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Women, Public Spaces and Male Dominated Professions in Pakistan

by Maliha Zia Lari
You can never forget that you are a woman in Pakistan, whether you are walking on the street, going to school/college/work or even when you are sitting at a restaurant. The social nature of ‘gender identities’ and expected behaviours from all men and women and how to treat them, have permeated into the fabric of Pakistani society. 

Pakistani society often talks about how the women in society hold an exalted status as a mother, wife, sister or daughter. However, often this exalted status rarely extends to allowing her to have an autonomous identity of her own. In a patriarchal society such as Pakistan, there is a social pressure for women to remain in the private domain, i.e. the home. There is reluctance and resistance against her presence in public spaces due to socio-cultural pressures and taboos associated with notions of shame and honour.

This scenario has had a drastically negative impact on the economic, political and social productivity among women. There are various reasons for this. Low education is one of the core issues which sets off a vicious cycle of lower opportunities among women. With less schooling, women are unable to attain skilled jobs with higher salaries. The employment sector, being male dominated, is also not conducive and supportive of working women and few public organisations in particular have shown the willingness to change. Due to a lack of consideration for the needs of women, support structures for working mothers in particular, there is a drain on mothers in the employment sectors because of the Impossibility of managing home and the household alongside a career - as is expected from women in Pakistani society. This results in lost opportunities, poorer households and rationing resources, which hurts girls in particular who are known to often receive less resources (e.g. education) than boys. Low education levels also limits the accessibility of information of employment opportunities, as well as the benefits of community and political participation (“Women’s Work and 

Movement in the Public Sphere”, World Bank). 

Socio-cultural attitudes restrict movement of women outside their home or immediate environment. 

In addition to this, there are many constraints on women’s mobility, which has also had a huge impact on female activity. Socio-cultural attitudes restrict movement of women outside their home or immediate environment. These attitudes are based on the protectionist approach, i.e. rooted in concerns for female safety and family honour. In certain socially conservative areas, there may be damage to the household’s reputation if a woman ventures out to earn money. It may reflect the lax values of the house or that the male does not earn enough to support the household. Thus, this may brand the family with a low reputation. Further, it can personally damage the woman’s repute, leaving her vulnerable to loss of a good name and the all-important ‘honour’ (“Women’s Work and Movement in the Public Sphere”, World Bank). Therefore, limits are placed on girl’s education, if the school is far; work opportunities in other localities or cities etc.

This scenario has an impact on women’s empowerment and autonomy, i.e. a woman’s ability to make independent decisions and to have control over her immediate surroundings. There is societal reluctance to allow women this kind of autonomy. There is also social condemnation for women who venture further from their ‘allotted spaces’ and venture into traditionally maleoriented spaces. Politics and law are just two examples of this scenario.

Women and Politics

Despite being one of the first countries in the world to have a female Prime Minister, we remain one of the countries that has routinely hampered women’s participation in public spaces, particularly in politics, where it is believed by many facets that women should not participate in public decision making. It is an interesting historical reality that when Fatima Jinnah stood for elections, Ayub Khan encouraged Islamic clerics to declare ‘fatwas’ against her; and when Benazir Bhutto followed, the PML-N (the political party currently in power) challenged a woman’s ability to lead a country in the courts. Both of these attempts were not accepted nor allowed by the Court. However, similar sentiments remain common in the general population. This hinders and impacts a woman’s ability to participate in electoral processes whether as politicians or even as voters.

In the 2002, 2008 and 2013 elections, several reports surfaced across the country where women were unable to vote in certain districts due to the formal or informal agreements between community leaders and political parties in the district. ANP, PTI, JUI-F, PPPP have all been implicated in such practices (Daily Times; 22nd April 2017). Written formal agreements with all parties’ signatures emerged in earlier years, but the documented proof was more dicult to find in the latest elections as a result of media backlash 

and publicity of the issue. Yet the practices continue as evidenced by the fact that in 2013, 15 incidents of women being debarred from exercising their vote were reported as a result of an understanding between local elders, political parties and non-state actors (Mumtaz; UNDP 2014). Women were also restricted from voting in combined polling stations. The situation continued as recently as a 2015 by-election in KP (Daily Times; 22nd April 2017).

The Women’s Movement in Pakistan has long been demanding direct action regarding this matter. It has held the Election Commission Pakistan (ECP) responsible for making the relevant changes. While the ECP has made efforts in holding reelections in districts where no women participated, it has not acted in a manner to effectively deal with the issue (Dawn; 03 June 2015). The Women’s Movement recognises that there are a number of under-lying issues which continue to perpetuate this resistance to women’s participation in elections as discussed above. Primarily this is due to a patriarchal society, the notions of which have permeated every aspect of the society’s functions and behaviour only to have been entrenched deeper. These notions dictate largely what is acceptable and not acceptable for women to do in society, resulting in a series of direct and indirect discriminatory measures.

Women and Law 

Another example of how both direct and indirect discrimination is employed in hampering women’s success is seen in the legal profession - another typically male dominated profession. It evidences direct discrimination in cases where male lawyers in law firms do not employ women as a policy due to women's ‘distracting nature’, their inability to provide protection to them and the ‘unsuitable’ work hours, i.e. touching upon notions of women’s safety. Yet, rather than trying to take measures to ensure women’s safety, women are being ostracised due to the ‘inconvenience’ it may cause the law firms or lawyers. It also evidences indirect discrimination in cases where the customary working practice is designed for men and their suitability (for example, the working hours, without taking into account women’s expectations of maintaining a home, a family life; maternity and child feeding etc.) with no recognition of women’s needs. The lack of senior female leadership results in the absence of a voice of change in these customary systems.

 In fact, when three female judges were due to be 

promoted as Chief Justices of the province or for elevation into the Supreme Court, they were all, on one pretext or the other, removed from the ‘race’ by being sent on international missions or by just being bypassed [NGO Alternative Report to CEDAW 2012, Aurat Foundation; “Judiciary and Gender Bias”, Justice Nasir Iqbal).

I have personally spoken to many male lawyers who time and again state that there are no barriers to women’s participation in the process and that women leave due to their own choices. This perspective excludes the realities and pressures placed on women within Pakistani society and ignores possibilities of changes that could be undertaken to allow women to continue working in the legal profession. The supposed gender neutral lens employed is hardly gender neutral when the norms have been established by men without consideration of women’s needs. Simple solutions include day care centres in the courts as well as oces, flexible working hours etc. which remain unexplored and considered unacceptable within the legal profession.

The supposed gender neutral lens employed is hardly gender neutral when the norms have been established by men without consideration of women’s needs.

Change is Coming

However, there is no doubt that the situation is changing. Pakistan and Pakistani women stand at the cusp of change, where the boundaries between the public and private are challenged by an urbanization whose rates have nearly doubled in recent years due to economic pressures and cultural change. Research has evidenced the link between paid work and enhanced autonomy of women and greater participation in decision-making, matters of community and the society. It also evidences the increased visibility of women in public spaces.

It is important to support this change in a timely manner. Thus, public policies that encourage equality in human development outcomes and access to income-earning opportunities with adequate operational support can strengthen women’s agency and their participation in the broader community.

Quotas in the legislature have been a successful strategy. This needs to be extended to the political parties, judiciary, public prosecution, bureaucracy and other relevant decisionmaking bodies of the State. There have been recent positive legal initiatives which in particular have targeted women in politics.

Senator Sherry Rehman, who has long been an advocate for women’s rights on protection of women’s right to vote, recently passed a landmark law which has long been a demand of the women’s movement. Senator Sherry Rehman was keen to present a law to counter the disenfranchisement of women in elections, particularly voting. She submitted a law into the Senate which focused on declaring elections where less than 10% of women in a constituency voted void and to push towards sex disaggregated data. While she did not receive support within the Senate for these proposals, she successfully managed to pass a law which declares any agreements, formal or informal, barring women from voting in elections as a corrupt practice under Section 78 of the Representation of the People Act 1976, which demands penal punishment for the perpetrator and may result in disqualification of a candidate. This is an unprecedented legislative protection for women’s movement and seeks to encourage women’s participation in democracy; ultimately working towards their participation in the decision making bodies of the country.

It is successes like these which strengthen and support the women’s movement, enhancement of women’s autonomy and empowerment as we slowly continue to work towards true equality and equity for women in Pakistan.

She successfully managed to pass a law which declares any agreements, formal or informal, barring women from voting in elections as a corrupt practice under Section 78 of the Representation of the People Act 1976 which demands in penal punishment for the perpetrator and may result in disqualification of a candidate.

Maliha Zia Lari has been working on human rights issues with a focus on women and religious minorities in Pakistan. As the daughter of prominent women's rights activist Shahla Zia, she considers herself to be part of the movement since childhood. Her first protest included protesting against her Urdu teacher in middle school who felt uncomfortable with Maliha writing an essay about the anti women Zina Ordinance 1979. Since then she has worked on many other protests, particularly involving violence against women. Maliha is an Advocate High Court with an LLM in International Protection of Human Rights from School of Oriental and African Studies. She has practised law in Islamabad and Karachi with a focus on human rights violations and violence against women. As a legislative drafter she has been involved in the drafting and passage of several laws including the first law on domestic violence in Sindh, laws relating to personal status of religious minorities, the trans-gender community and on women's equality in elections. She currently works as Associate Director at Legal Aid Society