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Returning to Pakistan

I was born in Canberra and raised in Sydney. My mum’s family is from Pakistan. Every couple of years I have taken trips to Islamabad, the (other) nation’s capital. Each time I visit, I struggle to reconcile the perception I hold of Pakistan when I’m in Australia with my perception of Pakistan when I am in Pakistan - specifically in relation to the treatment and role of women in society. So, on my recent trip there, I decided to visit a few local women’s initiatives and to try and further understand what is a hugely complex, and often contradictory, issue.

Since I was a ten-year-old, I have always been astounded by the polarisation of Pakistan — the disparity between the rich and poor is profound — especially coming from Australia. While the upper middle classes are sending their kids abroad to study and seem to be becoming increasingly liberal and ‘western’, the large majority seem to be becoming more conservative.

I visited a girls school in a rural part of Islamabad as part of an initiative called the Bright Star Mobile Library started by Saeed Malik, a former World Food Programme director, which provides books to young children in lower socio-economic government schools. After spending the afternoon reading books in both English and Urdu with a class of grade five students who were all so excited at just having access to books, I felt hopeful and inspired. When I asked what the students wanted to be when they grew up, an overwhelmingly large amount answered “a doctor!”

After class, though, I was disheartened to speak to the teacher who told me that for a lot of these girls, this would be their last year of school as their families would likely pull them out of school and get them to start working from grade six onwards. I realised that while there are signs of hope and progress, there are also serious barriers for affecting any real change. The World Bank estimates that in 2015, female school enrolment dropped from 66.9% for primary school to 36.2% in high school and only 10.7% for tertiary education.

My next stop was visiting a grassroots initiative, The Indus Heritage Trust in Bani Galla. The Trust’s current project, in partnership with the World Bank was formed to empower female hand embroidery artisans and revive traditional embroidery styles in rural villages in the Sindh and Punjab provinces of Pakistan. 

Mehreen Aslam, an employee of the Indus Heritage Trust, explained that the embroidery from these regions is renowned across the globe, but the craft is dying because it is difficult for the next generation to earn a living from it.


Image supplied by Indus Heritage Trust

 “Previously the middle man was taking the profit and the artisans were being underpaid. We are trying to change that” said Aslam. Indus Heritage Trust currently has 2600 artisans who work from their homes to embroider fabric, with the final product being beautiful office products such as laptop covers, diaries, card holders, as well as linens and apparels.

As I took a tour of the HQ office, Aslam told me that in these provinces, life is difficult for females because they have low income and a lot of social pressure — often, they are not allowed to leave the house. “Because we are able to go into their own environment, teach them how to work from their home and they can bring their kids to work and have that flexibility, it works.” 

Image still from ‘A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness’ by director, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy

The question I often get from my Australian friends and that I often think about too is, what about the ‘honour killings’? The acid burn victims? Unfortunately, that’s still very prevalent. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, in 2014, 597 women and girls were gang-raped, 828 raped, and 923 women and 82 minor girls were victims of ‘honour killings’ in the country. The perpetrators of these killings often remain unpunished because legally they can seek forgiveness for the crime from another family member.

The recent Oscar winning documentary ‘A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness’ by director, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, a Karachi local, tells the story of Saba, an 18-year-old girl who married without her parents’ consent. Her father and uncle then came and got her under the pretense of forgiveness and instead beat her up, shot her in the face and dumped her in a river, claiming that Saba had brought dishonour upon the family. Saba survived. The film shows how she ‘forgave’ her father and uncle due to the social pressure, and consequently they were released from prison. Saba’s story has helped build awareness both in Pakistan and internationally.

Samina Baig: image from Pakistani Leaders Online

The death of the singer and blogger Qandeel Baloch earlier this year, who became famous for her provocative selfies and videos within the context of a conservative Muslim country, made international headlines. She was strongly criticised by some, and seen by others as a figure of female empowerment. Her murder by her brother has shone a spotlight on such killings and re-ignited calls for legislative action to curb the crime.

Earlier this year, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif announced his commitment to ending ‘honour killings’ in Pakistan. Last month, Pakistan’s National Assembly unanimously passed two bills to curb the crimes of rape and ‘honour killings’. Despite this, there is clear concern regarding the effect and enforcement of such laws for reasons such as accessibility, social pressure and corruption.

There has been active lobbying by women’s rights and human rights groups, and along with positive media coverage.  A shift in societal perception seems to be starting.

Tahira Abdullah, a Pakistani rights activist, has been tirelessly working to raise awareness about human rights abuses for almost 40 years. Abdullah said, “the laws and amendments are the result of four decades of unrelenting pressure, advocacy and hard work by women's rights activists and legal experts, working with a few progressive legislators in Parliament”.

Abdullah refers to the crime as “dishonour killings”, and insists there is no honour in killing. She is determined to continue with advocacy and asserting legal pressure, “until we are satisfied that the law is strong enough to bring the killers to justice”.

There are many strong women and men speaking out against the injustices. There are also many areas in which Pakistan has historically been at the forefront of women’s progress. In 2013, Samina Baig became the first Pakistani woman and the third Pakistani ever to climb Mount Everest.  As Baig celebrated, Pakistan celebrated too. Baig stated that she started climbing to “show a different side of Pakistan, the brave side of Pakistani women and wanted to portray that Pakistani women have the same qualities that other women in other parts of the world have”.

In 1988, Benazir Bhutto became the Prime Minister of Pakistan, more than two decades before Julia Gillard became the Prime Minister of Australia and ahead of many ‘leading’ nations, which to this day have still not had a female leader. She was the first woman to ever lead a Muslim nation and is still considered one of the strongest and most influential figures in Pakistani history.

It is undeniable that Pakistan has a long way to go in the treatment of women. Issues such as the enforcement of laws, access to electricity and infrastructure for all, the class gap, social stigmas as well as the large levels of illiteracy must be addressed before any real change can be affected. It does, however feel like there is a possibility for change. With a population estimated to now exceed 200 million people, it won’t be a quick process but it is a start and a much needed one at that.


The Point

Amna Qureshi visited Pakistan to try and understand more about the treatment of women in society


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