Imagine only half of a country’s population is treated equally. Only half of the population has fair and equal access to education and fundamental human rights. Only half of the population is treated as a first-class citizen— hard to imagine, right? This is the reality for the majority of women living in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Gender equality has been an issue of contention and polarization in Pakistan since the nation was born in 1947; with opposing views falling along the lines of extreme Islamist religiosity and secularism, can Pakistan ever find a balance?
According to the Global Gender Gap Index report of 2021, an index that is conducted by the World Economic Forum which measures gender gaps in 156 countries based on four factors: health, education, economy, and politics, Pakistan ranked at the bottom of the list, a flat 153 out of 156 countries. More notably, within the South Asian region, Pakistan scored the 7th out of the eight countries (India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives) examined, with Afghanistan coming last. Pakistan’s gender inequality crisis doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon since its gender ranking has only gradually worsened over time. For example, in 2006, Pakistan was ranked 112 in economic empowerment of women, 110 in education attainment, 112 in health and survival, and 37 in political empowerment. The 2021 report also found that political empowerment continues to be the largest sector in which the gender gap appears as it further widens every year; this is exacerbated under the conditions of Pakistani society, law, and political environment. The lack of female political empowerment in Pakistan can be traced back to its pre-existing low rates of women’s political participation and election into office, Pakistani women rarely have a say in local policies. Furthermore, this places Pakistani women in vulnerable situations where they are more at risk of exploitation, violence, economic disparities, and suppression. With the lack of women participating in politics, Pakistan’s male-dominated political sphere has few incentives to enact policies geared towards achieving gender justice.
Pakistan’s deficiency in these sectors of human rights speaks volumes to the quality of the country’s democracy. If specific demographics are not represented in the country’s political institutions, and if women are not present in political processes, how can Pakistan ever truly transition to become a functioning democracy? The protection of women’s rights in any democratic context is essential to produce a healthy democracy. Women’s rights and democracy often emerge in tandem, and neither can be achieved without the other. Evolving research shows that higher rates of gender equality and democracy have a robust reinforcing correlation. Higher rates of gender equality are also associated with decreased levels of unhealthy domestic security environments and a country’s aggression towards other states.
The abuse of women’s rights in Pakistan is not a newfound phenomenon. It can only be understood within the elements of the country’s persistent history of rapid Islamization and military dictatorships after its Partition from India in 1947. Specifically, the series of sociopolitical schisms that arose after Partition is at the core of Pakistani identity and statehood. More notably, one must consider how Pakistan’s separation from India on the basis of creating a state for “Muslim” populations has propelled the country into a never-ending cycle of state-building and a national identity crisis. An identity crisis that constantly puts forward the million-dollar question of whether Pakistan will become a secular or an Islamic state?
The country’s founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, coined the idea of the “Two Nation Theory”— a religious-nationalist ideology that asserted Muslims and Hindus of India as two separate nations with separate beliefs, customs, and cultures. Jinnah believed that India’s Muslims were entitled to an autonomous self-ruling state distinct from India’s majority Hindu population. Though Jinnah’s vision of Pakistan centered on a nation that upheld and safeguarded Muslim peoples’ rights, there is much contradiction of whether his vision of Pakistan included establishing a total Islamic republic or simply a homeland for India’s Muslims. Jinnah’s vague description of Pakistan’s purpose as a new nation still creates confusion today, in addition to the fact that he rarely left any written documentation of his post-partition plans for the new country, only speeches. In many of Jinnah’s speeches, it has been noted that he disagreed with the idea of a theocratic government. For example, in one address, he says, “Pakistan is not going to be a theocratic state – to be ruled by priests with a divine mission.” On another occasion, he says, “Tell your people not to be afraid and not to leave Pakistan, for Pakistan will be a democratic state where Hindus will have the same rights as Muslims.” Furthermore, he is also quoted saying, “No nation can ever be worthy of its existence that cannot take its women along with the men. No struggle can ever succeed without women participating side by side with men. There are two powers in the world; one is the sword, and the other is the pen. There is a great competition and rivalry between the two. There is a third power stronger than both, that of the women.”
He passed away on September 11th in 1948, a year after Pakistan’s independence.
Jinnah’s Two-Nation Theory quickly filled the ontological gap that Pakistani’s felt as they rushed to construct a solid sense of national identity. This paved the way for the future implementation of harsh Islamist sharia law in the country, gradually eroding the principles of tolerance and coexistence that Jinnah had championed. The combination of uncertainty and Two Nation Theory rhetoric produced a plethora of social-political cleavages in a post-independence Pakistan, and with the pressure to fit into the role of an “Islamic” nation— women bore the brunt of the country’s political dilemmas. A consistent paradigm can be recognized in which the rise of autocratic leadership and military rule also results in the erosion of women’s rights in the country. Though an Islamic republic, many of Pakistan’s violations of women’s rights are moreso inspired by its existing cultural-patriarchal standards rather than factual Islamic doctrine.
In 1977, General Zia-Ul-Haq overthrew Pakistan’s first democratically elected leader, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, in a military coup. The military coup synthesized with the abrupt national project of Islamization led by Zia. General Zia implemented a series of Islamization reforms across almost every sector of the country utilizing Article 227 of the 1973 constitution, which mandated that all laws fall under the decree of the Quran and Sunnah. After declaring Martial Law, Zia enacted several legal barriers to gender equality that directly violated the basic fundamental human rights of women stripping them of their right to due process. The Hudood Ordinances are an infamous series of Islamic adjustments made to Pakistan’s penal code under Zia’s rule that constituted Sharia law and enforced harsh punishments based on Quranic interpretations. For example, the Hudood Ordinances erased the distinction between rape and adultery, criminalizing victims of rape under the Pakistani legal systems interpretation of sharia law. Women who reported rape were required to provide four male witnesses, and if they were not able to — they were charged with fornication or adultery. In 1984, the Law of Evidence was passed, which declared the testimony of two women is equal to one Muslim male in the court of law, directly discriminating women and non-Muslim communities.
Furthermore, between the years 1980 and 1986, Zia updated Pakistan’s blasphemy by adding several clauses that “criminalized anyone who defied the Holy Quran and the Prophet,” which indirectly targetted those from minority religious groups. These blasphemy laws violated the human rights of Pakistani civilians since they allowed for the arrest of those accused without proper evidence and often resulted in a death sentence verdict. Because of Pakistan’s extremely religiously polarized society, the simple word of a blasphemy allegation has often resulted in mass-scale mob violence. Issues of blasphemy and gender-related laws are such polarizing topics that politicians can neither amend these laws nor publicly show dissent for them. In 2011 the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, spoke out against the blasphemy laws; he was assassinated directly after by his own bodyguard. Pakistan’s current Prime Minister, Imran Khan, ran for office on the premise that he would protect these blasphemy laws, which led to his election.
The intensity of punishments mandated during Zia’s military regime and the gender discriminatory laws passed under his Islamist penal code destroyed much potential for Pakistan to maintain a pluralistic society, let alone a democracy. Under Zia, Pakistan witnessed the institutionalization of the second-class treatment of women and minorities. Though many of Zia’s anti-women laws have since been repealed or reformed, they continue to tarnish Pakistan’s legal system as it will take decades of overturning laws for Pakistan to be rid of its patriarchal jurisdictions, especially when many still endorse these laws.
It is incontestable that in Pakistan, there is no space for diversity of opinion or dissent against the status quo which has often discriminated against women, religious minorities, and those of lower socioeconomic status.
In the last few years and amidst the dark atmosphere of Pakistan’s patriarchal and discriminatory political milieu, a groundbreaking women’s rights movement has been on the rise in several major cities of Pakistan, the Aurat Azadi March or the Women’s Freedom March. The Aurat movement is a feminist advocacy movement that leads a nationwide protest annually on March 8th, which is International Women’s Day. This past March, Aurat protestors from Karachi called for an institutional end to patriarchal violence, while protestors in Lahore and Islamabad demanded adequate healthcare and economic justice for women. Aurat marchers have mobilized for several years now and can trace their roots to early feminist opposition to Zia’s brutal Hudood Ordinance laws in the 70s. The Aurat movement has also faced stark criticism from the country’s conservative political establishment. The Pakistani police have filed a blasphemy claim against the movement for allegedly promoting “un-Islamic values.”
In 2018, Imran Khan was elected as Prime Minister after running on the plan that he would expand human rights reforms and eliminate many of the country’s gender discriminatory laws— quite contrary to his endorsement of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws which directly contradict his promises. He even formed a manifesto called “New Pakistan,” championing female participation in the workforce, equal access to healthcare, legal protections, and access to education. Despite Khan’s promises, his administration has continued to carry on the country’s legacy of suppression by restricting NGOs, media, political opposition, and civil society organizations. Women and girls continue to be the targets of sexual violence, honor killings, forced and early marriages, and a lack of education. Although movements like the Aurat March persist, international human rights law violations against women remain rampant in Pakistan.
The empowerment of women at every institutional level is vital for a democracy to make representative and legitimate decisions. Valentine Moghadam, a feminist scholar, writes, “Women may need democracy in order to flourish, but the converse is also true: democracy needs women if it is to be an inclusive, representative, and enduring system of government.” The low status of women in Pakistan shall always serve as a blockade in the country’s path to democratization. Pakistan must consider it imperative that it abides by the UN Women’s Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action of 1995, which asserts that “Equal rights, opportunities and access to resources, equal sharing of responsibilities for the family by men and women, and a harmonious partnership between them are critical to their well-being and that of their families as well as to the consolidation of democracy.”
Pakistan’s democratic future relies on the active engagement of women not only in the political sphere but all sectors of society; if the country is to build its institutional capacity— female empowerment is a compulsory prerequisite.