Harnessing Women’s Power

By Saad Hafiz


Between gushing tributes to the ‘all-weather’ friendship between Pakistan and China, Prime Minister Li Keqiang could have highlighted the contribution of women to China’s rise as a world power to his Pakistani hosts. Pakistan can learn from the great strides that China has made in terms of women empowerment. In sharp contrast to Pakistan, China boasts a high female literacy rate and a rapidly closing gap between estimated female-to-male earned income. Chinese women seem to have overcome the usual obstacles of finding work, getting an education and are being freed of restrictive traditions faced by the women in many developing economies. During the Ming-Qing era when the country witnessed a rapid expansion of commerce, the Chinese discovered very early that empowering women is smart economics. In that era, both men and women (who often brought their own funds into their husbands’ households) participated in village-level economic life. Pakistan may also find it to be smart economics to permit women to make a larger contribution to national economic life and wealth creation. This would be possible if women were allowed to be part of the workforce in greater numbers. But for that to happen, society will have to lift the many burdens that weigh down women and prevent them from contributing to the economy.

China has also made substantial progress in widening women’s political participation though the level of which continues to rank lower than that in many other countries, especially those in the democratic west. Achieving equality for women in the male-dominated Chinese society has not been an easy task. A key turning point was China’s hosting of the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, which served as a catalyst in boosting women’s political involvement through various gender-oriented regulations. In comparison, the political participation of women in Pakistan while high in comparison to other Islamic countries continues to be bedeviled by tokenism and the so-called biwi-beti (wife-daughter) brigade. Traditionally, many female candidates have been from wealthy, land-owning families and have been seen more as a continuation of political dynasties than as women entering politics in their own right. Moreover, since very few women politicians have an independent electoral base, the uncertainty about where they will be fielded in directly-contested seats make them even more dependent on male bosses of their party to win elections. This has enlarged the compass of the ideology of female subservience, which is most prominent in the domestic realm, into the public and political domain as well. While the reserved quota for women seats ensures that the women’s representation in Pakistan’s parliament is the highest in South Asia, it is not political representation in its truest sense, as female politicians actually enjoy limited political power and influence. Merely three percent of directly elected seats are held by women in the National and the Provincial assemblies. Moreover, there are reportedly 11 million fewer women registered as voters than men in the electoral rolls. Women from poorer families remain excluded from the political system and, at the far end of the spectrum many women are so disenfranchised that they cannot vote.

As an aside, a quietly liberal tradition of having female imams and mosques for women is flourishing among China’s ten million Hui Muslims, something that is a globally unique phenomenon. The Chinese example ultimately empowers women to work within their own space and lead prayers and manage that space on their own. This is a significant form of women asserting themselves in the Islamic tradition. Some Islamic scholars say that female imams and women’s mosques are important because their endurance in China offers a vision of an older form of Islam that has inclusiveness and tolerance, and not marginalization and extremism at its core. This is in contrast to many Islamic countries like Pakistan, where contemporary fundamentalist movements use the space provided by the mosque to affirm patriarchic concepts of male authority over women. In these countries, gender-based violence, segregated public spaces and social coercion are also used to keep women subjugated.

The problem of women in Pakistan is symbolic of the problem of inequalities and injustices in a society in general. While women’s movement in Pakistan is gaining momentum and gathering pace and reaching one milestone after another, the ill treatment of, and atrocities against women are recurring in regular and brutal manner. Many gender disparities remain even as the country develops politically; something that calls for sustained and focused public action. To be effective, these measures must target the root causes of inequality without ignoring the domestic political economy. Political parties should promote and ensure greater inclusion of women in decision-making and leadership positions. Corrective policies will yield substantial development payoffs if they focus on persistent gender inequalities that matter most for welfare of women. Pakistan can benefit from emulating China’s success in increasing female economic, social and political participation to enhance economic growth and social harmony.

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