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Reinventing Pakistan: A Closer Look at the Status of Women

March 3, 2010

The status of women has long been a source of political controversy in Pakistan. The country’s former military ruler, General Zia ul-Haq, enforced the draconian Hudood Ordinance in 1979, launching his infamous Islamization program that created tremendous hardships for women living in Pakistan. For example, it is well-documented that many unfortunate women who were raped during that period were convicted of adultery. At the same time, many of the criminals, who committed such crimes, exploited legal loopholes and went free.

But it was not some democratic political administration that eventually provided the antidote to Zia’s rule of disaster. Instead, it was another military man, General Pervez Musharraf (retired), who, after the September 11 terror attacks in the United States, coined the term “enlightened moderation” to challenge the essence of extreme,  fundamentalist Islam practiced by various militant outfits operating in the country’s northwestern tribal territories bordering Afghanistan.

With the Taliban resurgence in Pakistan today, the status of women is once again in question. The militant group has administrated rough justice in areas under its control and many Pakistanis as well as others across the globe remember the video in which a 17-year-old girl in Swat was flogged in the name of religion.

This begs the questions: Why do Pakistani women have to undergo this agony time and time again? And why have they not managed to secure their rights once and for all, even though they have valiantly fought for them?

Many political analysts believe that the answer to these questions lies in the country’s history.

While Pakistan’s founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, envisioned a secular and liberal democracy – as it is clear from his Aug. 11, 1947, address to the Constituent Assembly – the country’s political leadership continued to grapple with the question of identity. They used religion as a binding force to keep different ethnic communities together.

However, the experiment failed in 1971, when Pakistan lost its eastern wing to regional realities. It also provided primacy to religio-political parties. Many of the factions that were coddled by the Zia regime also harbored provincial views about women’s social status in the country. And those groups have continued to maintain their discriminatory views.

It is therefore not surprising that girls’ schools were blown up in Swat and Malakand in recent years. Female education has often been an anathema to conservative religious groups in Pakistan that have also targeted other institutions and facilities for women.

Against this backdrop of discrimination and hardship, it is important for women in Pakistan to both continue struggling for their rights and to realize that Islam plays a vital role in their lives. Progressive women in Pakistan may not subscribe to the religious framework imposed on them by the state. But many of them tend to live their lives according to the doctrines of Islam – as they understand them.

As the situation stands, there is a huge chasm in the country between the moderate and fundamentalist interpretations of women’s rights in Islam. There is an urgent need for a comprehensive analysis of Islam’s position on several critical issues that touch a woman’s life intimately in the country. It is therefore critical to start a dialogue process between the moderate influential religious leaders and scholars to advance the understanding of the relationship between universally accepted human and women’s rights and Islam.

Such engagement will hopefully foster an environment of tolerance and a more holistic vision of social justice for women within Islam.

Nadia Tariq Ali is The Asia Foundation’s Senior Program Officer in Pakistan. She can be reached at ntali@asiafound.org.

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