How to Play the Aurat Card

Have you, as a woman, ever been accused of playing the Aurat Card (the gender card, the woman card) when arguing with your fellow Neanderthals about the issue of women’s rights/empowerment in Pakistan? Well now, you can actually play the Aurat Card, literally, thanks to the team at The CosmosocialPK.

The CosmoSocial is a digital magazine that was founded over a year ago by a group of young Pakistani women. Their aim is to “generate honest dialogue around equality, diversity, destigmatization and empowerment of marginalized communities in society, supplemented with a dash of entertainment.” You can find them on the Web here and on Instagram too.

They’ve produced a beautiful set of playing cards featuring 52 incredible Pakistani women, each illustrated beautifully by 17 year old trainee graphic designer Hiba Asad.

Each card has a little story about the woman’s “unique journey”, so the pack isn’t just entertaining but educational too. It’s meant as an ode to the women of the country who have “smashed the glass ceiling in every sense of the way.”

I ordered several packs to give to friends, but of course I’m keeping one for myself. I’m so heartened to see people that I know personally, and others by reputation, represented in the cards. From all backgrounds, ethniticies, fields, famous women and some whose work isn’t well known outside their field (but should be), the pack makes a great present for a girl or teenager who needs to see what Pakistani women can accomplish.

It’s an imaginative way to celebrate the women of Pakistan, and one that’s sure to give the misogynists in our society many hours of heartburn. Will we see a similar pack of “Mard Cards” coming our way soon?

Each pack is priced at Rs. 900 and can be ordered from the Cosmosocial’s Instagram page or by writing to hello at thecosmosocial dot com. Disclaimer: I received one set free as a gift from the Cosmosocial team, but not in return for this blog post.

Are transwomen real women?

The remarks of Nigerian writer Chimimanda Ngozi Adiche have created some controversy this week, as she appeared to state that trans women (where someone born biologically male identifies with a female gender identity and lives life as a woman), on account of biology, cannot be considered “women.”

“When people talk about, ‘are trans women women’ my feeling is that trans women are trans women,” Adichie shared with Channel 4. “If you’ve lived in the world as a man with the privileges that the world accords to men, and then sort of changed, switched gender, it’s difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman who has lived from the beginning in the world as a woman, and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are.”

Feminists who take this side in the debate are sometimes known as TERF – trans exclusionary radical feminist. They believe that transgender women should not be considered the same as biologically born, or cisgender, women. Some merely state this as a position while others speak out against or actively work against the inclusion of transwomen in women- or female-centric activities, health services, communities, etc. The most famous example of this is Germaine Greer, who said that trans women can’t be “real” women and that they are “ghastly parodies” with “too much eyeshadow.”

My perspective on transgender people, and transgender women, has been shaped by my life and experience in Pakistan. The situation for trans folk in Pakistan is very well summed up by Mahwish Akhtar’s excellent report for CityNews Pakistan here. Everything she writes about is true, from the attitudes towards trans women as freaks and objects of ridicule, to the difficulties of finding education and employments, to the government’s allowing trans people to identify as “third gender” officially — which hasn’t translated to changes in attitude or anything concrete in their lives.

I urge you to take a minute to read her report, as it explains everything very clearly. Transgender people in Pakistan today are marginalized and often brutalized. They are one of the most vulnerable populations in Pakistan today, perhaps even more so than women born biologically female. Their numbers are very small; only perhaps 2% of the population. Transgender people have always been a part of Pakistani culture, but we have yet to actually respect them as valuable members of our society.

The good thing is that thanks to intersectional feminism, transgender people in Pakistan are starting to find their voice, and to organize, and advocate for their rights. Thanks to global links with trans organizations and advocates all over the world, they are beginning to gain courage and believe that they deserve more than they get in this country. Respect and safety – not too much to ask for, is it? And education and employment, so they don’t have to spend their lives dancing and clapping on the street?

The recent killing of two Pakistani transgender women in Saudi Arabia upset me a great deal, especially the manner of their death – violently, in police custody, alone and terrified. There will be no inquiry, no diplomat summoned to the Foreign Office and asked to explain why two Pakistani citizens were killed on foreign soil.

The question of whether transwomen are “real” women is also a disturbing one. It’s one that offends me, actually. It’s the same thing when someone asks you if you’re a “real” American just because you’re an immigrant. Certainly you didn’t grow up American, your experiences are different and not comparable to a born American, but does that make your passion or your love for the country any less? Did you dream of being an American all your life and go through tremendous sacrifices to get there? Doesn’t that count for anything? Should foreign-born Americans be excluded from all the rights and opportunities of those born on American soil?

Perhaps it isn’t a valid allegory, but it’s how I feel about trans women. Of course they weren’t born with a vagina or uterus, don’t have their periods, didn’t experience life as biologically born women. But their commitment to the idea of being a woman is sky-high. They’re willing to risk their lives for it. A biologically born woman is subjected to violence against women by default. Trans women undergo it because they can’t live their lives out of alignment with how they feel inside themselves.

If we as feminists don’t believe that possessing a penis should give you automatic privilege and status over women, then should we believe that possessing a vagina and ovaries and breasts gives us privilege and status over transgender women?

Is transgenderism a genetic issue, or a psychological one? Nature or nurture? Is it about sexual organs and hormones, or is it about soul and heart? There are certain biological facts that are inescapable: to deny them is foolish. But when transwomen transition from male to female, they are undergoing a spiritual as much as a physical transformation: we need to recognize that and respect it. To split hairs about their bodies seems unnecessarily cruel to me. And I come from a country where we’re downright cruel to transgender women.

I can’t do that to other women. It’s not part of my feminism.

The Purdah in Our Minds

This is the edited text of a keynote speech I gave last night at the inaugural seminar organized by Circle2020 and the Alliance Francaise de Karachi.

Circle2020 is an organization whose mission is to develop, support, build the #entrepreneurial & #leadership capacity of #women & #youth in Pakistan to bring about #socialchange.

With the Alliance Francaise, Circle2020 is holding a series of seminars, panels, and round-tables on this subject. Last night’s event, “Where are the Women,” kicked off the series. We had amazing panelists: Ziad Bashir of Gul Ahmed, Dr. Aneela Darbar, Pakistan’s only female US-trained neurosurgeon, Dr. Severine Minot of Habib University, famed journalist Mubasher Zaidi, Sadaffe Abid, the founder of Circle2020, moderated, while I gave the keynote speech.

To find out more about all of Circle2020’s activities, which include promoting women experts for media panels, conferences, seminars, and getting Pakistani companies to pledge to have more women on their panels, conferences, and boards, go to

Hope to see you at the next session, which will be on March 8th to commemorate International Women’s Day!

The Purdah in our Minds

Thanks for coming to our event this evening. This is the first in a series of seminars, lectures and activities by CIRCLE and the Alliance Francaise dedicated to women’s visibility in the workforce and other areas of public life. As the President of the Alliance Francaise, I want to welcome you all to this event, which is very much in line with our principles of the equality of women and men.  As a woman and a feminist, I’m very glad to see Sadaffe Abid taking this issue on because it affects not just women in Pakistan, but women all over the world. This is a problem we need to talk about because it’s hampering our growth as a nation. The first step towards tackling any problem is making people aware there is a problem, and that’s what we’re here to do tonight.

I want to talk about something not related to business or the economy as a way of making you understand what the problem is.  You must have heard of the cultural practice of “purdah.” In South Asia’s Muslim communities, this is the system of female seclusion from the rest of society. The practice of purdah actually originated with the ancient Persians and was adopted by Muslims during the Arab conquest of Iraq in the 7th century. In turn, the Muslim domination of northern India led to this practice being adopted by high-class Hindus as well.

So what exactly is purdah in the physical realm? The word “purdah” means curtain. It is defined as “the seclusion of women from public observation by means of concealing clothing (including the veil) and by the use of high-walled enclosures, screens, and curtains within the home.” The practice has strong religious overtones: there is a verse in the Quran that whenever men were to speak to the wives of the Prophet, peace be upon him, they must do so from behind a curtain. Thereafter, this was seen as the most honorable way to live for all pious Muslim women. It is still practiced by some landowning families and now we see its resurgence in urban middle-class families as well, in Pakistan today.

Being Sindhi Sayed, I grew up in a family where the women of my father’s family observed the purdah system. What does this mean? The women were meant to stay in the home. They were not allowed to go to school. They traveled in a car with curtains on it. They had to be heavily veiled with a chador and would not travel in a car with any man other than their family members. If they walked in the streets of the village, the men would turn their backs to the women and not look at them. There was a front house, the autaq, where the men would go, conduct their business and receive visitors. In the evening they would come back to the house where the women lived, the haveli. The women’s world was so small, so narrow, all they could do was busy themselves with the lives of their children and husbands and the problems of the household.

When we lived in our house in Hyderabad, I had always been able to play freely, roaming around between the inside house and the outside house, which were separated by a wall and a door. Even at a very young age, I knew there was something very wrong with this system, most probably because my mother came from an urban family that did not practice purdah. I was aware of the fact that the women were being denied opportunities that they should have had – to move around freely in the world, as freely as a man.

Then, when I approached adolescence, I was told one day that I was not allowed to go through that door that separated the inside house from the outside one. I couldn’t understand why. “Because you are a girl, and you’re growing up” was the only explanation I was given. I watched as my younger sister and cousins, still prepubescent, romped and played and went in and out of the door freely. I couldn’t understand why I was not allowed anymore. My body felt heavy as a ton of bricks when before I had been light and free. It wasn’t just a physical restriction, it was a mental restriction. And it truly hurt. The only saving grace was that this wasn’t my everyday life. When I came back to Karachi, I was relatively freer. When I went to America, I was completely free.

Things are changing these days; even in my family, the girls today aren’t observing purdah as strictly as their mothers and grandmothers, but it still exists.

In my opinion, the purdah system and that door in the wall symbolizes all the lost opportunities that women are denied in our society because of our mental attitudes, which influence our rigidly-held beliefs abou gender roles. Not all of us practice the purdah system. We think of ourselves, especially in this setting, with all of our education and open attitudes, as far advanced from its inequality and absolute unfairness. Yet we carry the purdah system in our hearts and minds and we take them into our worlds – school, university, the workplace. There is a belief in the back of our minds, originating in this idea that women’s rightful place is in the home with the family.

Our social and cultural taboos and norms that impede women’s active participation in national economic activity are the biggest factors that prevent Pakistani women from reaching their full potential. They stop us from going to school so that we can learn. They stop us from being educated enough to know our rights. They stop us from being given jobs that we are fully qualified for, or for being paid the same amount for those jobs as our male counterparts. They stop us from reaching the upper echelons of business and of power, and they guarantee that we will always be unequal in theory and in practice.

What other explanation can there be for the disgraceful inequalities that women face still in the Pakistani workplace, in schools and universities? Why else are women turned away from jobs, or discouraged from working in the first place? Why else are 80% of medical students women, yet only 30% of graduates go on to practice medicine afterwards? Why do our television dramas portray working women as immoral and deplorable, while women who stay at home are angels? We are still sustaining the purdah system through our attitudes, which translate into reality for Pakistan’s 90 million women. They affect each and every one of us, no matter how educated or liberated individual women may be.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are four major categories of employment: employers, self-employed individuals, and unpaid family helpers and employees. In 2013 there were only 12 million women in the Pakistani workforce. You can guess where the majority of Pakistan’s women work – as unpaid family helpers and employees, as farmworkers, where their husbands negotiate their wages.

What we see in Karachi: women administrators, businesswomen, entrepreneurs, gives us the illusion of women’s visibility, numbers, strength and leadership. Most of these women are backed by companies or organizations that are largely run and owned by men. The truth is that women in the Pakistani workforce are largely invisible. 78% of KSE 100 companies do not have a single woman on their board. In business conferences held in Pakistan in 2016, only 14% of the speakers were women. Only 22.8% of all national parliamentarians were women as of June 2016. 20% of the world’s landowners are women, but in Pakistan we don’t even have the numbers for how many women own land. 

But we know that if we can increase the visibility of women in public arenas, and if we can increase women’s representation at the very top, things will change for all of Pakistan’s women. The invisibility of women from arenas including conferences, streets, C-Suite, boards, politics, newspapers needs to change. There is an immediate and urgent need for role models for young women. Diversity of gender is so good for business, so we need male allies to help institute systemic change. But first, we need to remove the purdah from our minds before we can make any of this a reality. 

Broken Promises: The Punjab Women’s Protection Act

It’s a shame, but not much of a surprise, that eight months after the passage of the Punjab government’s Protection of Women Act, it has not yet been implemented. Unfortunately this is illustrative of the fact that when it comes to women’s empowerment, the government talks a good talk, but tangible and measurable follow through is hard to find.

The Act was to base its foundations in a system of Violence Against Women Centers, or VAWCs for short. The VAWCs were envisioned as a one-stop shop where women who suffered domestic violence, rape, or any other kind of assault could come and be treated like humans and survivors instead of animals and criminals. Women could find shelter close to their homes rather than having to go to a bigger city, as VAWCs would be set up in every district in Punjab.

Poor women victims of violence do not have the funds or the freedom to run here and there to get their complaints redressed, their medical and psychological needs attended to, and the legal process streamlined and made easy for them. The VAWCs would provide medical services and on the spot first aid for victims. They could file FIRs and medico-legal statements at an on-site police desk. They could obtain hard-to-find legal and psychological counseling services. A toll-free number provided for complaints and investigation services were also planned to be housed under the VAWC’s roof.

Yet the Bill, passed in February, is still to be “notified” for implementation, whatever that means in the strange language of Pakistan’s bureaucrats and government offices.  Foreign diplomats and the heads of international aid agencies were invited to the groundbreaking ceremony of the first Violence Against Women Center, but today, based on Imran Gabol’s report, we find that the inaugural VAWC, for which Rs. 40 billion were allocated, has yet to be completed, with a projected completion date of December 2016 at the earliest.

Last November, I was in the Hague for a global conference on Women’s Shelters, and I was fortunate enough to interview the renowned lawyer and women’s rights activist Hina Jilani (Asma Jehangir’s sister). We spoke about the VAWC, and she told me she hadn’t even been invited to its inauguration, despite her decades of work in establishing women’s shelters and advocating for the survivors of domestic violence.

She didn’t express much optimism in the government’s ability to actually implement and successfully run a program of this scale. Her doubts seem to have been borne out today, in light of Resident Director of the Aurat (Women) Foundation Mumtaz Mughal’s observations that the Bill can’t truly be implemented until and unless the first VAWC is actually completed. Furthermore, she said the government didn’t have enough funds to establish such costly centers in every district, and that the currently existing Darul Aman shelters were being “upgraded” to fulfill the government’s promise.

This is the problem in Pakistan when it comes to the “uplift” of women. The government promises a lot, but delivers nearly nothing. Even the laws that have been passed for women’s protection come with catches, loopholes, and frankly a lack of willpower to make them strong and active. And the idea of a Protection For Women’s act still remains nascent in the face of the overwhelming belief in Pakistani society that women can and should be beaten and abused in order to keep them in line, in order to maintain a man’s authority, and more than often enough, just because a man feels like it.

This is why in Pakistan we need much independent research on the actual effectiveness of these bills, these acts, these organizations. We cannot trust that the government is doing anything more than floating big ideas that it has no true intention of making reality.

This holds true even in the case of BISP, the Benazir Income Support Program, run by the very capable and hardworking Marvi Memon (a personal childhood friend of mine), which is by all accounts proving successful in giving income support to the poorest women of Pakistan. BISP’s transparency and credibility will be strengthened if there is independent research and assessment conducted by a variety of groups: gender researchers, economic thinktanks, donor agencies, and independent journalists.

For every promise, there needs to be accountability, otherwise we can relegate the Punjab Women’s Protection Act to that stuck drawer where all the other protections promised to Pakistan’s women lie and gather dust.

Pakistani women and national defense

The way nations wage war, make peace and protect their borders has changed immeasurably over the last fifty years, and Pakistan, at the forefront of today’s conflict zones, cannot remain immune to these changes. One of the fundamental transitions in this respect is the growing recognition by global security experts of the ways that war and conflict affect men and women, civilians and soldiers. Because of this reality, neither can war be conducted nor peace achieved without the active participation and inclusion of both women and men in all aspects of safety, security, and peacekeeping. This change presents an exciting opportunity for Pakistan’s women to participate more fully in Pakistan’s national defense system, to the benefit of the nation only.

Historically, women have been part of Pakistan’s military since 1947. At first they were only allowed to serve in the medical branch; even today the majority of Pakistan’s 4000 women officers serve either in the Army Medical Corps or the Armed Forces Nursing Services. Within these limits, there was no restriction for how high women could go; Pakistan is the only Muslim or developing nation to have had two women generals, both serving in the Army Medical Corps. In this way Pakistan has led the system for both developing countries and Muslim nations in the inclusion of women in the armed forces.

Gradually women began to serve in different non-combatant branches of the military: the Education Corps, ISPR, Signals, Engineering, and IT departments are currently the most popular avenues to military career for women. Combat roles for women is a bit controversial issue, because of social conservatism and strong opinion beliefs that women should not be on the front lines of war. While a select few have been trained as pilots in Pakistan Air Force and as paratroopers, and while Pakistani women serve in the police and in the UN peacekeeping forces, it’s unlikely that Pakistan Army will induct women in any significant numbers to fight alongside men on the conventional battlefield.

In Pakistan, the military and national defense arenas have always been dominated by men making all important decisions in strategy, logistics, peace talks, treaty negotiations, and peace-keeping efforts. However, in the year 2000, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1325, which recognized “the inordinate impact of war on women” and “the pivotal role women should and do play in conflict management, conflict resolution, and sustainable peace.” And while this resolution applies to UN peace and security efforts, Pakistan, as a member of the United Nations, by incorporating and implementing its clauses in national security policy mechanism, it in its own national defense strategy so can become a role model for Muslim nations and developing countries in the forward march towards women’s empowerment.

The UNSC Resolution 1325 reaffirms “the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts and in peace-building, and stressing the importance of their equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security, and the need to increase their role in decision-making with regard to conflict prevention and resolution.” This resolution recognizes the fact that war has changed in profound ways: it has been increasingly targeting civilians, with an upsurge in gender-based violence such as rape and sexual assault, as seen in the Syrian war or the Kashmir conflict. It also recognizes that women have been significantly left out of any peace processes, such as in the current peace negotiations taking place in Afghanistan.
The four pillars of UNSC Resolution 1325 are:

• Increased participation of women at all levels of decision-making.
• The protection of women and girls from sexual and gender-based violence.
• Improving intervention strategies in the prevention of violence against women.
• Advancement of relief and recovery measures to address international crises through a gendered lens.

Pakistan’s women have much to offer in terms of talent, skills and capability in the all-important role of defending the country against attacks or security threats. Yet as the UN resolution illustrates, Pakistani women can help build strong institutions to maintain peace and security by offering their perspectives on the analysis of conflict, as well as their strategies on “creating ties across opposing factions and increasing the inclusiveness, transparency, and sustainability of peace processes.”

The increased participation of women at all levels of decision-making is most necessary in the case of Afghanistan’s peace-making process. Pakistan must play a guiding role in encouraging the participation of women in this process, as a successful peace treaty will not last without the inclusion of women in the negotiations. In Pakistan, treaties negotiated amongst and with warring factions have never included women negotiators, and at places women have been excluded from election process which weakens the democratic institutions of the country.

Women’s peace representatives should also be made part of any conflict resolution processes in Pakistan, such as in traditionally male-dominated jirgas. This is the only way to achieve equitable solutions to conflicts that are fair to both men and women in communities affected by war, terror, and insurrection.

Involving women and women’s networks in conflict resolution, in peace settlements, and in voting will result in increased security for women, not just in refugee population and camps in Pakistan, but also in communities and areas where lack of education and opportunity lead to instability and loss of security. The only way to create a comprehensive and empowering role for the most disenfranchised women of Pakistan is to emphasize their role as leaders, not victims, by including them in all aspects of decision-making, including national, international and regional institutions, in mediation and conflict resolution, in peace-keeping forces like the police and the Rangers.

The protection of women against gender-based violence in conflict must be one of the cornerstones of Pakistan’s national defence policy. Usually the women are perceived as “second-class” citizens, the gender-based violence is counted as a “second class” crime. The prevention of gender-based crimes should be top priority of the state, with Pakistani women involved in the creation of intervention strategies specifically designed to protect female cader. Women must also be involved in the prosecution of those who violate national and international laws and commit gender violence. Women should be given a lead role in strengthening laws for the protection of women, because they are best-placed to advocate for what women need from Pakistan’s legal system. A simple example is the tribal practice of using women as compensation for crimes; it is only when women are part of legal reform that these “solutions” – which are in fact gender-based crimes – are eliminated by gender-sensitive laws, and those laws are enforced by a gender-sensitive security and legal system. This is the way forward to a more just and equitable society, preventing destabilization and insecurity in vulnerable communities.

Addressing relief and recovery measures during times of crisis through a “gendered lens” means, very simply, including women and their perspectives in all aspects of humanitarian relief, refugee camp design and administration, and building mechanisms that respect the civil and humanitarian nature of refugee camps, refugee resettlement programmes and the special needs of girls and women in these camps. Refugee camps are places where women are extremely vulnerable to gender-based violence. Humanitarian disasters also increase women’s likelihood of experiencing sexual violence as traditional structures of security are devastated in the aftermath of earthquakes or floods. Any military or national defence response to these situations has to give special focus and measures for women’s protection in vulnerable places and situations.

There is also a need to formulate a national action plan on women, peace and security as outlined by four pillars of UNSC Resolution 1325. This plan can outline mechanisms for the inclusion of women in all areas of peacekeeping and security strategy. Existing guidelines and plans such as the ones that already exist in countries like the United States and the United Kingdom can be adapted to the Pakistani environment, and its unique needs and challenges.

In order for national defence to benefit from women’s perspectives, women need to be appointed in greater numbers in departments and organizations that oversee all aspects of security policy for Pakistan. This includes the Prime Minister’s office; those ministries and governmental departments that deal with security, such as the Interior Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, the Law Ministry; the Police and Rangers; any committees that deal with defence and the defence budget; all intelligence and secret services bureaus; the National Atomic Energy Commission; and any parliamentary committees that deal with any aspect of defence, security, foreign affairs, and the armed forces.

This list of organizations, departments and committees has always been assumed as the natural domain of men. The idea of including women in these corridors may seem a radical departure from conventional governance, but in line with the increasing visibility and participation of women in all walks of life, the inclusion of women in these arenas will result in a more comprehensive approach towards the national security of all citizens of Pakistan.

National defense is not just about building up military strength or possessing sophisticated equipment in order to vanquish a common enemy; the true defense of a nation means shoring it up against vulnerability. A nation cannot achieve its defense objectives without involving its female population in this process and making their needs a priority in all national defense strategies. This is a long-term investment in the future of Pakistan, for studies show that when women are empowered, nations enjoy higher rates of safety and security. Indeed, in our rapidly changing world, involving women in all aspects of Pakistan’s defense will have to be an indispensable part of protecting the country for generations to come.

First published in Hilal Magazine