Women in the News

Pakistan, Oct 19 2017 - Should the state appreciate or even acknowledge the work of Pakistani citizens, especially women, that is recognised abroad?

The government’s information paraphernalia often hails Pakistani males’ achievements abroad, particularly in sports. As soon as the Pakistan cricket team managed to win the second ODI against Sri Lanka in Abu Dhabi the other day, the Punjab chief minister lost no time in issuing his congratulatory message.

I.A. Rehman

In celebrating victories in sports, the state and the people of Pakistan beat all nations by a wide margin. The reception we gave the winners of the ICC Championship Trophy has no parallel in our history. But sportspersons, who win matches or individually score high, are heroes all over the world. And cricket is especially close to our hearts. For the pleasure of staging a game at the Qadhafi Stadium in Lahore, we can close down educational institutions across a good part of the city. This is considered a small price to pay for demonstrating to the world that while terrorists might still be killing careless citizens or off-duty security personnel, the playgrounds are off limits to them. We also give cricket importance in order to hide our fall in hockey and our criminal neglect of football and athletics.

Pakistan’s women have achieved much through their own efforts and often in spite of the state.

No, we are not talking of sports. We are only talking of small things, such as the Anna Politkovskaya award won by Gulalai Ismail and the Emmy award won by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy.

The officials’ reasons for denying Gulalai Ismail a word of encouragement may be rooted in the fact that she shared the award with an Indian woman journalist, Gauri Lankesh, who was murdered, apparently for her fight against intolerance. Moreover, Gulalai not only sympathised with Gauri, she also spoke of “our common struggle and courage”. These things upset Pakistan’s patriotic officials. ‘What is this struggle that brings together a Pakistani social activist and an Indian journalist? The story has a security angle that cannot be ignored’, they are likely to say.

They get more worried when they find out that Gulalai Ismail is from Peshawar and runs an NGO and claims to have received threats from extremists for working for women’s rights. Since officials generally share Gen Musharraf’s view — that women make up stories of victimisation to gain publicity — they set about to probe her NGO. Did Gulalai get a no-objection certificate from the deputy commissioner for accepting this award? Has her NGO been cleared by all the security agencies? Does the local police have the particulars of the staff working with Gulalai — down to the chowkidar — their spouses and the schools their children attend? The probe could go on and on.

Likewise, it may not be considered advisable to show indecent haste in greeting Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy for winning an Emmy award which is said to enjoy greater prestige than the Oscar she has won twice. Better than Oscar? That means ‘more dangerous’ in the eyes of officials. She seems to have made collecting awards a regular business. And what has she done this time? The Girl in the River. Oh, that story again. Was she not satisfied that the film was shown at the Prime Minister’s Secretariat and that, when in power, Nawaz Sharif had made all sorts of promises for protecting women against ‘honour’ killing? That should have been enough.

The rejection of Sharmeen’s claim to recognition could run like this. Why should Sharmeen be allowed to defame Pakistan with this concocted story of a village girl who broke the family code of honour by choosing a husband for herself? The shameless girl not only survived her noble-hearted father’s and uncle’s attempt to end her sinful existence but also dragged herself out of the river and had the audacity to have the guardian of the family’s honour put behind bars. Thank heavens, he was not punished as society did not allow the misguided girl to disgrace the whole community.

Further, such incidents occur everywhere and they are not common in Pakistan. Even if they do occur sometimes, it is our internal matter and we don’t allow anyone to tell us to clean up our own house.

The media does not fail to report if Pakistani women win plaudits abroad. But approval of these women’s work is subject to clearance by the powers that be. However, if women of Pakistani origin get elected to the British House of Commons, the media is overjoyed as if these successes are due to something Pakistan or its media has done. The media was also extremely happy when a Muslim lady was elected president of Singapore. As if the ummah deserved the credit.

What the media fails to inform the public is that that these women of Pakistani origin succeed in getting into the political institutions of Britain or the United States because these countries are still faithful to a certain degree to the political ideal of guaranteeing their citizens — regardless of their national, ethnic and religious origins or affiliations — equal opportunity that has been described as the foremost ideal of a progressive society. These women can realise their potential because the system in which they are living facilitates their rise. In Pakistan, equal opportunity is like a distant dream, even for men; women are far, far behind.

The women of Pakistan have achieved much through their own efforts and often in spite of the state. At the present speed, they will take decades before coming close to acquiring the same kind of recognition that the men have. But their journey could be greatly shortened if the state stopped blocking their creative energies in the areas of their choice — even if it cannot learn to honour what Gulalai Ismail or Sharmeen want to do to liberate their fellow women from a feudal legacy.

This story was originally published by Dawn, Pakistan

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