Womansplaining by Sherry Rehman has undeniably excelled by presenting a collection of essays that delve into the historical accounts of female freedom fighters. One crucial point highlighted by Farida Shaheed in the book is the generational gap between millennial women and Gen Z women. While earlier feminists focused on collective action to reform legal laws and policies, today’s feminists lean towards advocating for societal changes and the politics of presence, rather than prioritizing legal rights.
While the emphasis on sexuality is commendable, it is essential to first concentrate on structural changes before personal ones. Strengthening our national movement should take precedence over international engagements.
From Ayesha Khan’s perspective, we seem to have forgotten the efforts and struggles of early activists whose collective endeavors led to legal reforms, the drafting of laws, and their implementation to safeguard women’s basic rights. Unfortunately, many Gen Z women are unaware of their activism. Becoming an activist in today’s world is no easy feat; our journey is long, and the obstacles are numerous.
Hina Jilani, one of the founders of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, a lawyer, and a human rights activist, has used litigation as a tool for societal change. For a functioning democracy, the state must acknowledge and practice human rights collectively and individually. Institutions unable to exercise these rights hinder political growth.
In Pakistan, women are often confined to their homes in the name of protection. Their basic rights and freedom are not guaranteed, as the Constitution of Pakistan only grants these rights to women when they conform to certain social norms. Today, Pakistan takes pride in its Human Rights Committee, with many laws related to human rights proposed by female members of parliament. However, a significant challenge is not only overcoming obstacles to democracy but also making democracy gender-conscious.
Zohra Yousaf, a human rights activist, recalls the early days of WAF when its activists were reluctant to be associated with politics and were labeled as ‘Westernized.’ WAF fought not only against General Zia Ul Haq’s discriminatory policies but also against societal misunderstandings. Despite facing police brutality and punishment, WAF successfully drew global media attention to the status of Pakistani women in society.
The debate surrounding the connection between feminism and politics also emerges in Womansplaining. Some feminists argue that WAF is apolitical, but lawyer and human rights activist Asma Jahangir contradicts this notion, emphasizing that no movement can succeed without a political aspect. In today’s era, Aurat Marchers boldly carry placards every year on International Women’s Day, demanding their rights and proudly embracing the term “feminist.” Their posters reflect immense creative energy, and this cultural and creative aspect of the women’s movement deserves recognition in history.
Khawar Mumtaz, a Pakistani women’s rights activist and chairperson of the National Commission on the Status of Women, sheds light on the role of women’s commissions in addressing issues like gender bias and inequity. These commissions play a vital role in monitoring incidents of violence, observing formal and informal justice systems, taking cases to the Supreme Court, and ensuring women’s political participation.
Globally, one of the biggest challenges in the neoliberal economic system, of which Pakistan is a part, is patriarchy, which disproportionately affects women. Additionally, climate change poses an existential threat to Pakistan, particularly impacting the poor, including women. As Khawar Mumtaz aptly puts it, “We have come a long way, and we have a long way to go.”
Afiya Shehbano Zia, a Pakistani feminist researcher, writer, and activist, raises concerns about the lack of academic studies and theses on women’s market activities, labor laws, and the work of women in the informal sector. Prioritizing the work of women in agriculture and preventing the trafficking of females as commodities are critical needs.
Sherry Rehman in Womansplaining addresses the conservative notion that women parliamentarians don’t truly represent Pakistani women and only gain prominence through connections. In reality, female parliamentarians have worked tirelessly to improve the quality of business and discourse. According to the Human Rights Foundation, a majority of women’s legislation in Pakistan has been initiated by women.
The victims of anti-women laws are typically the poor and underprivileged. These brave women activists and parliamentarians have been at the forefront of addressing societal issues such as domestic violence, child marriage, child abuse, forced conversions, honor killings, acid crimes, and more. Rehman emphasizes the importance of a strong linkage between old feminists and young activists for collective social and political change in Pakistan.
Shahnaz Wazir Ali, a politician and social activist, accentuates the health crisis that women face in Pakistan. Women frequently lack the fundamental freedom to make choices about their bodies and health because of society’s patriarchal and misogynistic worldview. This problem affects many women silently and includes recurrent and unintended births, restricted access to primary and reproductive health treatments, and other factors.
Education for women is crucial because they are more likely to make sensible decisions when it comes to funding their families’ education and healthcare. The Lady Health Workers Programme (LHW) was established in 1994 to assist women in overcoming barriers associated with their gender and gaining access to healthcare. Women are more susceptible to physical, psychological, and sexual abuse than males since they are less likely than men to have health insurance.
Three out of every four Pakistani women experience domestic violence, according to feminist, journalist, and author Rafia Zakaria. Women and children suffer from the power disparity at home, which encourages emotional abuse by husbands and fathers, respectively. Ayesha Razzaque, an independent education researcher, underscores the significance of educating girls. Achieving equality in society necessitates educating its people to think critically.
In Pakistan, the budget allocated to education is insufficient for all children to access quality education. The gender disparity in education is alarming, with not enough schools to accommodate all children. Girls are disproportionately affected, as families often prefer boys to receive an education, relegating girls to marriage and domestic chores. This mindset must change, as quality education is a right for all, and efforts should focus on educating not only girls but also families and communities to foster equality.
Bina Shah, a distinguished writer, revisits the era of Fahmida Riaz and Kishwar Naheed, who used their writings to challenge religious extremism and violence against women. These women writers demonstrated that, in addition to dismantling capitalist and patriarchal structures, they could derive strength from their families, companions, and their identities as women.
Fifi Haroon, a prominent journalist and media producer, raises concerns about deeply misogynistic Pakistani dramas that promote middle-class morality. These dramas often portray positive female behavior as submissive, self-sacrificing, and silent, rather than empowering women to speak out. While dramas are intended to bring about social change and promote reason and open-mindedness, confining women to their homes and pitting them against each other represents a regressive practice within the industry.
Sharmeen Obaid, the only woman director to have won two Academy Awards by the age of 37, offers insights into the lives of courageous women like Gul-e-Khandana, Tabassum, and Shaista, who fearlessly advocate for women’s rights. These women refuse to accept domestic violence and the notion of inferiority to men. Nighat Dad and Shmyla Khan explain cyberfeminism, which involves using digital platforms to engage in feminist movements and organizations.
This movement gained attention with the #MeToo movement, initiated by black feminist Tarana Burke in 2006. It focuses on addressing the abuse faced by women and has made significant strides in Pakistan, particularly following Misha Shafi’s accusation of workplace harassment against Ali Zafar. Digital spaces have become powerful tools for women to raise their voices against violence.
Sara Malkani and Maliha Zia share women’s experiences within the judicial system. The courts present themselves as gender-neutral platforms for women to access their legal rights, but paradoxically, they often reinforce patriarchal norms and hinder women’s legal space. High courts also have a shortage of female judges, and while many pro-women laws have been passed, their implementation remains inadequate. Female legislators must not only advocate for the passage of laws but also ensure their effective enforcement.
Sarah Belal, the founder of the Justice Project Pakistan, discusses the criminal justice system in Pakistan, which is designed primarily for males and exhibits gender-based discrimination. The conditions for women in prisons are dire, failing to address their reproductive health needs. Women in prisons face various forms of abuse from police officers and wardens, highlighting the need for systemic change.
Zeenia Shaukat emphasizes the importance of equal economic opportunities and rights for women. While institutions like the All-Pakistan Women’s Association (APWA) and Democratic Women’s Association (DWA) focus on entrepreneurship and equal working rights for women, factors such as low wages, inadequate legislation, and its poor implementation continue to adversely affect workplace conditions.
Ammara Durrani addresses the lack of transport, public toilets for women, sexual harassment, gender-based discrimination, and inequality. Zofeen Ebrahim raises an essential point regarding the acknowledgment of female farmers who work alongside men in the fields. Women in rural areas often endure greater hardships during natural hazards, yet their work goes unpaid and unrecognized. Recognizing and paying these women for their expertise and contributions is imperative.
Lastly, Rimmel Mohydin, a human rights, communications, and advocacy expert, is determined to be part of the Aurat March, where old and young activists march together to celebrate their existence and challenge patriarchy in both homes and society. She concludes with my favorite quote: “Evolution is slow but unstoppable.”
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