Women's Progress is a Mirage in Pakistan

There is a sharp bipolar division in the status of women in Pakistan. While some women have the opportunity to advance in every field of life, the deprived majority silently suffers a multiplicity of hardships and mistreatment in a system that is heavily biased against them. In fact women's progress in Pakistan is a mirage.

On the eve of "Women's Day," it is important that we look at our selves with a critical and sensitive eye. There may not be enough to celebrate given the progress women have made in their role in national life is something that cannot be overlooked.

Politics, which is considered to be an important realm in Pakistan, is a field where it is heartening to see a noticeable increase in women's participation. Their representation in the national and provincial assemblies in the past 10 years has substantially increased. There are 216 women in assemblies, which since the elections in 2002-2003 is the highest in Pakistan's history. We see women parliamentarians speaking and debating various issues, which have been labeled by some sexist (read insecure) men as having "beautiful faces in the parliament." If so, they ought to be grateful for being the fortunate beholders.

Girls and women can be seen in various different professions, though only in a very small number we hear of female pilots, police women, journalists, cadets and in civil service. But the real question that comes to mind time and time again, is, what difference has the increasing presence of women in patriarchal professions made for the common woman?

The truth is that the statistics are depressing. Not including incidents from eons ago there have been 7,733 cases of violence against women in the past two years alone. This ominous figure includes murder, honour killing, rape, gang rape, torture, burning, acid throwing, customary practices, custodial violence domestic violence and sexual assault. These digits represent an alarming increase of violence against women and a lack of justice brought upon the perpetrators whom legal and social leniency enables them to behave in age such capacity. There were 4360 cases reported in Punjab, 1385 in Sindh, 1013 in NWFP, 763 in Balochistan and 212 in Islamabad. Almost all of these cases were reported cases - who is to say the figure wouldn't double if the unreported incidents were included!

Addition studies on urban and rural based violence have not been yet conducted, but the overall increase in violence seems to stem from basic deficiencies that include employment and judicial structure. To simplify a long debate, the affect of globalization has derailed the marginalized population, which in our case is the majority. Economic factors coupled with the lack of justice have lead to the sinister rise in female victims.

The most salient incidents have shocked the world: sexual assault on Mukhtara Mai's Dr. Shazia's, Dr Sulangi and the burial of five women, disruption of a women's marathon, victimization of Naseema Bana by the military personnel, the violation of womens electoral rights in NWFP, and the closing down of schools for girls in Swat.

Senators like Zehri have openly stated that burying women alive was a part of their custom. The inability to remove such an archaic representative despite protests from within the parliament as well as from outside the political body revealed the rulers' extremely weak political will. It also showed what the minds that are leading the nation. Some political representatives vocally support such heinous crimes and have gone as far as to put pressure on Mukhtara Mai for dropping her charges against her perpetrators.

We saw the leniency of government as people from swat ran for their lives from their homes - girls' schools were blasted to smithereens and the placid statements were being issued to revoke militants actions were being broadcasted on the media. This truly exposes the forces who are in command.

The government did not do "all that it could." Most of the bills and ordinances relevant to women are inherently flawed. The so-called shroud of "protection" is dangerously deceptive. And whats even more detrimental is the inability of governing bodies to actually advance pro-women legislations and laws towards implementation.

The Hudood Ordinance, a set of five ordinances promulgated by General Zia-ul-Haq in 1979, was never debated as a result of the Islamic label attached to it. There have since been amendements to the Zina and Qazf ordinances, but existing gaps still have not ended the inherent discrimination against women.

There are also critical lacunas in the draft bill on domestic violence. Experts at the Aurath Foundation have studied the legislation and make it clear that its proposed punishments for offenders are weak, the complaint system is inadequate, and that the jurisdiction over domestic violence has been clumped in the category of criminal procedure that is likely prolong the judicial process for already stressed and victimized individuals.

It is crucial that Muslim family laws be revamped. Civil society and imminent individuals have worked tirelessly to add and recommend clauses to prevent the objectification of women and their helplessness. Some of these recommendations include: extension of law to include fata and fana, having a family court in each district and clauses concerning child marriages, consent and divorce.

On Women's Day we may find things to boast about like having had a female prime minister when even the most advanced countries have not. But this is mere appeasement and denial of the very fact that women are victimized everyday and perhaps every hour in some part of Pakistan. It is sad, and yet hopeful to know that despite the worsening situation of women in the country, the taboo of silence has been broken- and that these crimes against women are being exposed. Today, it is a matter of collective moral conscience to nurture half of the population that is always the first fraction to be targeted and the last to recover.