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Pakistan: Status of Women & the Women's Movement
Encyclopedia of Women's History - from Jone Johnson Lewis
Four important challenges confronted women in Pakistan in the early 1990s: increasing practical literacy, gaining access to employment opportunities at all levels in the economy, promoting change in the perception of women's roles and status, and gaining a public voice both within and outside of the political process.

There have been various attempts at social and legal reform aimed at improving Muslim women's lives in the subcontinent during the twentieth century. These attempts generally have been related to two broader, intertwined movements: the social reform movement in British India and the growing Muslim nationalist movement. Since partition, the changing status of women in Pakistan largely has been linked with discourse about the role of Islam in a modern state. This debate concerns the extent to which civil rights common in most Western democracies are appropriate in an Islamic society and the way these rights should be reconciled with Islamic family law.

Muslim reformers in the nineteenth century struggled to introduce female education, to ease some of the restrictions on women's activities, to limit polygyny, and to ensure women's rights under Islamic law. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan convened the Mohammedan Educational Conference in the 1870s to promote modern education for Muslims, and he founded the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College. Among the predominantly male participants were many of the earliest proponents of education and improved social status for women. They advocated cooking and sewing classes conducted in a religious framework to advance women's knowledge and skills and to reinforce Islamic values. But progress in women's literacy was slow: by 1921 only four out of every 1,000 Muslim females were literate.

Promoting the education of women was a first step in moving beyond the constraints imposed by purdah. The nationalist struggle helped fray the threads in that socially imposed curtain. Simultaneously, women's roles were questioned, and their empowerment was linked to the larger issues of nationalism and independence. In 1937 the Muslim Personal Law restored rights (such as inheritance of property) that had been lost by women under the Anglicization of certain civil laws. As independence neared, it appeared that the state would give priority to empowering women. Pakistan's founding father, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, said in a speech in 1944:

No nation can rise to the height of glory unless your women are side by side with you; we are victims of evil customs. It is a crime against humanity that our women are shut up within the four walls of the houses as prisoners. There is no sanction anywhere for the deplorable condition in which our women have to live.

After independence, elite Muslim women in Pakistan continued to advocate women's political empowerment through legal reforms. They mobilized support that led to passage of the Muslim Personal Law of Sharia in 1948, which recognized a woman's right to inherit all forms of property. They were also behind the futile attempt to have the government include a Charter of Women's Rights in the 1956 constitution. The 1961 Muslim Family Laws Ordinance covering marriage and divorce, the most important sociolegal reform that they supported, is still widely regarded as empowering to women.

Two issues--promotion of women's political representation and accommodation between Muslim family law and democratic civil rights--came to dominate discourse about women and sociolegal reform. The second issue gained considerable attention during the regime of Zia ul-Haq (1977-88). Urban women formed groups to protect their rights against apparent discrimination under Zia's Islamization program. It was in the highly visible realm of law that women were able to articulate their objections to the Islamization program initiated by the government in 1979. Protests against the 1979 Enforcement of Hudood Ordinances focused on the failure of hudood (see Glossary) ordinances to distinguish between adultery (zina) and rape (zina-bil-jabr). A man could be convicted of zina only if he were actually observed committing the offense by other men, but a woman could be convicted simply because she became pregnant.

The Women's Action Forum was formed in 1981 to respond to the implementation of the penal code and to strengthen women's position in society generally. The women in the forum, most of whom came from elite families, perceived that many of the laws proposed by the Zia government were discriminatory and would compromise their civil status. In Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad the group agreed on collective leadership and formulated policy statements and engaged in political action to safeguard women's legal position.

The Women's Action Forum has played a central role in exposing the controversy regarding various interpretations of Islamic law and its role in a modern state, and in publicizing ways in which women can play a more active role in politics. Its members led public protests in the mid-1980s against the promulgation of the Law of Evidence. Although the final version was substantially modified, the Women's Action Forum objected to the legislation because it gave unequal weight to testimony by men and women in financial cases. Fundamentally, they objected to the assertion that women and men cannot participate as legal equals in economic affairs.

Beginning in August 1986, the Women's Action Forum members and their supporters led a debate over passage of the Shariat Bill, which decreed that all laws in Pakistan should conform to Islamic law. They argued that the law would undermine the principles of justice, democracy, and fundamental rights of citizens, and they pointed out that Islamic law would become identified solely with the conservative interpretation supported by Zia's government. Most activists felt that the Shariat Bill had the potential to negate many of the rights women had won. In May 1991, a compromise version of the Shariat Bill was adopted, but the debate over whether civil law or Islamic law should prevail in the country continued in the early 1990s.

Discourse about the position of women in Islam and women's roles in a modern Islamic state was sparked by the government's attempts to formalize a specific interpretation of Islamic law. Although the issue of evidence became central to the concern for women's legal status, more mundane matters such as mandatory dress codes for women and whether females could compete in international sports competitions were also being argued.

Another of the challenges faced by Pakistani women concerns their integration into the labor force. Because of economic pressures and the dissolution of extended families in urban areas, many more women are working for wages than in the past. But by 1990 females officially made up only 13 percent of the labor force. Restrictions on their mobility limit their opportunities, and traditional notions of propriety lead families to conceal the extent of work performed by women.

Usually, only the poorest women engage in work--often as midwives, sweepers, or nannies--for compensation outside the home. More often, poor urban women remain at home and sell manufactured goods to a middleman for compensation. More and more urban women have engaged in such activities during the 1990s, although to avoid being shamed few families willingly admit that women contribute to the family economically. Hence, there is little information about the work women do. On the basis of the predominant fiction that most women do no work other than their domestic chores, the government has been hesitant to adopt overt policies to increase women's employment options and to provide legal support for women's labor force participation.

The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) commissioned a national study in 1992 on women's economic activity to enable policy planners and donor agencies to cut through the existing myths on female labor-force participation. The study addresses the specific reasons that the assessment of women's work in Pakistan is filled with discrepancies and underenumeration and provides a comprehensive discussion of the range of informal- sector work performed by women throughout the country. Information from this study was also incorporated into the Eighth Five-Year Plan (1993-98).

A melding of the traditional social welfare activities of the women's movement and its newly revised political activism appears to have occurred. Diverse groups including the Women's Action Forum, the All-Pakistan Women's Association, the Pakistan Women Lawyers' Association, and the Business and Professional Women's Association, are supporting small-scale projects throughout the country that focus on empowering women. They have been involved in such activities as instituting legal aid for indigent women, opposing the gendered segregation of universities, and publicizing and condemning the growing incidents of violence against women. The Pakistan Women Lawyers' Association has released a series of films educating women about their legal rights; the Business and Professional Women's Association is supporting a comprehensive project inside Yakki Gate, a poor area inside the walled city of Lahore; and the Orangi Pilot Project in Karachi has promoted networks among women who work at home so they need not be dependent on middlemen to acquire raw materials and market the clothes they produce.

The women's movement has shifted from reacting to government legislation to focusing on three primary goals: securing women's political representation in the National Assembly; working to raise women's consciousness, particularly about family planning; and countering suppression of women's rights by defining and articulating positions on events as they occur in order to raise public awareness. An as yet unresolved issue concerns the perpetuation of a set number of seats for women in the National Assembly. Many women activists whose expectations were raised during the brief tenure of Benazir Bhutto's first government (December 1988-August 1990) now believe that, with her return to power in October 1993, they can seize the initiative to bring about a shift in women's personal and public access to power.

Data as of April 1994

Source:

Entry from: "Pakistan: A Country Study" published by the Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress.

Added by: Jone Johnson Lewis Last Edited:
July 28, 2001
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