In Pakistan, the struggle for gender equality is a deeply entrenched battle, marked by a multitude of challenges and discriminatory practices. This article delves into the pervasive issues that women face in various facets of life, from education and property rights to labor force participation. While constitutional provisions guarantee equality, customary practices often undermine these principles. The story of women’s rights in Pakistan is one of both resilience and the urgent need for change.
Khalida Bibi faced immense familial pressure, primarily from her mother and two older sisters, when she resisted giving up her share of inheritance in a 25-acre agricultural land and a shop at the Ghalla Mandi (Grain Market) in Hasilpur in favor of her two brothers. All five siblings, including Khalida herself, had been married off following their father’s passing.
After her father’s Chaleeswan (the fortieth day after death), Khalida’s mother requested her and her other two daughters to voluntarily submit an affidavit renouncing their claim to their father’s properties. Her two sisters readily agreed to this suggestion, but Khalida refused. She believed in her equal right to her father’s properties, just like her brothers. Another reason for her refusal was her husband’s precarious financial situation, as he had been bedridden for years after a major accident. However, her determination to retain her inheritance rights led to her family’s disapproval and a social boycott by her sisters and brothers.
According to Prof. Dr. Raana Malik, this is not an isolated case but rather a reflection of the broader societal issue. Dr. Malik, who serves as the director of the Department of Gender Studies at the University of the Punjab, Lahore, states that this situation is prevalent in many families in our society. She highlights that International Zero Discrimination Day on March 1 was observed under the theme “Remove laws that harm, create laws that empower.” While Pakistan has implemented laws to combat discrimination against women, their effective enforcement requires further measures. Dr. Malik notes that a significant portion of the population remains unwilling to accept and implement laws that challenge cultural and social traditions.
Dr. Raana Malik emphasizes that discrimination against women begins from the moment a baby girl is born in a family. Unlike the celebrations that accompany the birth of a baby boy, many families express disappointment when a baby girl is born. In the early years of their lives, girls encounter discrimination at various stages within typical Pakistani households. Even mothers, who are women themselves, often provide better food, clothing, and a more comfortable environment for their male offspring compared to their daughters.
Pakistan currently ranks as one of the countries with the lowest gender equality in the world, according to the Global Gender Gap Index. Although efforts to promote gender equality are visible within Pakistan’s Vision 2025, there is still much work to be done to improve the status of women and girls across the country, as noted by Umme Laila Azhar, director of HomeNet Pakistan. She emphasizes that gender discrimination and bias are deeply entrenched in Pakistani society, hindering the country’s socio-economic progress.
A prominent advocate for women’s rights in the workforce highlights a troubling gender disparity in education. At every level of the educational journey, boys consistently outnumber girls. The United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) Annual Report for 2020 reveals alarming statistics, indicating that out of 22.84 million out-of-school children, a staggering 12.16 million are girls, making up 55% of the total, including both boys and girls. This lack of access to education deprives young girls of essential knowledge about their basic rights, which are imparted through schooling. This educational gender gap underscores the vulnerability of women in society. For instance, the female literacy rate stands at a mere 49%, significantly lower than the male literacy rate of 71%. In rural areas, female literacy drops to a concerning 38%. Moreover, Pakistan’s female labor force participation rate remains one of the lowest in the region, which is a source of disappointment and concern.
Agha Intizar Ali Imran, a distinguished advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, sheds light on the contradictions between constitutional principles and deeply ingrained customs. While Article 25 of the Constitution upholds the principle of equality, traditional practices, such as women’s confinement under purdah, perpetuate male dominance both within families and society at large. Article 23 of the Constitution provides legal rights for women to own and manage property. However, customary practices often limit women to usufructuary rights over land, and even when they do own property, husbands tend to assume management control.
This legal expert in criminal and family laws further reveals that the 1962 West Pakistan Muslim Personal Law Shariat Application Act grants Muslim women the right to inherit all types of property, including agricultural land, under customary law. Despite this legal framework, many women do not inherit property due to social pressures from their families and the fear of social isolation. In cases where women do inherit, they frequently receive a smaller share than their legally entitled inheritance, which is a matter of regret. Agha Imran stresses the need for heightened vigilance and awareness to eradicate discrimination against women entirely within our society.
The plight of women in Pakistan remains a pressing concern, with disparities in education, property rights, and labor force participation persisting despite legal safeguards. Achieving true gender equality demands not just legal frameworks but also a shift in societal norms and attitudes. It requires empowering women with knowledge and agency, so they can assert their rights and challenge discriminatory customs. As we move forward, vigilance, awareness, and concerted efforts are essential to ending gender discrimination and fostering a more equitable society in Pakistan.