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Pakistan Reader# 132, 8 September 2020

The Gender Question

Women in Pakistan have broken the glass ceiling. But, the social walls stand strong

Women in Pakistan may have managed to break the glass ceiling, but the problems remain the same, as one could see in the rest of South Asia. 

Abigail Miriam Fernandez

Women in Pakistan have made rapid progress. They have gained employment in formal, informal and low-skilled jobs, with many working as doctors, lawyers, journalists and in other white-collar jobs, bringing in resources for their families. Today women in Pakistan are not only accepted in as diverse fields as military or sports, but their achievements are also being celebrated. 

In the last decade alone, the country has seen the first women fighter pilot as well as a girls' soccer team, both of which would have seemed a bit farfetched propositions in not so distant past. 

To name a few, Ayesha Farooq, hailing from Bahawalpur, Punjab, was one of 19 women who have become pilots in the Pakistan Air Force over the last decade reached to a greater height by becoming the first female fighter pilot in Pakistan in 2013. Like Ayesha, a growing number of women have joined Pakistan's defence forces in recent years with the attitudes towards women changing. ("Pakistan's first war-ready female fighter pilot wins battle of sexes," Dawn, 14 June 2013)

Hajra Khan, Pakistan women's football team captain and the striker has managed to achieve three football-related Guinness World Records in 2019 an achievement she hopes can inspire more girls in the country to pick up football, pick their battles and go for their dreams. In the field of sports other notable names are, Maria Toorpakai Wazir, Pakistani squash player, Naseem Hameed, an athlete, have all excelled in their fields. ("Pakistan women's football team captain Hajra Khan trains in US to expand experience," The Express Tribune, 2 October 2019)

Similarly, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, journalist, activist and filmmaker won two Oscars for her documentaries Saving Face (2012) about acid-attack survivors, and A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness (2015) about honour killings. (Ambreen Arshad, "Wonder women of Pakistan," Dawn, 5 March 2016)

The Exceptions are yet to make a Rule
However, when one takes a closer look into the status of working women in Pakistan, the story does not seem to be the same. The plight of working women has been plagued with violence, harassment and discrimination with women still struggles as they continue to live in a 'Man's World'.

The tragic murder of Qandeel Baloch is a perfect case to understand the harsh realities that working women face in the country. Qandeel who was a popular social media celebrity, became a victim of 'honour killings' after she was killed by her brother in 2016. (Imran Gabol, Taser Subhani, "Qandeel Baloch murdered by brother in Multan: police," Dawn, 23 July 2016)

Similarly, on 6 September 2020, Shaheena Shaheen Baloch, a woman journalist and a social worker was shot dead allegedly by her husband in Turbat, Kech district in an apparent case of domestic violence. (Behram Baloch, "Woman journalist gunned down in Turbat," Dawn, 6 September 2020)

Given the grim reality of working women in Pakistan, many challenges pose as hurdles for these women. This can be understood from two prisms, Psychological challenges and Physical challenges. 

The Socio-Cultural Norms
Although similar to the struggles of working women in the rest of South Asia, socio‐cultural norms, pervasive sexism and the feeling of less appreciation have impacted the minds of both women and society negatively. The women of Pakistan have always experienced disadvantages when compared to men of the same class. Social and cultural factors have historically kept most women from entering the job market, with women being taught to obey and submit to their husbands, to protect their husbands' "honour." In a highly cultural bounded country like Pakistan where the women participation in paid labour is still very low, misconceptions and the patriarch structure of society has further caused unnecessary restriction, with most women choosing occupations were those of a school or college teachers and female doctors because in these occupations separation of the sexes can be easily maintained. ("Problems working women face," Dawn, 9 May 2010)

Pervasive sexism at workplace and lack of support at home
Women in Pakistan have to bear pervasive sexism throughout their lives. A career woman, irrespective of her financial position, finds an equal measure of resistance form her male counterparts and is often subjected to be made feel inferiors or is looked down upon when she chooses to be more ambitious. ("Special report: Sexual harassment in workplaces in Pakistan," Dawn, 19 April 2018)

Another challenge is that sexual harassment, abuse and discrimination in Pakistan's workplaces are rampant, with most cases going unreported and ignored the management. Further, most women either choose to stay silent about workplace harassment or are told to remain silent by their colleagues and bosses. Further, women-friendly approach in workspaces or safe environment is missing, the functioning and designing of offices and public buildings do not consider women's needs. While violence and discrimination continue to rise, there is a lack or absence of enforcement of related laws and minimum guarantees of safety from the employers.

Working women in Pakistan also have a larger responsibility of taking care of these families. However, often these women are less appreciated or deprived of appreciation, especially from their husbands or families for their efforts not only at their homes but for the work they do, thus pushing them to quit. Further, when women leave their house to fulfil their economic responsibility, they are discouraged rather than encouraged to support their families.

The unequal distribution of opportunities 
One of the biggest challenges concerning women empowerment is the distribution of opportunities. The openings are not evenly divided. Issues stemming from localities, family setups, class and downright discrimination prevents women from realizing their true potential. The gender gap in Pakistan is one of the highest in the world. Further, there is a noticeable gender gap in the unemployment rate. It is 5 per cent of male workers and 9 per cent for female. In the urban areas, the female unemployment rate rises to 20 per cent while that of males is 6 per cent. As women suffer from this market discrimination, many are pushed to taking up low‐paid and low‐status jobs, with the majority of women being employed in the unorganized sectors. In the organized services sector, which is mostly government services, provides employment only to a small proportion of women. (Iftikhar Ahmad, "No country for working women," Dawn, 10 March 2018) 

Discrimination of pay and unreliable maternity policies 
Another issue is the discrimination of pay, while bullying, harassment and abusing are loud acts, lower wages is a silent offence, where no one makes any complaint, and the problem continues. Often women are paid less because the employer is of the perception that women will quit the job after marriage or after having children. 

Although Article 37 (e) of the Constitution of Pakistan directs the state to ensure "maternity benefits for women in employment" many organizations escape with violating rules surrounding maternity leave. Further, according to The West Pakistan Maternity Benefit Ordinance, 1958, women working at an establishment for four months or above are entitled to 12 weeks paid maternity leave. Under Pakistani law, the company is liable for providing paid leave for six weeks before and six weeks after the delivery. However, due to the limited checks and balances, implementation of these policies remains irregular; thus these maternity policies are looked at being unreliable. Additionally, several mothers have had to "prove their worth" to employers during a pregnancy. (Atika Rehman, Fahad Naveed, Munnazzah Raza, "Pregnant and fired: a Pakistani woman's workplace dilemma," Dawn, 22 December 2017)

Women in Pakistan may have managed to break the glass ceiling, but the problems remain the same, as one could see in the rest of South Asia. Working women in Pakistan have always experienced disadvantage with social, cultural and religious factors have reduced the number of women entering the job market. Although much has changed in the last decade, women continue to reach greater heights only to face the same problems that once restricted them. 


About the author

Abigail Miriam Fernandez is a Research Assistant at NIAS.

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