Just ’cause you’re a woman: a look at women living in a Muslim society, Pakistan

Safia Bhatti, a teaching assistant in Pakistan
Safia Bhatti, a teaching assistant in Pakistan (© Flickr/Oxfam International)

It’s hard to imagine a country where women have a more difficult life than in Pakistan. Literacy rates among women are abysmally poor. Female infanticide is widely practiced, and women generally get far fewer opportunities than men. Yet, paradoxically, Pakistan has had a female prime minister, and women have served as ministers or held other top-level positions in government and the trade union movement. This documentary looks at the paradoxes of being a woman in this Muslim nation. 

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: March 2, 1994


To mark International Women’s Day on March the 8th, Radio Netherlands, the Dutch international service, presents “Just ‘Cause You’re a Woman – a look at women living in a Muslim society, Pakistan”. The programme is produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin.

In most of our societies, there is the patriarchal system. Women are badly treated, etc. But when they are state sanctioned for it, then you see that there is very little hope.

Just ‘cause you’re a woman, they call you a sin. They allow you to be weak. They lead. You follow. They want you to be feminine. They lock you home, just ‘cause you’re a woman. Just ‘cause you’re a woman, it’s your fault you’re raped. It’s your nature you are oppressed. It’s their right you’re possessed. Just ‘cause, just ‘cause you’re a woman. Just ‘cause we are women, we must stand up for our rights. It’s oppression we fight and liberation we seek. We’ll act just ‘cause we’re women.

It’s hard to imagine a country where women have a more difficult life than in Pakistan. Female in rural areas are expected to stay home and remain unseen. Literacy rates among women are abysmally poor. Female infanticide – that’s the killing of newborn baby girls – is widely practiced, and women generally get far fewer opportunities than men. Yet, paradoxically, Pakistan elected a female prime minister a few months ago. And women have in the past served as ministers or held other top-level positions in government and the trade union movement. According to Hilda Saeed, a feminist and editor of the magazine National Health, women haven’t always been as badly off as they are today.

If we look at the subcontinental region in its historical perspective, then what emerges is that in those days, although women were more or less confined to their homes, they had some significance in whatever their area of living was, whether they were poor women or richer women. But then came colonialism and a greater division came about with cities being established, urban and rural divisions and so forth. After that came the whole trauma of independence, and the urban-rural divide, the rich-poor divide both have increased, and at each stage, it is the women who have suffered more. Pakistan was no different.

But Pakistan headed down a different path than other countries in the subcontinent in 1977 when, amid growing political chaos, General Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq took over the country. Pakistan’s constitution states that the country is an Islamic republic, but that wasn’t enough for General Zia. A fervent Muslim, he made Islamic punishments, such as flogging and maiming, law in 1979. Farida Shaheed of the feminist group Shirkat Gah says it was part of the military ruler’s Islamisation campaign.

It used to be part of the preamble that Pakistan was being created in order to allow Muslims to lead their lives according to their religion. The preamble has been included in the constitution which makes sharia – which is Muslim jurisprudence – supersede other parts of the constitution, at least that’s what it appears from the outside. I’m not a lawyer, so I may be completely wrong in the legalities, but the general impression at the social level is that this would undermine the fundamental human rights which are provided for in the constitution because it is an enabling act that allows you to challenge any existing law on the basis that it is contrary to Islam and Islamic injunctions.

The military takeover had disastrous consequences for human rights in Pakistan. According to Zohra Yusuf of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, women in particular were targeted by one piece of Islamic legislation: the Hudood Ordinances.

The Hudood Ordinances consist of four ordinances. They all relate to various Islamic provisions, but the one that is applied especially to women is the Zina Ordinance. Zina basically means adultery, and Zina-bil-jabr means rape. So, in essence, this law does not differentiate between rape and adultery. Moreover, adultery, which at one time was a personal affair under the Pakistan Penal Code, under the Zina Ordinance, it has become equivalent to a crime against the state. So it’s practically equivalent to the charge of a murder. And the maximum punishment under the Zina Ordinance is stoning to death.

Though the maximum penalty is rarely imposed today, thousands of women have been jailed under the Hudood Ordinances. Many women were held for years because of Pakistan’s slow legal system, only to be acquitted later. What makes the Hudood Ordinances so objectionable, says Hilda Saeed, is that a woman who is raped, for example, can be charged with adultery, and convictions are quite easy to get.

If a woman was raped, she had to have four adult Muslim male witnesses to prove that she was raped. Now she is hardly likely to be raped in public to that extent. I mean, you could even have a dormitory in a girls school or college, and if one girl is raped, none of them are considered competent witnesses. Or if a congregation is coming out of church, they are also incompetent to stand as witnesses. So what could a girl do? The rape was often interpreted  as adultery, especially if as a result of rape, the woman conceived because then that pregnancy was treated as evidence of adultery. Then, in addition to being victimised by rape, she was further victimised by being considered an adulterous woman, quote unquote.

If parents object to their children’s marriage or if a couple is caught without a marriage license, the couple can be thrown in jail and tried for adultery. In this topsy-turvy world in which rape victims are punished again by the courts, says Zohra Yusuf, the onus of proof is always on the woman.

Even in the West, in many cases, it’s very difficult to prove a rape. Often there have been judge who have come to the conclusion that that woman did not put up enough of a resistance. She did not have enough bruises on her body or no one heard her scream or shout for help. They have convicted her. While the man, because nothing has been proved against him, he has been let off scot free. But the woman is then convicted under the Zina clause, which is the adultery factor because they take her confession to being involved in the sexual act as an admission to adultery. And since she hasn’t been able to prove rape, they say you have committed adultery and it was according to your will, and then she’s punished for adultery.

Females can be tried under the Hudood Ordinances as soon as they reach puberty, which can be as young as 10 or 11. In incest cases, says Hilda Saeed, the consequences can be horrific.

If one happens to be from a middle class family, the psychological trauma is immense. It is truly immense because I know of one or two girls like this. If there is conception as a result of that, then if one happens to be from a fairly well-off family, one can try and get an abortion. But if you’re from a poor family, you do not have access to easy abortion or clinically safe abortion. Therefore, you are at risk of a botched up abortion and death.

There are no reliable Zohra Yusuf of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan says the only official report on the subject was drawn up by the Pakistan Ministry of Women’s Affairs back in 1989.

According to the minister of state for women’s affairs at that time, she had been around various prisons. And the figure that she had put was over 6000. This was in 1989, of women in prison under the Zina Ordinance. Unfortunately, I do not have any recent figures, so it’s hard to compare. But going my newspaper reports or the types of cases that come to us, there certainly is a drop. But again the other aspect is that we are unaware of what actually happens to those 6000 women in prison. Women have often been in prison for several years before being acquitted. Many times they have won their cases when they have appealed in superior courts, but there is no compensation for the time that they have spent in prison.

Even though it seems that fewer women are being tried under the Hudood Ordinances today, the laws are still on the books. And according to Zia Awan, the president of Lawyers for Human Rights and Legal Aid, other laws were introduced during the official islamisation campaign, which had a detrimental effect on women, for example, a law which made a woman’s testimony worth only half that of a man’s.

The interpretation of religious scholars is this: that when the dispute is on money, so women have half evidence. If there are two women, they come forward and they make a statement, then it can be considered full evidence.

The islamisation campaign continued through till 1992 with new Islamic laws being imposed on virtually every facet of Pakistani society. But Shahnaz Bukhari, the editor of the Women’s World Magazine, believes that the campaign actually had very little to do with Islam.

No, Islam is a religion which is a very open-hearted and open-minded religion. When Islam came, the female child was not even looked after, and Islam gave women hereditary rights, those rights that a woman is equal to a man and not less than a man. Treat women as a human being. Had it not been like that, Mohammed, peace be upon him, wouldn’t have been married to a woman who was working. So it means that Islam gives women that liberation to work on as large a scale as she wants to, as she can go to. This is not Islam which inhabits women to go out of her four walls and to work. Islam would not say that. Islam is a very liberal religion.

Liberal and conservative are, of course, very relative terms. But many intellectuals in Pakistan, including Nighat Said Khan, a woman’s activist, agree that it’s not so much Islam but tradition which has led to female subservience.

You have Islam being defined differently in different countries. It’s not necessarily within Islam, and I don’t think that Islam in that sense is more or less patriarchal than other religions. All religions are patriarchal. But certainly what has happened in Pakistan, and that has been detrimental that we got a combination of the military and Islamic ideology with the support of the West, particularly the United States, during the Afghan war, which actually intensified the whole parameters of the debate and the struggle.

To examine what those parameters are, Farida Shaheed of the feminist group Shirkat Gah has been conducting research on how Islamic law is applied throughout the Muslim world. She says the interpretation is far from uniform.

There’s enormous differences. This is something which is erroneous. The idea that there is one Muslim world, that it is homogeneous, that everywhere you have the same laws, is completely false. What is Islamic law or Muslim laws vary so much that there is very little we would say is Muslim or true to the religion itself. It really is a question of how these have been interpreted and presented.

In liberal Muslim countries like Tunisia and Morocco, for example, women enjoy a great deal of freedom, whereas in strict Islamic societies, like in Saudi Arabia, women are even barred from driving a car. In Pakistan, there are strong forces which oppose any liberalisation of Islamic law. But attorney Zia Awan argues that these people are totally discredited.

The problem is with the feudal system and the wrong interpretation of Islamic principles in my view. What I feel in this country, the parasites – who are mullahs – I must say, they are parasites, they have interpreted Islam in a way that show that Islam is a religion of persecution. Prosecute the people. It is not the case.

The mullahs and other fundamentalists though still exert a great deal of influence on Pakistani society. But Farida Shaheed believes that if more women and men were to know about the differences in interpretation of Islam, they would take action, for example, to remove the Hudood Ordinances and other discriminatory legislation from the books. She and her colleagues at the women’s organisation Shirkat Gah have started a project to gather information on how Islamic law is applied throughout the Islamic world.

Women find themselves in a bind, not being able to break out of a framework that has been provided for them. Everything is justified or presented as being Muslim. In fact, we’ve seen that very often things that are said, practices, laws, behaviour, which is said to be Muslim, is not so much Muslim as traditional to the area in which they happen to live. So the project intends to look at laws as they have been enacted in specific countries, find out which of those are supposed to be Muslim and which are not, and also entails research into what are the customary practices, what we call customary laws because we feel that people are bound at least as much by customary laws as they are by the actual statutes.

We have had a few successes, of course. We have a very tragic story to tell in Pakistan, but it is not as if nothing has happened. It is very evident from the situation of the women’s movement that women in this country have come a long way, and they have come a long way in a period which was a disaster for women. So in a way, our history is quite unique, the history of the women’s movement, because the movement became more and more strong, and it was able to get a few successes in a period where women’s rights were suffering a great deal, and this movement was really a resistance movement, and I think we have to give some credit to Zia-ul-Haq for having promulgated all the anti-women laws so that we were brought out of our complacency and were able to fight at that level.

Hina Jilani, a prominent lawyer in Lahore, has been one of the people at the forefront of the fight for women’s emancipation in Pakistan. It’s been and it remains an uphill battle, she says. But women aren’t demanding special rights, just the rights they deserve as human beings.

We feel that conservative attitudes that will only let institutions respond to women’s rights to a limited extent. The concern of the protection of women may, in a way, undermine women’s rights because we don’t want protections and concessions. We want to be accepted as people entitled to rights, and therefore be able to go to courts and claim those rights, rather than requests for concessions or protections. We have had to go to court, but let me also emphasise that extra-legal remedies availed by women have also been successful. We have not necessarily won all the battles in court. We won a lot of battles on the streets, and that is also something that the women’s movement had to contribute to the political history of this country.

The women’s movement feels that the tide against women is now turning. They point to the fundamentalists poor showing in the elections last October and to the victory of Benazir Bhutto. Zohra Yusuf of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan again.

We are hoping, but I would not say that we are too optimistic because when she came into power in  ’88, most of the women’s rights organisations and also to an extent human rights organisations, they thought that their work was practically over because I think also at a personal level she is committed to human rights issues. It is a concern. But what we have to take into consideration is the fact that she could come under political pressure. Now, in the last elections, as you know, the religious parties were really routed. They got very few seats, but they do have a nuisance value. They are fairly well organised. So when it comes to organising demonstrations or creating problems for the government, they are quite adept at that.

Nonetheless, says Nighat Said Khan, the fact that Pakistan does again have a female prime minister has given women throughout the country a major psychological boost.

At a psychological level, it does improve. Women just feel better about it and feel proud. They identify with her. She becomes a role model. In fact, to her position, her manifesto was no different from the Pakistan Muslim League or Nawaz Sharif. Where I do feel that there will be a difference, other than the psychological, is that Benazir, our experience with her is that she didn’t do anything further retrogressive, whereas Nawaz Sharif did in terms of the whole Islamisation process. So she will not do something that will consciously go against women. Of course, her policies, many of them, we think will go against women. But consciously she won’t work against women or she won’t bring any further laws, further changes which are very obviously anti-women.

If her government were to take any such measures, it could count on strong opposition from Pakistan’s relatively small women’s movement. But in the coming years, the women’s movement is likely to change and grow, says Farida Shaheed, as more and more women join the labour force and become politically aware.

There’s a lot of economic changes that are taking place. More and more women are going out into the labour force, not because they want a career, but because they are being obliged to through the economic situation. That in itself is having its own impact. So as they move out of traditional roles, if they move out of traditional lives, our hope is that we will be able to – through networking – link up with women so that there is a greater collective effort. I’m quite positive that without an enormous collective effort we will not be able to change things.

One of the organisations which is helping to bring about those changes is the First Women’s Bank. It was established a few years ago to encourage women to get into business, but also to help women overcome their inhibitions about going out of their homes and into a male-dominated society. But even women who do reach senior positions, like Akra Ghagoun (sp?), the manager of the Islamabad branch of the First Women’s Bank, face problems in business. She began her career over a decade ago at the National Bank of Pakistan.

Initially, when we entered the bank, I was never given as much importance as my colleague who was a man. Whenever I was given any incentive or any incremental like thing, it was always taken like a favour to a girl. In fact, it was never a favour. It was always a hard earned credit, but everybody thought it is a favour. When the promotion time came, at that time they were thinking also that being a lady, she might not be that helpful to the organisation as a man can be. But in fact everywhere the women had to fight twice as hard. It is word-widely said that we have to work twice as hard as a man to get the same place, and this is a hard fact. I think this is not only with me. This is everywhere.

However, paradoxically, says Nighat Said Khan, many women have been able to reach top-level positions.

It’s an unusual situation where there is a certain class bias operating. Within a certain class, women are in very senior positions. It’s something we haven’t been quite able to explain. For example, there have always been women ministers or women ambassadors or women heads of banks, and the trade union movement, for example, we have – and this is probably the only country in the world – where we have a woman who heads the steel workers and the dock workers and textile industries, the unions. This would be an unusual situation where women are involved in those positions. So it’s a strange dichotomy that on the one extreme, you have a lot of women in very senior positions. My own view is that although some of them have come in because of their class positions and their academic or educational background, a lot of women have come into positions because they are connected to the women’s movement. I think the women’s movement here is very strong, and a lot of very innovative things that are being done, even in other movements such as human rights and environment, etc., is because of the involvement of the women’s movement. So those positions are actually being created where women are being strengthened by the movement and moving into those positions.

But the women who make it in business and other sectors are a negligible minority. Men not only resist women reaching such prominent positions, most husbands don’t let their wives leave the house because they might come into contact with other women. However, says Nighat Said Khan, this is changing.

Women are bringing in a considerable percentage of the income into the home. And that is the bottom line. So even when the men say that they don’t want women to work and don’t acknowledge in many cases that women work, those women are working. It’s just that his status gets affected if he gives the impression that the income is being brought in by women. So you have a very common thing of men saying: oh, my wife doesn’t work or my daughters don’t work. When in fact, they are probably even working in the factory, working outside the home, but in most cases working within the home, but working on something connected with industry, working from the home.

The vast majority of working women live in rural areas. 65% of Pakistan’s labour force tills the land, and women are critical to the agricultural sector. But the rural areas have been largely neglected by the government, which allocates most of its budget to debt servicing and the military. This, says Hilda Saeed, the editor of the magazine, National Health, has created a paradoxical situation.

Within this region, Pakistan does have the highest GDP per capita, but its economic progress has not been balanced by equivalent social progress. As a result, what has happened is you have figures which show that Pakistan is doing very much better than the region, but on the other hand you have awfully low literacy rates, especially for women. Female literacy is only 11% as against male literacy of 30%. And even that, you can’t say whether it’s truly functional literacy or not because just being able to read the Qu’ran and sign your name is not enough to create real awareness of life around you. And women in rural areas, it’s averaging 0 to 6 literacy. Those women, you’ll find that they know nothing. They don’t have access to water. They don’t have any access to sanitation, and they are at the mercy of feudal landlords. So they have very little say in their own lives. Now, that generates its own subservience apart from social and traditional practices.

In rural areas, female subservience has become so ingrained in both men and women that even those who would chose to live differently find it difficult to break the system, says Sohail Warraich, who has been doing work in rural communities for the women’s group Shirkat Gah.

When I was meeting the most conservative men from the Haluj (sp?) or the Pathan tribes in Balushistan and Frontier, on one side, they were boasting how much power they have. But at the same time, their own conditions are very miserable and they did complain. They are so helpless against the system. It’s not that the one man who wants to provide some privileges or certain concessions to his wife or sisters is powerful enough to do so. It’s a matter of the whole tribe. No one can break the system. The roots are very strong there. So if you tackle the issue in a way that men don’t feel scared that the women will become so powerful that their authority will be challenged, if you show them it’s better for both of you.

Shahnaz Bukhari, the editor of Women’s World Magazine, believes that Pakistani women, both urban and rural, must take advantage of the new democratic atmosphere in Pakistan to make a serious attempt to improve the status of women. During the last elections, she and other activists met several political leaders to get them to adopt a women’s platform in their campaigns and to reserve a certain number of seats for women in parliament. Shahnaz Bukhari realises that some of the politicians were just paying her lip service, but she feels things are changing. Prime Minister Bhutto has, for example, suggested reserving a certain percentage of government jobs for women, and the first women’s police station in Pakistan has been inaugurated to enable women to lodge complaints and have them dealt with seriously. Now what’s needed, she says, is a campaign on television to create a positive image of women.

We are proposing a series of 13 programmes to show role models of a different woman, not a woman who would just clean utensils at home, give birth to children, but a woman who works, who works with a man 8 hours, 10 hours in the office and then comes back and looks after the home. There are women journalists, there are women electricians. There are women in engineering. There are women in computers. There are women all over Pakistan, but they are never projected in a positive manner. So my main campaign is education, to promote literacy, to have more female schools and more technical centres for women. It’s high time that we should finish off with these knitting and sewing centres. To hell with those centres. Fine, they should be there in those areas where women are bound to do that, and with those skill training centres, I think women should come out in a larger number and start with development for their own country and themselves of course.

Increasingly, women’s groups and non-governmental organisations are linking their efforts to improve the position of women to the fight against poverty, illiteracy and high birth rates. It’s only by tackling these issues, they argue, that women will be able to become full-fledged citizens of Pakistan. Zohra Yusuf of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan sees another area where women must work together to make sure they are treated as equals.

At the moment, we are working on a programme with various women’s organisations to come together on a common platform to specifically campaign against all discriminatory laws. Till 8th March which is the International Women’s Day, we plan to look at all these issues very closely, also collect data, then hold workshops, etc., create more awareness which will culminate in a common charter of demands on international women’s rights day.

The battle for greater equality in Pakistan seems to be gathering speed. While it’s unlikely that much will have changed by International Women’s Day on March 8th, progress is being made, thanks in part to Prime Minister Bhutto who, since coming to office, has indicated that she’s prepared to increase social spending and work to improve the position of women. So I asked Nigat Said Khan if the worst of the struggle is now over.

Ah no. The struggle, to my mind, has just begun because getting a few women into positions of power, in our case even having a prime minister who is a woman, has not necessarily helped the essential problem of all society is very patriarchal at every level and in every institution. There is at the same time a tremendous oppression and a non-recognition of women as human beings. The struggle isn’t over, but it is much more difficult. When you have a known enemy like a military power or a dictatorship or Islamisation, you will have a backlash to it. When it gets diffused into parliamentary democracy, you are not quite sure what you are fighting.

“Just ‘cause you’re a woman” was produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.