The recent bye-election for the National Assembly seat of 120 constituency in Lahore is the liberal sign of the country transforming from a patriarchal to a more open society. The election was mainly contested between the two woman candidates of rival political parties. The growing participation of women in politics and in the decision-making process with other women empowerment plan is a strong sign of weakening traditional and cultural practices of a closed society. But it is, however, still hard to challenge the long-cherished traditions of the society. A change in the status quo will take a long time. It is the history, culture and tradition, which determines the status quo in a society and it is also a fact that the history and tradition cannot be abandoned immediately and completely.
In 2011, the approval of women’s rights bill was a precise step taken by former coalition government in the right direction. Under the bill, forcing a woman into marriage to settle a dispute is a non bailable offense, punishable with 3-5 years in prison with a fine of $5,735, while forcing her to marry the Holy Quran punishable with 3-7 years in prison with a fine of $5,735. The bill, however, lacked a mechanism to ensure that the anti-women crimes reach a court of law, as these crimes often go unreported. Moreover, the Women Protection Bill, 2006 was strongly opposed by majority of members of the parliaments, particularly the Islamist parties, which claimed the bill was against the Islamic law. Bringing about gender reforms is an uphill task in Pakistan. Overall, the country has a poor record when it comes to women’s rights. Under the anti-women practices like wanni and budla-i-sulh, the women are traded like commodity and they are given in forced marriages against their will to settle family or tribal disputes. These practices are widespread in rural areas of Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab and Sindh province where tribal and feudal system is still very strong. Women are not allowed to take share of property in inheritance.
Women in rural areas are seen to be discriminated, exploited, oppressed, browbeaten, and chastised in the name of so-called social practices — rooted in medieval times. Convention of Jirga (the meeting of tribal chiefs and elders) for settlement of disputes is still in practice in rural areas of Balochistan where people settle their family disputes through tribal justice system, instead of resorting to the court of law. Women are even discriminated under tribal justice system under which they are not consulted when important decisions affecting their lives are made. They are handed over as part of a compensation deal to settle a revenge killing or an ‘honor’ crime. It is ironical that the tribal chiefs and feudal lords, which frequently become the members of parliament, strongly support this cruel practice. They believe the practice of handing over of women to settle a dispute is highly desirable for peace-keeping objective arguing that it produces blood bonds, which make for lasting peace. This feudal mindset actually reflects high level of disregard for women’s rights.
In 2012, a tribal jirga in Dera Bugti district of Balochistan declared 13 girls Wanni, a tribal custom in which girls are forced to marry men of rival tribes to settle feuds between two conflicting clans. In 2008, five women were buried alive for reasons of ‘hoour’ in Balochistan as a result of a decision given by a tribal jirga. A Senator from Balochistan and a tribal chief defended the jirga’s decision saying the Baloch tribesman had done nothing wrong as they only kept up with their centuries-old traditions.
Under the 1973 constitution, all Pakistani citizens are equal, with no distinction based on gender alone. Unfortunately, constitutional guarantees of equality have not been enforced in actual practice in Pakistan. Enforcement of the law is the real challenge. It has been observed on ground that force of custom most often prevails over official laws, making it difficult for women to claim their legal rights. The women have no social safety net in the country, particularly in rural districts where women are bound by practices that affect their welfare.
According to a UN literacy survey report, females in rural areas with lowest literacy rate, were more inclined to embroidery. They, belonging to the lower class of society, live under poverty, and for them making money on embroidery skills is a real bonus in life. Females from all age are engaged in doing embroidery skills, however, majority of them belong to young age. The learning of embroidery is formal for majority of them, as they don’t undergo any specific training for that; nonetheless, it needs special skills to do it properly. The embroidery involves a lot of eyesight work as one has to concentrate constantly on stitching without losing a trace, otherwise it can spoil the work. The important thing in needlework is cleanness and sophistication of stitching. In rural areas, women spend longer time in needlework doing it in night under a lamp which even prone to eye-sight problems.
The handicraft work is common in the rural areas, where females having learnt the handicraft skills are actively engaged in sewing them to raise a livelihood for their families. Handicrafts can play an important role in women’s economic empowerment, especially in rural areas, where it is generally practiced at local family level. The tribal and feudal system also hinders the development and promotion of this sector, as women are not allowed to play their vital role in a free environment. Tribal restrictions confine the women to their houses restricting their free movement in the society and thus they remain unaware of the rapidly changing trends in designing and marketing of the products.
The United Nations Secretary-General’s in-depth study on all forms of violence against women, issued in October 2006 at the 51st session of the General Assembly, emphasized on combating harmful traditional and cultural practices and strengthening the role of National Women’s Machineries (NWMs), which are vital to the integration of women into the development strategy. The UN experts group meeting convened in April 2007 in Bangkok affirmed that gender-based violence in the form of harmful traditional and cultural practices are deeply rooted in patriarchal gender relations and norms.
The government should create conditions leading to the economic empowerment of women in Pakistan. They should be provided opportunities to play their role at all levels and in all types of development activities. They must have the opportunity and be provided with an environment to develop their talents. Rural women should get the possibility to enter all types and all levels of education and training. Education and training facilities should be provided to a large extent on the inputs women are already providing.
A strong local government system may help build the capacity of local councilors, including women councilors, improve the quality of women’s lives and lay the groundwork for greater autonomy for women in all spheres of social life. Women police stations and offices of women councilors need to be established at district and sub-district level across the country, particularly in rural areas.