And for women are rights over men similar to those of men over women.” (Quran, 2:228)
This quote sums up everything a woman can be if she is not chained to patriarchal norms. Women have struggled for the right to vote, empowerment, employment, education and more, for centuries.
Women’s Day as a commemoration dates back to 1909 when the first National Woman’s Day was observed in the United States on February 28. On March 19, 1911, International Women’s Day was observed for the first time in Germany, Austria, Denmark and Switzerland. In 1975 the United Nations declared March 8 as International Women’s Day, and since then it is being celebrated worldwide.
Pakistan also celebrates Women’s Day with great fervour. Today women in Pakistan can be seen in every sphere and excelling with great energy; however that does not mean they have not gone through a struggle to achieve something in life. Millions of women are still living a very hard life without knowing about or exercising their rights.
The Nation interviewed a number of women from different spheres of society to learn about the efforts women are making in their daily lives to survive in society.
Nida Usman Chaudhry, a lawyer and founder of Women in Law and LEARN, said, “As a female lawyer the struggle begins from the very first day when we enter law school. Even when we are making a point in class that itself is an issue because usually people don’t want to listen to or respect a woman’s point of view.
“After making dedicated efforts to attain a law degree, when she wants to start practicing as a lawyer, they are usually told to avoid litigations and going to court, In short to not be a trial lawyer. They are given the impression that they would be a liability in law firms if they are taken to court for cases so they should stay in offices and do the back end work.
“When a women finally enters this field they are given hints that they are not welcome. When women lawyers go to court for a hearing they are given the impression by their male colleagues that they should not be there and that they are taking a ‘piece of the pie’ away from the male lawyers,” she said.
Regarding accepting cases from clients Nida said, “It’s a big challenge as people generally avoid hiring female lawyers. In law firms if a woman steps forward to hear the case of a client they are not taken seriously, nor are they give full details of the case. In court the judges are still respectful and supportive but the lawyers usually call female lawyers with odd names like ‘Bibi’ instead of refering to them in a more professionally appropiate manner,” she said. About what Women’s Day means for her Nida said, “For me it’s an ode paid to women who struggled to get their rights and due to them many ladies are living a better life. No doubt women in Pakistan have come a long way which can be seen in almost all professions and there are many female role models, still women are trying to get their basic rights.”
Sadaf Naz is the founder of ‘Her Ground’ an online subscription based service providing feminine hygienic products at the doorstep of their customers. Speaking about the importance of women’s health care in her life and how important it is to accept that women are an integral part of the society, she said “I was in 9th grade when my menstrual cycle started. As I was not aware of it I thought I’ll be dead soon. When I told my mother (who is a teacher) she asked me to speak to my elder sister, who gave me a cloth to use. In a town like Okara females still use cloth and no one really cares about personal hygiene.”
Then Sadaf Nazmoved to Faisalabad for further studies and her life changed for the better. “After shifting to Faisalabad I came to know about sanitary napkins. A friend of mine was shocked that I was unaware of this ‘blessing’. I found them very comfortable to use. But later when I would go to buy these [sanitary napkins] the shopkeepers would make it a point to give remarks or stare at me or smile. Later when I moved to Lahore, I was confident enough to buy them but my friends at work place weren’t. I was surprised that salesmen in Lahore were no different, that gave me an idea that I should provide sanitary napkins to females at home and in school, because everyone is not as confident as I am so I wanted to make their lives easy.”
Sadaf explained that she was discouraged from starting this venture, “Initially I was told not to take up this venture but soon people realized that I am adamant and won’t back off. As a woman I feel our menstrual cycle should not be considered as something to be ashamed off. Due to this cycle our generations have grown. Unfortunately in Pakistan even today women are not aware of their personal hygiene and are struggling to buy sanitary napkins without being shammed.”
Michelle Chaudary, the founder of Cecil and Iris Chaudary Foundation explained that Women’s Day is a very important event for women as it recognizes the efforts women made to gain their basic rights. “I hope someday women’s day is celebrated for success of women rather than a reminder for their basic rights and struggles.”
Michelle said, “In my professional field I never really faced any trouble as I was very sincere with my work. But that doesn’t mean every woman is blessed. Women who are working in professional fields have to make double efforts, firstly they have to prove to men that they can do the job, secondly they are no less when compared to men. Another issue that ladies face when coming from a Christian or other communities people think that they can harass them. No doubt Muslim women face harassment in workplaces also but Christian women are taken for granted.” Michelle said that being a single parent she had a huge responsibility. “People think we have no value in the society and they can walk over us any time they like. As I am living along I have to be careful who even comes to my house, as people in the neighbourhood think it’s their responsibility to keep a check on activities going on in my house. This makes life extremely difficult for me and many women are like me. We can’t even breathe freely,” she said.
Survivor of sectarian violence
Dr Fatima Ali Haider is a survivor of sectarian violence. Her husband Dr Ali Haider and three- year-old son Murtaza were gunned down outside FC College in Lahore five years ago. This changed her life completely; after the incident she and her friend Dr Narmeen Altaf started a setup called ‘The Grief Directory.’ Dr Fatima said, “I was a very dedicated house wife and lived a very sheltered life, but the day my husband died I faced the harsh realities of life.”
She explained how people tried to control her and her children’s life after she became a widow. “As a widow everyone tried to take control of my life and my two children. Number of family members kept telling my elder son that I and his younger sister was their responsibility now. He was in his teenage years and I could not see him lose his innocence so early. I gathered myself and had a straight talk with him, and told him that I am the mother, will look after all your needs and you just focus on your studies. It took him a while to understand this.”
Our society does not let a widow live peacefully either; “I have to constantly live in a very careful manner. My religion, my dressing, going to the market or parties is always being judged. Being a mother of a daughter I have to see how she is dealing with things around her. The other day she was asked to write about her father, a father whom she had not even seen. How was she to write about him? Teachers should be considerate about such issues too, but as a mother I have to deal with such things.”
“Dr Narmeen has been a very big support in my life after Ali Haider’s death. She has brought me back to life and embraced my children as her own. This explains that if women unite and help each other, a lot of issues would end. Before I became a widow I never gave importance to this day [Women’s Day] but today I think this day holds great significance. Each woman should not only be aware of her rights but also be able to achieve them when needed.” Dr. Fatima said.
Pakistani Woman working abroad
It is not very common for unmarried women, from middle class families go abroad to work alone, and those who do have to put in a lot of efforts in convincing the family. Rida Iqbal is one such woman from Lahore who is currently working in Dubai. She belongs to a Pathan family but as she says, “As compared to other parts of Pakistan we Pathans living in cities are fairly liberal and don’t place too many restrictions on our girls.”
“My parents were never very conservative. Yes I had curfew times in college days and I think that was not very wrong too. But the day they gave me permission to work I was told by both parents, we trust you; you have to act as a responsible citizen of this society and daughter. Since that day I’ve achieved all that I want too.”
“When I got the offer to work in Dubai my parents did not hesitate a bit in saying yes. Even though I always wanted to be independent, which many people also dream of, on reaching Dubai I realized what independence really entails. I had to pay the bills, which is an accepted fact in Pakistan that it’s a man’s job,” said Rida.
Regarding her job she said, “The Company I was working with in Pakistan sent me to Dubai to set up their office here, so found myself working in pretty much a Pakistani environment, and I was faced almost the same issues that woman in Pakistan face. I was not even being paid a decent salary and had to struggle to ensure that I got paid enough to meet my expenses etc.
“It's time we run against the tide and be less judgmental towards our fellow ladies and gentlemen both. If we start including men in our conversations, in our struggles, tomorrow our daughters won't have to face the troubles we face today as it would have included the fathers, sons and brothers in our journey,” she said.
Women working in the field of media and journalism have to make a lot of efforts to survive in the profession. One such journalist is Annam Lodhi. Annam lived abroad for a long time and came to Pakistan to pursue her passion. “As such there was no pressure from home except for the fact that I have to stay moral. The family has always been very supportive and trusting.”
Annam spoke about her university days and how she was asked to behave like a girl, “During University life, I was told again and again I am a girl and I need to act like one and girls can only work in certain fields. I was scolded by my female teachers for being very loud and bold – not by the males. The female teachers would call me to their cabins and tell me how to dress appropriately, how to talk to men etc.”
Regarding her experience on the work place she said, “Work environment was a whole different story. I have been working in the media since 2012, I started off as a content writer in a magazine called Laaltain. The staff was kind and open minded so I did not have issues.
“Then I switched to a TV channel where I was subject to everyday misogyny, the boss would take all my ideas, the clerk would advise me that as I am a good woman I shouldn't stay in the office after midnight. Since I was a full-time student I was at the office from 4 pm till midnight or later. TV channels are male dominated and that was obvious; vulgar comments, unwanted advances were common and thought natural. Then I moved to a newspaper and life changed, I was welcomed and was happy.”
There are various pros and cons of being a woman Annam explains them by saying, “Yes, being a woman also has several advantages, I am respected more by people, from all walks of life. While there are some more advantages the downside is way more painful. From the watchmen to my driver every man on the street, apart from harassing me, also takes it to be his duty to protect me and inform me what “good girls from good homes” do. Even today, if I feel like having ice cream at midnight I think a zillion times and always drop the idea because I know I can’t leave my house,” Annam said.
Khadija Siddiqui, was stabbed 23 times in broad day in the heart of Lahore by her class fellow. She went to court to seek justice against all advice from various quarters. While she was got
some relief from the court it was not till she was ridiculed and put to shame for being friends with a male class fellow even in the court room.
“Our women are climbing mountains to driving taxis which is a great achievement. I feel men who believe in women empowerment should also come forward and be part of the Aurat March which would make the struggle gender inclusive, women are breaking stereotypes and shackles and are showing how we firmly stand up for truth and justice.
Speaking of her quest to seek justice from this system she said, “You have to snatch and run for justice in this country otherwise it is next to impossible. When a case is proven in trial beyond the shadow of doubt there should be little or no room given to the convict to appeal over and over, it is imperative that criminals receive complete punishment and in course more is also done for their rehabilitation.” She said that many loop holes in the system make it a huge battle to seek justice. “If by any chance a woman reaches the court to fight a case, the best weapon people have is to stigmatize her character, so her family would automatically or she herself back out. This is one of the saddest realities today.
Sehar Daad, a Digital Rights Activist took divorce after 17 months of marriage. She went through physical, mental and emotional abuse by her husband and in-laws, during the time she was married. She became pregnant however due to physical abuse she had a miscarriage; that was the time she decided to call it quits and move back to her parents’ home. “When I went back to my parents’ home, they were the only one who supported me. My elder sister was also a divorcee and a single mother while my mother was a cancer patient; I was under so much emotional and mental stress that I considered suicide. However, my brothers and sister-in-law advised me to not be foolish as this happens with everyone, and I should deal with it in a better manner,” said Sehar.
She had to face a lot of nasty comments from people around her too, “Few days after my divorce, my mother died and just after her forty days rituals, my father also passed away. Relatives would talk in undertones saying he died because of me, which was one of the most painful moments for me. Then the family started asking me to get married again. However I was not ready for that yet.”
Regarding Women’s Day Sehar said, “People and mostly women don’t understand the power of women’s unity. After our parents death my sister and I moved out of the house and started living independently. We had to face some hardships in the initial days but once we set up our work, things improved and today we both are running the house independently and looking after a child too. If women want they can conquer the world, but our women are told that they can’t exist without a man, this is not true. No one tells a man that they can’t exist without a woman.”
Hina, a school teacher speaks about her experience as a daughter feels that being a female in this society can be a curse.
Hina spoke about Women’s Day and said, “Being born as a female child sometimes seems to be a curse in our society even today. Many countries especially South Asian, are plagued by gender discrimination since ages. When you are a daughter, it is usually the father who supports us in every possible way. Had it not been due to my father, I wouldn't have been able to complete my education from a prestigious institution but would have attended a lower class education institute. My brothers were always given what they wanted, not that I received any less yet there was some discrimination. My father fulfilled my all wishes and does till now, and I am grateful to him. “However it is true that in our society, women are usually enemies of other women. Hence, my mother always sided with my brother. May be it is the story of every home. But I still feel her indifferent attitude even though I am twenty six years old,” she said.
Qurat ul Ain is a daughter who after completing her studies looks after her parents at home. Talking to the Nation she said “I believe that Women’s Day is of no use to the common women of Pakistan. This day comes and goes, but the problems of the women are here to stay. They don’t have any mechanism to lodge complains against all that they go through and if they do then they have to go through the hassle of protecting themselves from the wolves out there.”
She also said, “I’ve lived in a cocoon and had a very sheltered life. I have really had to struggle like some ladies, however I’ve had an emotional struggle. There was a time when all us three siblings had the same limits; those limits are no more there for my brothers but I still have to abide by them. Once I asked permission to do a job but it was refused which made me really angry, however later I realized my parents are right. Firstly it’s not safe outside and they can’t take the stress of waiting the whole day for me, secondly they need me at home to look after them. Thirdly those limits and rules are now instilled in my mind I have just accepted this life.”
While we talk of Women’s Day and Women’s Rights let us remember the words of the Prophet (PBUH) said during the Last Sermon on the 9th of Zil-Haj 10 AH (March 632 AD) “Observe your duty to Allah in respect to the women, and treat them well.”