It’s a man’s world
Sachal Abbassi talks about the revolutionised roles of Pakistani women over the passage of time
Gender may be more of a social construct rather than a biological one, yet it has dominated the organisation of human society and culture. It has only been in the past century that some women have been able to escape the torturous shackles of patriarchy imposed upon them. Yet, most of them still find their bodies, minds and souls subordinated to the will of men. Of course, women in different countries are more free and equal than others, but a world where women are treated the same as men still remains a dream.
In our country, gender equality suffers a double whammy from traditional customs which requires strict purdah for women and integration of repressive cultural practices such as dowry amongst others. All these have implications on the life of women, but equally important is their effect on employment for women, which consequentially empowers them and contributes to their welfare.
Pakistan derives much of its socio-cultural organisation from the historical post-Partition India, where the patriarchal structure prevailed. Although Afghan styled orthodox gender segregation was unheard of, purdah was still widely practised across most of South Asia, whereby, women were usually hidden from non-kin. Women usually did farming, much like men, but they were still relatively constrained in many ways. Post Partition, the same culture of gender segregation ensued in rural and most urban areas, but the women coming from elite backgrounds, although a minority, were far more educated, progressive and politically active. Most women during the first 20 years were employed in rural and informal sectors, as the prevailing socio-culture values and political-legal framework tended to prevent women from getting employment in the organised sector.
The Bhutto period of the 1970s witnessed an advancement of employment opportunities for women in the public sector. By reforming the civil service of Pakistan, Bhutto paved the way for women having the liberty to join governmental departments including foreign service and district management group. During the late ’70s, when General Zia established military dictatorship, the cause of employment for women suffered drastically.
Islamisation during the period and Hudood ordinance altered the legal, cultural and social landscape of the nation and legitimised a primitive patriarchal social organisation. By doing so, Zia began to enforce stigma attached to working women and made it difficult and riskier for women to leave their house. During the period, fewer women entered the workforce and employment which led to female labour participation rate and female employment to population both fall to historical lows.
Once Benazir Bhutto established her government, employment for women took a U-turn during the late 1980s and ’90s. The flourishing corporate sector led to a higher percentage of women entering manufacturing and services jobs, with fewer employed women in the agricultural sector, which usually involves exploitative bluecollar work. In the 2000s this trend was reversed, as higher birth rate led to greater number of women in the rural areas entering the agricultural workforce, while higher skilled female workers decreased in proportion to unskilled female workers. Even though we now have more female doctors and highly skilled educated women in the economy, they are numerically smaller in proportion to agricultural female employees.
These women face worse hardships in the country including low life expectancy, higher mortality rate, amongst others. Being in abundance, their services are priced low and instead of employment being empowering, they are more vulnerable to exploitative practises and usually tend not to exercise their rights. Economic development model of China, India and Brazil clearly indicates that the most sustainable way to economic development is through an all-inclusive skilled labour force, and it is therefore, imperative that women should be allowed and encouraged to receive an education and training for Pakistan to become the economic heavyweight it aspires to be.