PAKISTAN: Fighting for women's rights



LAHORE — The first thing I did after crossing the border into Pakistan was catch a bus into the city. Buses in Pakistan are divided in two by a barrier. The first quarter of the bus is reserved for women and their children; the rest of the bus is for men.

I sat with my male partner in the mens' section. Even though I was on the aisle, men would consistently ask him where he was from, where he was going or would he like to buy something?

Most of the time in Pakistan, I felt invisible. At other times, I was sexually harassed and teased, because women are rarely seen in public life. In most of the eating places we went to, all the workers and customers were men.

What made all this slightly bearable was meeting Pakistani men and women who are trying to change it, as well as understanding where this sexism has come from.

Pakistan is an Islamic state, which was separated from India in 1947 by the British imperialists. Imperialist domination and the lack of genuine development has reinforced old reactionary traditions. Slow industrialistion, poverty (the average wage in Pakistan is less than $US500 per year) and lack of education (65% of Pakistanis are illiterate) creates a strong climate for religion and fundamentalism to be entrenched.

The fundamentalists are given large donations by the rich landowners and businesspeople to create reactionary religious schools, which are often the only place that poor people can get an education. Religion gets a good hearing from uneducated and desperate people; its sexist values are reinforced further by Pakistan's political and public leaders.

While Pakistan's women, hidden from the world, appear to play no role in society, in fact they carry a large load. They often do waged work, as well as the housework and the raising of children.

Green Left Weekly spoke to Azra Shad from the Women Workers' Help Line in Lahore. She described how women are not safe inside their homes (where, treated as mere property by their husbands, they are often maltreated) or in the streets, where they are constantly teased and harassed. On public transport, it is difficult to get seats; men and women can't touch each other, and women often have to stand.

Shad explained that high prices in Pakistan mean that most women have to work to survive, but employment is difficult to get for women. Only 34% of urban women and 6% of rural women are educated. Factory workers work long hours: 10 hours per day is normal, for around $30 per month.

Employers treat women workers badly, often only giving jobs only to young unmarried women so that they can sexually harass them; women are often fired without notice after a few years as they start to get old. There is no concept of retirement in Pakistan — and no pensions — which leaves older women very badly off.

Married life is also very difficult. If a child is born too soon after marriage (six months) a man can refuse to take responsibility for it, and will often expel his wife from home. Women find it difficult to get a divorce, and if they do, they are denied custody of the children. In tribal areas, women may be killed by relatives for having an affair.

Abortion is totally illegal. Many women die from illegal abortions conducted under unsafe conditions. Women who fall pregnant after being raped are liable to 14 years in jail for having sex outside marriage, unless they can prove they were raped. Proof requires at least four witnesses.

Religious and traditional values which give women no respect make it easy for men to mistreat them, Shad explained. “Men think women are just the shoes of their feet”, she told GLW. There is no concept of equality and legally women have few rights. Talking to women is “unIslamic”. Most women accept this as their fate.

The Women Workers' Help Line was established three years ago in Lahore, and now does work throughout Pakistan. It aims to create awareness and understanding of women's rights and problems and to convince women that such problems are not “fate”. To do this, the Help Line organises workshops, seminars, meetings and demonstrations. Public meetings attract hundreds of women.

Before the October 10 general election, a meeting was held around the topic “Why women's participation in politics is necessary”. Almost all Pakistan's political parties had signed an agreement that women would not be allowed to contest the election or cast votes in the polls. At the meeting, speakers demanded that laws relating to sexual harassment be formulated and women be given representation at decision-making levels in political parties and trade unions.

The Help Line's activities are hampered by a lack of resources, making organising difficult but not impossible. The Help Line organised a demonstration on March 8 to demand peasant women's land ownership rights. Many peasant women were prevented from reaching Lahore by the police, but 500 women still managed to reach the protest. Shad told GLW that this demonstration showed that working-class women support the demands of their peasant sisters.

In the three years since its founding, the Help Line has grown to 300 members, ranging from teachers to factory workers, housewives and maids.

“Before anything else, women need basic facilities and democracy”, Shad pointed out. “In many regions of Pakistan, the people are the servants of their landlords and this is how they think. We need to help them understand that the landlords cannot give us rights.”

From Green Left Weekly, February 12, 2003.
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