Women in Pakistan: A Socio-Political Profile

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University of Illinois. For the most part, the realities of
women in Pakistan are seldom discussed or engaged in
any substantive manner on the college campus. Knowledge
of women in Pakistan is generally limited to perhaps
vague references to Benazir Bhutto.
Nevertheless, Pakistani women have persistently
worked to improve their social, political and economic
status in the post-independence era. Their struggle has
been driven in pursuit of four objectives: increasing their
literacy levels, gaining representation in the political
process, increasing access to employment at different levels,
and changing the societal perceptions of the role and
status of women in Pakistan. This has been an uphill
struggle, in which women have faced numerous obstacles
from the state and society.
After the emergence of independent Pakistan, there was
hope that the state would take measures to remedy the situation.
Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan,
emphasized the need to liberate women out of“the four
walls of house,” so that they could work alongside their
male counterparts in various spheres of life. However, in the
subsequent decades the status of women has been intrinsically
linked with the discourse on the role of religion.
The 1973 constitution of Pakistan prohibited gender
discrimination. This began a period of seemingly rising
opportunities for women, as they began to participate in
general elections and labor politics. This was concomitant
with rising female literacy rates. However, the women’s
movement received a setback in the form of an Islamization
drive by military dictator Gen. Zia-ul-Haq. His efforts
were cynically viewed as an attempt to legitimize his military
regime and carve out a support base for himself.
Among the Islamic laws introduced in 1979 by General
Zia, women were most adversely affected by the provisions
regarding the Islamic Hadd punishments for crimes such
as adultery, burglary, murder, intoxication, and perjury.
Women’s rights groups particularly protested the zina
(adultery) law, which made it very difficult to distinguish
between zina (adultery) and zina-bil-jabr (rape).
In the immediate aftermath of the promulgation of the
Huddod ordinance, there were some high profile cases in
which women who had been raped and unable to prove
the charge were deemed guilty of having committed adultery.
For over two decades, the women’s rights groups have
continued to protest and demand an amendment to the
Hudood Ordinance. It was not until 2006, that Gen.
Musharraf’s government was able to amend this law, by
passing the Protection of Women’s Rights Bill in the
national parliament, having faced opposition by religious
and conservative parties.
Women’s participation in politics has been extremely
limited in Pakistan. This is despite the fact that in 1988,
Benazir Bhutto became the first female head of a Muslim
state. Beyond the domain of leadership, there have been
consistent demands by women’s rights groups to increase
female representation in national and provincial legislatures.
After independence, various laws were passed to
take “affirmative action” in an effort to create gender balance
in Pakistan’s elected institutions. Quotas or reservations
were fixed for women and indirect elections were
used to elect female members of legislatures. After persistent
struggles from civil society, in 2002 the government
increased the numbers of female members of legislatures
to thirty-three percent.
This is the socio-political context in which the Pakistani
women struggle to re-define their contribution to
society. In recent years, female students are getting increasing
opportunities to study in various educational institutions
of the West. At the University of Illinois, Urbana-
Champaign (UIUC), female graduate students from Pakistan
aspire to hone their professional skills and hopefully
return to Pakistan, in their quest to win individual and
collective respect.

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