Women in South Asia
Following is the address delivered by the High Commissioner of Pakistan Seema Ilahi Baloch at the South Asia Women in Media Forum:
The women of South Asia must be proud, because our land can boast of some of the greatest women leaders of our times.
Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto, Husina Wajid, Khleda Zia – the most able and dynamic women leaders on the globe were from our soil. But, the women of South Asia experience some of the gravest injustices done to women. And while we have the greatest women leaders, we remain unequal in our societies.
Begin at home
In our land of many contradictions, a land of many opportunities and many challenges, it gives me great pleasure to share with you some thoughts on women in South Asia. And I will begin at home – my home.
Both my grandmothers received only elementary education enabling them to read and write in Urdu and to read the Quran in Arabic. They lived in a world with many children and their household was their entire world.
My maternal grandmother had a passion for education and fulfilled her dream by ensuring that her six daughters graduated. Today, women in our family are doctors, lawyers, consultants, businesswomen and diplomats. I am sure you have similar experiences in your families.
And when I look around today at you at my other women colleagues at my friends, it fills me with great joy that in the last 50-70 years, the women of South Asia have taken great strides forward.
But we are the privileged few. The few who were born into the right household, households with resources. We were fortunate to be born in families who were willing to impart education to girls willing to empower their girls. Some of us have struggled more than others to be here today. And all of us should be rightly proud of what we have achieved.
I say this because when you look beyond at women in South Asia, there still is a long way to go, to empower them to be even as unequal as we are.
The most pronounced gender disparities exist in our region. For decades women, in South Asia have lagged behind men, either treated as commodities or second-class citizens. Patriarchal social values are deeply rooted.
These values continue to define gender relations within households and across society, resulting in the disempowerment of women in many areas of their lives. Women representation in the economic and political spheres remains very low. Violence against women and trafficking in women are of deep concern. Inadequate access to economic opportunities, to education, to the political domain push them into a vicious cycle of subjugation and deprivation.
When Amartya Sen, the noble prize winning development economist spoke about gender disparities in South Asia, he recounted an experience he had in Cambridge. The river had iced over. A friend asked him to walk across. He refused. His friend did attempt to cross over and fell in. He was rescued because in some places in that sheet of ice there were holes. His friend was pulled out of that hole.
Amartya Sen uses this as a metaphor for gender disparities in South Asia. Like the sheet of ice, gender disparities are widespread and pervasive. There are, however, some openings. Some women can and do use them to rise up through them but the majority are under the sheet of icy discrimination.
On the one hand traditions, patriarchal societies and interpretation of religious beliefs dis-empower women socially, economically and politically. A girl grows up knowing she is a second-class citizen in her own home and in her own country. Parents’ preference is for boys, the bread earners who will also bring a dowry in marriage.
On the other hand, girls and women are not provided equal opportunities in access to education, access to employment, access to credit and access to the political domains. More importantly, there is inadequate national legislation to protect the rights of women. Politics is considered a male domain. Politics is considered dirty. Politics is considered the domain of political families and dynastic control is considered normal.
Yet there are women who have emerged through these holes in the ice. All around me in Sri Lanka I see women entrepreneurs who have shined – Odel and Barefoot are known as tourist favourites. They belong to women.
Lever Brothers in Pakistan is headed by a woman, Pepsi’s head worldwide is an Indian woman. We have nine women Ambassadors in Colombo including from the countries China and the USA. This is no mean achievement for women at the beginning of the 21st century.
Martin Luther King knew and advocated that “social reform does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability”. There must be a conscious effort by the individuals and a sum of individuals to change their status in life, to push through the glass ceiling, to create new holes in that layer of ice, to pull women out of the icy waters and give them a life of their own.
We need to create more spaces and expand existing ones for women to be individuals in their own right, to be empowered socially, economically, politically. We need new breakthroughs everyday in every field.
How can we create these breakthroughs? In my view there are two areas which can be pivotal in creating these breakthroughs, in creating an environment which eventually empowers women, which equips them to fight and to overcome the social and economic injustices and inequalities:
Politics and media
Pakistan makes an excellent case study. The Speaker of our National Assembly is a woman, as is our Foreign Minister. The President of our Supreme Court Bar Council is a woman and we have a strong presence of women in media as political analysts and TV anchors.
How have these women excelled despite the odds? They have excelled because each one of them has made a conscious effort to make a place for themselves. Undoubtedly, these women have worked hard to be where they are but political will has been equally critical for carving out spaces, for them.
Women politicians can be instrumental in introducing legislation for women to protect them, within societies, within families from violence, from trafficking from economic and social exploitation. Women legislators can be instrumental in helping women to enter new areas of employment.
In Pakistan, the system of the reserved seats for women in legislative assemblies has existed in one form or the other since its creation. Of the 342 seats in the National Assembly, women have 22 % of those seats (as compared to 5.8% in Sri Lanka). In the upper house or Senate, women make up 17% of the parliamentary seats.
In local government presently 33% seats are reserved for women and a total of 36,191 women have been elected to local councils. Pakistan has a higher representation of women in its parliament compared to the UK, the USA, India and many other countries.
The presence of women in the national legislative bodies has resulted in the passage of important bills for women: The Women Protection Bill 2006 and Protection Against harassment of women at workplace Bill 2009 – January 2010.
This combination of institutional reform enabling legislation and a conscious effort of the individual can and does have positive results.
Let me share with you some of my own experience: Women were not allowed in the Foreign Service of Pakistan till 1973. Administrative reforms by the then Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto created the space for women. Now Pakistan has 13 women Ambassadors present in all continents of the world.
We learnt the hard way, we had no role models to follow. But we learnt to make a place for ourselves, sometimes by being firm and assertive and sometimes by being flexible. We were new in an entirely male domain and we were being watched. That was 1977. But even today every day poses a new challenge, and every challenge requires a different response.
The choice is, should we cede to what is expected of a woman in our “cultural norms,” or should we push the boundary or should we break the boundary? Recently Iftars for Muslim community were held in Colombo. At a number of these events separate tables were laid for women in the dining area – mostly in a remote and almost hidden corner of the room.
Since I am the only woman Ambassador from a Muslim country, there was an attempt to lead me to those tables. Out of politeness and respect I am sure. Quietly but firmly, I would head to the table with my other Ambassador colleagues. Soon the message became clear. I must be treated like other Ambassadors – no more, no less.
Role of the media
In addition to political reforms, and personal determination, the role of the media is equally critical as it influences perceptions of women.
When I look at newspapers in our countries, I ask, where are the women? I find them mostly in advertisements or in the social pages. The professional women, the business women, the rural women are almost invisible. The media unfortunately plays a negative role by projecting stereotype roles for women.
Contemporary advertisements continue to show women either in traditional roles of the devoted wife and mother, the subservient daughter or daughter in law or a showpiece, an icon of glamour. Whether it is an advertisement for a pain killer or a car, a woman’s presence in the sequence is considered essential for the product to “sell”. This depiction as a commercial commodity is degrading.
Indecent posters and hoardings displayed everywhere are crude reminders of distorted images and attitudes towards women. And the media influences the perception of its readers and its viewers. It perpetuates inequalities into the home. It reinforces biases in development plans. It ignores the economic contribution and participation of women especially the rural women.
A woman who is raped makes sensational news, but is there any follow-up in the media to ensure that she gets justice? The media needs to fight for the just cause of women.
The media needs to highlight the positives. Let us not stereotype ourselves because every time we do that we get caught in this vicious cycle of disempowerment. Let us focus on what women have achieved, big or small. We need to inspire other women; we need to motivate other women. We need to set examples and create spaces for our daughters and our new generations.
When will we the women of South Asia truly be more equal? I am sure that is a question on your minds. It surely is on mine. And my honest answer is I do not know.
I do know that it will happen. I do know it will happen when women will push the boundaries to enter into politics in their own right as individuals, when more girls are educated, when there are more economic opportunities open to women, when there is adequate legislation for women by women.
I am sure that it will happen and when it does, the women of South Asia will fare well because the women of South Asia, as they push their boundaries will also retain their value systems to uphold the family, to be the pillars on which their households stand firm, to be the ones who nurture and raise their families to be rooted in our soil and yet fly with the modern age.
It is a tough call, but a call that we are capable of fulfilling. To quote Paulo Coelho, “a warrior knows that war is made of many battles: he goes on”.
And so must we, the women of South Asia go on to be more equal. And we too need to go on through each battle with courage, with determination and with our eyes on our goals.
Above all, we the women of South Asia must not lose hope because from this land of many contradictions related to our gender, I am confident we will emerge stronger, wiser and more confident to become excellent role models for our future generations.
To the women I say – break through that sheet of ice.
To the men I say – help us to make more holes in that sheet of ice.