Pakistan: 'International Women's Day and Women's Rights in Pakistan: Interview with Farida Shaheed'


Farida Shaheed is a sociologist with over 25 years’ research experience on women’s issues (including rural development, women and labour and legal rights), especially in Pakistan and South Asia. She is a long-time UNRISD collaborator, and joins us with an interview on the occasion of International Women’s Day. Her article on politics, religion and gender in Pakistan has been published in a special issue of Cahier du Genre entitled “Religion et politique: Les femmes prises au piège”. In this interview, she speaks to UNRISD about International Women’s Day, laws on women’s rights in Pakistan and some of the challenges in implementing them.

On 12 February, Pakistan celebrated National Women’s Day and 30 years of the Women Action Forum. Additionally, the 101st annual International Women’s Day will be celebrated globally on 8 March, with the theme “Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures”. What will these days mean for Pakistan? What steps are being taken towards the realization of the theme? What limits remain?

Farida Shaheed (FS): International Women’s Day is an opportunity to reflect, take stock, and strategize for gender equality worldwide; to be inspired by the past and to plan for the future. Commemorating the bravery of women in confronting injustice, the day reminds us that to be overcome, injustice must not only be identified and publicly recognized, but challenged every day, despite the odds, in public and private arenas alike. It is a day to celebrate victories: increased legal equalities in many spheres of life; better opportunities for education and livelihood options; the slowly but steadily growing presence of women in political and public decision-making; and the growing recognition of their creativity and achievements. But it is also a day to extend solidarity to all those girls and women who continue to be denied their rights and deprived of a life of dignity. It is a day to remember that all rights remain fragile, vulnerable and incomplete unless every person enjoys them equally without discrimination. This last is a lesson that women in Pakistan have learned the hard way. 

Pakistan Women’s Day was declared by women who stood up to the worst dictatorship the country has known — which, with the stroke of a pen, albeit backed by a gun, rescinded the rights of its citizens, particularly women and religious minorities. 12 February 1983 was the day when around 100 women, despite the odds, defied the ban on political activities and demonstrations to demand justice. Thirty years later, women have won back some of their rights. Their vastly increased presence in legislative bodies has ensured numerous acts to support women’s rights, reversing much – but not all – of the discriminatory legislation put into place by the 1979–1988 dictatorship. New acts aim to address discriminatory practices, including domestic violence, for the first time. Affirming the ability to make change happen and offering new avenues for redress, these reforms promise a better future. 

A joint declaration passed on the occasion of National Women’s Day this year calls upon the Pakistani government to undertake a comprehensive and systematic review and revision of all discriminatory legislation that undermines the status of women as full citizens of the country. To what extent will amending discriminatory legislation facilitate women’s realization of their rights as citizens? What other steps are necessary?

FS: The challenge is always how to transform the rights promised in laws and policies into a tangible, living reality for all girls and women, regardless of rural, urban or provincial location, or other identities such as class, religion, ethnicity, age or marital status. Legislative and policy changes are always a crucial, but only first, step. 

Every law and policy that promotes the rights of girls and women bolsters women as rights-holders, as full citizens entitled to all this implies. There are a number of laws which directly or indirectly continue to discriminate against women and these need to be reformed, especially in the area of personal status law, but also, for instance, in terms of conferring nationality, and in terms of labour laws and practice. 

The next more challenging step is implementation. People cannot claim rights if they do not know these exist. Women in Pakistan hardly interact with the state at all; the vast majority have no idea that they have rights under the law or that policies exist to support them. It is essential therefore, to ensure that the citizens, both male and female, are aware of women’s rights under the law, as well as supportive policies and programmes for girls and women. In parallel, it is equally important to ensure that those responsible for implementing policies and upholding the law are apprised of the reforms, and that measures such as enabling legislation and standard operating procedures, are put into place to facilitate the effective realization of rights. Such measures must be combined with efforts to promote ownership of women-supportive measures among duty bearers. Effective implementation necessitates access to functioning and responsive judicial and administrative systems. Access is particularly challenging for women and girls, who are constrained by deeply patriarchal norms in the family and community, as well as in public spheres and offices. 

Entrenched societal norms and attitudes reinforce and perpetuate gender inequalities, constituting a second obstacle for transforming rights into reality: turning promises into tangibles. Traditionally isolated by restricted mobility that impedes their participation and access to the public sphere, girls and women in Pakistan are socialized into believing their inferior status is preordained and “natural”. It is easy to internalize this oppression and feel incapable of challenging the status quo to demand rights, if no alternative is visibly attainable. The state, therefore, must match its laws and policies with mechanisms of support for women that enable them to build social capital beyond their family units. 

In addition to the traditional patriarchal structures and systems, women today are facing a new surge of conservative thinking that permeates ever-larger swathes of society, cutting across class and other divides. The new conservative political agenda, often couched in religious terminology, is threatening the gains secured in the past. It needs to be challenged effectively through building alternative discourses and practices. This requires new creative thinking – best done by youth.

Passing the baton of activism to the younger generation remains a major to achieving gender equality. While there innumerable examples of brilliant young women changing the lives of their communities, they are not linked with a movement that would give them the visibility that they need and deserve to inspire others. There is also a lack of a robust engagement linking the older generation of women’s rights activists with younger women. The older generation needs to share their experiences, recognizing that the youth hold the key to future changes, and support younger women to come forward with their new ideas and projects.

In response to the devastating floods in the Sindh province of western India, the government has instituted land entitlements and interventions such as the Benazir Income Support Programme. What will these programmes mean for women’s economic independence? What further interventions would benefit those in the affected regions?

FS: The government has initiated a number of important schemes for women such as the Benazir Income Support Programme, which goes much further than simply providing economic stipends to women. The scheme builds capacity to change the future as well, and links women with a number of important supportive measures relating to education and employment for themselves or their offspring. A potential pivotal scheme introduced by the provincial government in Sindh is the distribution of land to landless women farmers. This is extremely important because it changes the basis of negotiations within the family in a very fundamental way. The scheme ensures that land cannot be sold, and that it will pass from mother to daughter. 

Importantly, the scheme enables women to become landowners without demanding their share of inheritance which would put them into direct conflict with their brothers (who are often the providers of support for women). Over and above the direct tangible benefits of such schemes, they have encouraged a massive increase in women’s national identity cards, a requirement for accessing the scheme. This basic documentation opens many new opportunities for women: it enables them to open bank accounts, register as voters and access all other government schemes. It also gives women an incentive to interact with government officials, enter the public sphere and therefore move towards being active citizens.

Looking ahead to the upcoming year, what is the potential for a further opening of space for activism or policy change? What steps will be necessary for realizing gender-egalitarian policy change at the national level?

FS: I believe that the upcoming elections (either this year, or in 2013) will provide an important opportunity to push for greater commitments from political parties for women’s rights and development. Currently we are seeing a flurry of political rallies, meetings and other activities in anticipation of early elections in 2012. It is encouraging that many of the political rallies being held have far greater number of women participating than ever before, as well as an apparent desire by large parties to be seen as supportive of women’s participation and of their rights. It is important to leverage this opportunity to put women’s issues squarely on the national agenda. Women’s rights activists should prepare their own political agenda and engage political parties as they have done in the past; push for eliminating the gap in male-female voter registration; educate the female public of the importance of having their identity card in their own possession. Parallel to this, there is a need to ensure awareness about and effective implementation of laws that have been enacted, and to continue to raise those issues which have not yet been addressed. 

Finally, there is a need to work at the level where policy implementation matters to women and can affect their lives, to ensure ownership of Pakistan’s national and international commitments to women’s empowerment and gender equality. This requires identifying where the particular policy or law may falter, and effecting change at this level - even when this is not an action which necessarily attracts media attention.