‘Problems of Pakistani women’. Introducing the topic, Ms. Shafaq Sheikh gave some facts and figures about state of women in Pakistan, and underlined that most of the problems faced by Pakistani women were common to whole population without any discrimination. Common men as well as women are victims to poor quality of life, insufficient opportunities and exploitive conditions. The status of women can be elevated only through overall progress and development of society.
In few cases, however, women are the only, or the main victims. Better governance, proper implementation of laws and policies, and balanced progress of all sections and areas of society would obviously reduce the problems faced by the members of society, including women. She said that the status of women in Pakistani society was not homogenous, and there was diversity in it across various classes, regions and areas (rural/urban) due to different socio-economic construct of each distinct section of society.
She mentioned that the aim of discussion was to prepare the recommendations for people from different walks of life and stakeholders, to establish a model society with the strengthened family institution. Dilating upon these problems, she made it clear that citing problems should not give an impression that women, in all cases, live in a pathetic condition, and had no positive role to play in social and economic arenas. It does not mean, as well, that the rights of women can be acquired by challenging the position of men in the society.
A balanced society needs an active and efficient participation of both genders in cooperation with each other. The provision of basic facilities and better opportunities to all citizens, without any discrimination, should always be one of the primary objectives of a society. National policies, as well as, social construct do not help women in playing their due role in the society; investment in developing their human capital is lower, and economic and cultural aspects of social life are not adjusted to their needs and requirements.
She further stressed that some problems were in fact, the root causes, and the rest were their offshoots. She viewed that the problems faced by women, as members of society, can be studied under six heads: health, education, economy, legal affairs, social affairs and political affairs. She underscored that the presentation was an attempt to list all those issues, which were generally perceived to be the problems of women; this should not be taken as a consensus list as different people perceived them differently, and the group in its future deliberations might evaluate them.
In health sector, there is a lack of basic facilities in all areas and regions, for the whole population, in general, but women and children in the rural areas suffer the most. Inadequate community outreach and remoteness of health services centres add to the problems, caused by lack of proper care and non-availability of qualified medical staff. Unhygienic environment, widespread poverty, and insufficiency of clean drinking water are among the main reasons for poor health and high death rate. Lack of awareness in masses further aggravates the already pitiable situation.
Similarly, the availability of educational facilities as well as their standard is far away from perfection. On one hand, the educational infrastructure is unsatisfactory; while on the other hand, the social conduct and perceptions are not always in favor of female education. Poverty makes another reason for low enrollment and high dropout rate, especially among female students. The misconception about the purpose of education, as being a tool for earning, is another dimension of the problem. Since females are not expected to work as bread-earners, therefore, parents feel less motivated to provide them with facilities for higher education.
The economic role of women is clearly defined, and is well-acknowledged, as far as faith and tradition is concerned, but the developments in contemporary society have created new issues, to be considered in this respect. However, the share of female population, in economic activity, is not proportionate with their number. Due to tough economic conditions and other social reasons, women are entering the economic arena in large number, without any identification of those areas, which can prove to be more productive for them.
Working women are facing serious problems at workplace, and on way to or from the workplace. Their family life, especially children, suffer a lot; besides, they have to perform dual jobs in form of fulfilling their family obligations along with the job. Moreover, the work conditions are mostly exploitative, and since the trade unions and associations, too, are generally not gender sensitive, the problems of working women in formal, non-formal or even in business sectors are less likely to be addressed properly. In legal arena, the plight of women is even graver.
On account of corruption and inhumane attitudes, prevailing in police department and judicial environment, women show great reluctance in indulging into litigation or contacting police, to claim their rights or seek remedy. Family laws, laws relating to inheritance, and other disputes, which may involve women, are perceived to be failed in safeguarding women rights. Complicated and lengthy court procedures and uncomfortable environment, combined with lack of awareness among women, are among those reasons, which complement the problems of women in legal affairs.
In social context, though, the role and status of women is increasing, yet, there are certain sections of society in which, females are looked down upon, and their rights are denied on one pretext, or the other. Society, in such areas or communities, remains hostage to traditions and customs which, in some cases, are strong enough to bypass the law, and even the religion. Lust, for large dowry and ancestral land, has given birth to customs and evil practices like karo kari, burning of women in homes, denial of their right of inheritance, and marriage with Quran.
Women are used as an object, to settle disputes. In political process, the role and representation of women has been enhanced remarkably during recent years, but this has not proved to be an adequate arrangement. The feudal and tribal structures, on one hand, deprive women of their political rights, and on other hand, grab the seats, reserved for women in legislative bodies. Politics is deemed to be a field, specifically for the males, and no proper arrangement is devised to ensure the incorporation of the opinions of women in decisions and policies.
Discussing the role of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the speaker emphasized that the NGOs needed to improve their image. The perception about NGOs is that they are toeing foreign agenda in the country, and are, therefore, counter-productive. They need to work for spreading awareness, creating harmony, and providing services in accordance with the local customs, beliefs, and religious feelings. NGOs should focus on long-term programs, to ensure stability and sustainability through mutual coordination and involvement of community.
They must realize that their role should not cause a tussle between two genders i. e. male and female; rather, they should focus on a balanced development of all sections of society. Members of civil society like teachers, lawyers, and religious scholars need to play their role in disseminating awareness, as well as promoting healthy practices, in the society. Without active support and involvement of informed members of society, no progress can be made in this respect. Ms. Shafaq Sheikh oncluded her presentation maintaining that the discrimination against women was more a social problem than the legal, but law should play its role in bringing about, and ensuring a positive change in social behaviors and societal construction, so that the women could be guaranteed their right to live a life, free of fear and discrimination. In the subsequent discussion, the participants agreed with the presenter that the women are not the only sufferers (though in some cases, they suffer more than men); the whole population is, presently, a victim to poor condition of life.
Thus, women can get their actual status with the advancement of overall society, rather than by contending the men. A healthy society, in fact, requires the collaboration of both. The discussion pointed out the exploitation of women in media, as a major problem in the contemporary society; it also hinted towards a number of laws addressing the plight and problems of women, which already existed in the country, but were not being implemented properly.
It was reminded that the people and society normally employed either of the two approaches, which subsequently shaped their respective attitudes: either the material objectives, (i. e. the income of a person, for example, made the yardstick of success for them), or the morals and values meant to them the most in life. The ideal model of a strengthened family institution can never be reconciled with the former; rather, it is a natural consequence of the latter. The concept of ‘ideal person’ and ‘ideal society’, as deeply woven in value framework and belief-set of society, should, therefore, remain unambiguously clear.
The members stressed that on one hand, problems were needed to be identified, and a proactive approach was required to solve them, while, on the other hand, there was a need to revitalize and reinforce those positive aspects of the society, which play their role in strengthening the society, including the institution of family. It was also noted that the number of family cases was increasing in the courts. These cases are normally related to divorce, custody of children, and maintenance issues.
This casts serious doubts about the social change taking place in the society, as a result of increasing role of women in economic and political life. The argument was, however, contested, and it was pointed out that there were more reasons than one, for higher rate of divorce cases in the courts; these reasons might include the increasing population, and enhanced awareness among people about women rights. It was also stressed that awareness should not merely focus the rights and privileges available to any section of society; the responsibilities of men and women in their respective roles should also be reminded more frequently.
Besides, it was mentioned that there was an increasing realization of the breast feeding and child nutrition law, and a global movement for this cause was already taking momentum. This issue has a bearing not only on child’s health and family budget, but also on overall relationship between mother and child. Islam has laid emphasis on social mobility and active participation of all members of society in reinforcing the institution of family, without disturbing private lives. Quran, itself has given a mechanism for resolving disputes that may arise between spouses (Al-Quran 4:35).
Muslim Family Law Ordinance 1961 requires the constitution of Arbitration Council, which tries to reconcile between husband and wife through intervention of society, including representatives of spouses. It was agreed that this law should be examined in detail, to see whether it was effective and whether Quranic injunctions were properly incorporated. It was deplored that the bill under-consideration in the Parliament, for the prevention of domestic violence, did not bother to consider the incorporation of this Quranic clause; instead it resorted to a mechanism that is more likely to negatively affect the institution of family.
The debate on problems of women normally ignores to include majority of female population in the country, representing all age groups and all social and financial backgrounds; it generally focuses the young females, who are at the beginning of their carriers. Recommendations are, therefore, generally made to ensure their enhanced and more productive role in social and economic spheres of life. Concept of kifalah (maintenance) is a prominent feature of the social system, proposed by Islam. This assured social security to all vulnerable sections of society.
It is needed to be probed as to what extent this system has been institutionalized by Pakistani legal system. It was also proposed that the role of women in decision making, at public level, was needed to be revisited. There are serious questions about the effectiveness of arrangement, made through reserved seats for women, with a view to increase their representation. The seats are usually seized by the females of feudal families, who are more interested in safeguarding the interests of the feudal, and not of women. It was pointed out that feudalism was one of the ajor problems in many areas of Pakistan. Exploitative role of feudal lords has caused the prevalence and protection of evil customs and attitudes like karo kari, sawara, wani, marriage with Quran, and denial of the right of inheritance to women. They also resist education, and provision of other basic facilities to the people, and hinder all efforts for progress and reform. But, the discussion on social evils does not usually refer to this fundamental problem; guaranteeing the right of inheritance, and evolving an effective mechanism can prove to be the effective tools for reform.
It was reiterated that education is the most important tool for the social reform. Hence, the mechanism, provided to ensure such reforms, should be studied, and the role of community and business sector should be defined, in this respect. Promoting the idea of uniform education system can also prove to be fruitful in this regard, which will hopefully, escort a way towards building a homogeneous and a genuinely progressive society.