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24 Apr 2019 | Blog

Breaking the glass ceiling in Pakistan

Kanwal Waqar

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Women in the Hunza Valley planting sea buckthorn (Photo: Kanwal Waqar)

Some people argue that there are meaningful differences between women and men and that these are the source of gender inequality. Others believe that equality is the wrong word to use altogether in the discussion about gender, because women and men cannot possibly be equal if they are different. Gender equality means that everyone enjoys the same rights and opportunities. It is not about the two genders being identical or indistinguishable in behaviour, preferences, and abilities. Nor does it mean all gender differences must be eliminated, or equal gender representation be achieved in every field.

Gender equality also does not mean that everyone must always be treated the same. Biological differences mean that it is reasonable for women and men to have different legal rights in some instances. Hence, what is required is not equal treatment, but equitable treatment. Equity means recognizing that there are indeed differences in the ability of and institutional or historical obstacles faced by women and men and treating them differently so that they can achieve the same outcome.

I was fortunate to see equitable treatment bringing visible changes to the societal structures of a community in Pakistan. While visiting Gilgit-Baltistan, I met a few women from the Hunza Valley and was surprised to hear their discussion on climate change. They were aware of the changing climatic trends and very perceptive about what should be done at the community level. This group of women equally contributed to field work along with men while also actively engaging in business. Many have been receiving scholarships to study abroad, and they have been contributing to society and fulfilling their potential – with the full support of the men in their community. This push is a good example of equitable treatment: women’s strengths and needs were considered and they were allowed to grow into important members of the community.

Equitable interventions are very often necessary to achieve gender equality, which is the end goal, but there are also many exceptions. Samina Baig – the first Pakistani woman to summit Mount Everest, among other conquests including the Seven Summits – comes from the heart of the mountainous Gilgit-Baltistan region. She has powered her way through to stand shoulder to shoulder with her male peers, without any need for equitable treatment. Her courageous feats in high-altitude mountaineering have made her a household name in the country.

Samina Baig, the first Pakistani woman to summit Mount Everest (Photo: Pakistan Today)

The progress women have been making gladdens me, but it also makes me sharply aware of how my own community did not push me in the same way as the women from the Hunza community in Gilgit-Baltistan. I am also mindful of the long road ahead towards equality. People from my community in Dadyal Village, Azad Kashmir, hold very regressive views on women’s education and empowerment. Despite the huge flow of remittance from the United Kingdom, it is still a common perception that a woman’s role is limited to taking care of her family. It is almost as if financial security means women have no business pursuing aspirations beyond the household. For all my determination and despite my supportive family, I too have struggled to achieve my dreams in this environment. It is difficult for women to rise when the ceiling is set so oppressively low.

In recent years, there have been important advances towards gender equality in Pakistan. With the immense support of development practitioners, NGOs, and INGOs, Pakistani women have begun demonstrating their true potential, shaping the national discussion on empowerment and development. Women in Pakistan are more likely to participate in the labour force and decision making and have improved access to health and education services, as compared with their mothers and grandmothers. Women’s political representation has been improving in Pakistan, particularly in the South Asian context, with about a fifth of parliamentary seats held by women. But considerable progress is still required for Pakistani women to be able to fully access their rights to fulfil their life aspirations and become a force for change.

Equality and balance can only be achieved when the societal mindset changes, and both women and men must play an equal role in this change. A quote from Bushra Mirza, Chair of the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO) Women in Science, always inspires me because it flips the old saying: “Behind every successful woman is a man who supports her in achieving her dreams”.

 

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