on the woman—even if she works outside the home.
The actual reality of women’s life in Pakistan according to critical indicators is dismal. The literacy rate for women is 50 percent at best. Health care indicators such as maternal mortality are among the highest in the region, just behind war-torn Afghanistan. School enrollment is low and dropout rates are high. Pakistan is 149 out of 153 countries on the provision of health services for women, and is 151 in gender equity index. Cases of domestic violence, including “honor killings,” have only grown. No wonder feelings are high on both sides and the fight is now in the public square with the march at its center.
Yesterday, on my way home in an Uber, there was a heated discussion on the radio about the rightness and wrongness of the march. I asked the driver to turn off the radio. He did and then asked me, Madam, can you tell me what is the need for this march? For all these women come from a privileged background, are educated, they it seems have it all, so what is their problem?
How to explain to him the problems faced by Pakistani women. It would take a lifetime. Or to even communicate to him that women from a privileged background are asking for equality and respect, which is still denied them in spite of their education and privileged background?
The other day at a leading progressive university in Lahore there was a panel discussion of problems in the health system in Pakistan. The participants on the panel were three men and one woman, me: all senior professionals, a professor of medicine at a private-sector general hospital, a CEO, a senior government official managing a large provincial health department, and then me, a public health physician who has worked around the world, written on systems issues in the popular press, spoken internationally, and published a book on Pakistan’s health sector.
After the panelists took their seats, a staff member came over to greet us. He shook hands with the three men, one after the other, the last one standing right next to me. Then he turned around and went back to his seat and the proceedings began. If I were to be charitable, I could say he thought there were only three panelists, or he just got distracted at the last minute.
But I could not, and do not convince myself. Even I, an experienced professional who has been in many similar situations, and a woman of privileged background, could not stomach this discrimination. This unequal treatment made me feel of less worth than my peers. I felt disrespected and an undercurrent of anger and anxiety roiling in me throughout the evening, and even now. So yes, I think there is need for this march.
Yesterday, since it was a lovely spring evening, I decided to walk from Lawrence Gardens on the Mall Road to the Pearl Continental Hotel where I had left my car, three fourths of a mile away.
In barely five minutes, men on motorbikes, in cars decrepit and fancy, started to follow me, honk at me, and make offers. They all thought I was a hooker out on my beat! And this in the middle of the afternoon. Is it because I was the only woman walking this road? For I was dressed modestly and tastefully in traditional Pakistani outfit complete with a dupatta and a shawl. There weren’t many men on the road either, just a few, mostly laborers. I could tell by their clothes and by their speech. I had walked this path thousands of times during my college days in Lahore, four decades ago, without any such harassment.
It is this kind of behavior demonstrated by men that causes much distress and anger in women. Such behavior makes them feel demeaned and humiliated.
Challenging misogynist behavior, even if it is subtle, and challenging crass harassment that is anything but subtle, involves talking about it. That is why there is a need for this march. Sure, at times the discussion will veer into extremes. Still, we need to talk. We need some introspection, for sure, but more than that, we need concrete action. We are far beyond first steps, but the march is a step that is much needed.