Friday, 5 March 2010

Women’s liberation: burning bras in Pakistan?

The reasons for integrating women into society are well known. From the economic to the simple moral argument, there is little debate about the benefits of equal rights. As part of fundamental human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human rights, discrimination against women is outlawed.
Lofty ideals are great but putting them into practice is not easy. The effectiveness of public policies varies in different nations. Additionally, the suitability of certain policies is questionable in diverging social environments.
Kemalist Turks may consider banning the headscarf an act of women's liberation but try doing that in Afghanistan! In the 1980s, the Soviets paid a heavy price for implementing 'progressive' women's liberation policies; the measures only fuelled the US supported Islamist insurgency.
Female integration is relative. Singaporean women may focus on the gender pay gap, i.e. ensuring the same pay for the same work. However, in Afghanistan female activists are better off campaigning for better access to educational and career opportunities.
Role models are important. That Pakistan has had a female Prime Minister, no matter how corrupt or incompetent, energizes women to believe leadership positions are with reach. The fact that 22% of Pakistan's members of Parliament are women is also important. (For comparison purposes, the percentage of female parliamentarians in Germany, Singapore, and India is 33%, 23% and 11% respectively.)
Role models are important across the entire spectrum of society. Corporate leaders, entrepreneurs, professionals and even sportswomen are necessary.
It can be a tough fight. Pakistan's religiously inclined Bearded Brigade fights to protect its male privileges with ferocity that makes Stalin seem civilized.
It took many years of struggles for the Pakistani women's cricket team to obtain official support. Given the dismal performance of the men's cricket team, the women's team may be Pakistan's only hope in the near term!
The Pakistani Women's cricket team participating in the 2009 women's cricket World Cup

For women to achieve in Pakistan's social environment requires bravery. Social conditions are not always conducive to female participation. Yet, Pakistani women continue to come forward – both out of economic necessity and pursuit of dreams. Even the Pakistani military, formerly a preserve of males has female combat troops and fighter pilots (see video below).
Former President Musharraf may not be liked by Pakistan's superior judiciary but female warriors only have him to thank for a cultural shift which grants women a foothold in the most respected national institution.
Opportunity is a necessary but not sufficient condition for female emancipation. Patronage and will is also required.
When a young twenty-two year old female runner from a slum district in Karachi became South Asia's fastest woman at February's South Asian Games in Dacca, the accolades were fast and sweet. Between President Zardari, the Federal Sports Ministry, Karachi's mayor and the Pakistan's Athletics Federation the runner, Nasim Hamid, was rewarded with Pakistani Rupees 2.3 million. (USD 30,000 may not sound like a lot but on a Purchasing Power Parity basis and to a girl from Karachi's slums it certainly helps to pull her family out of poverty.)
It is significant that Nasim referred to another Pakistani female athletes gold medal wins at an earlier South Asian Games for providing her inspiration. Other females will be encouraged by not just the cash but also the official recognition.
Clearly, winning equal rights for women is an incremental and gradualist process. It requires changing social attitudes. Cash also helps. Now if the religious Bearded Brigade would either see the light or keep their archaic views to themselves then we may even start to see real progress.
Some interesting videos on Pakistan's women's cricket team and women fighter pilots:

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