Pakistan: No Country for Women?

This morning I woke up to the news that Pakistan ranks among the worst performers on gender equality.  This is not news to me; we’ve been consistently ranking at the bottom of these and similar scales for a while now. But for the first time the WEF noted that we’re actually going backwards in several areas.

This report looked at “disparities between the genders in 149 countries across four areas: education, health, economic opportunity and political empowerment.” It noted that the proportion of women in the workplace is stagnating and that women’s representation in politics is actually on the decline. (Here’s my op-ed on women’s visibility in this government).

We’re actually doing worse in gender equality than all the other South Asian countries, and our companions in the bottom ranking are Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Egypt. I felt depressed when I read this; we’re doing even worse than Afghanistan. I didn’t expect gender equality to get better very quickly, but I certainly didn’t expect it to actually get worse in my lifetime.

Someone tweeted in response that men’s “ghairat” (honor) is what holds women back in Pakistan. I don’t really think this is the case. What holds women back in our country is our concept of manhood and masculinity in Pakistan; in this country, men feel that the most vital part of being a man is that women are submissive and inferior to them.

I have heard time and again – from men – that if they don’t beat their wives, and keep them submissive, they are mocked by others, including women, for not being “man enough.”

“You can’t control your wife, what kind of man are you?”

By hitting at this particular insecurity – questioning a man’s “manhood” – we make sure that as a society, the physical, emotional and sexual control of women is linked to masculinity. We make sure that boys grow up to learn that they can’t be men unless they intimidate, restrict, and hurt women.

Just as we define our Pakistaniyat by being “not-Indian”, we define our masculinity as being “not a woman.” This is why our politicians taunt each other by offering to send them bangles, tell them to wear women’s clothes and dupattas, and calling politicians “effeminate” and question their sexuality. There could be nothing more insulting in our books. We actually make it an insult to be a woman, a fate worse than death.

We can talk about feminism or gender equality until we’re blue in the face, but until Pakistani men question what it means to be a man, and de-link manhood with violence against women and girls, sexual and otherwise, nothing will change vis-a-vis gender equality in our country. We’re a far cry from addressing all the issues – but it’s the mindset that needs to change first.

We need to teach men what being a man really means. Until then this will be no country for women.