By Zubeida Mustafa
IS the International Women’s Day on March 8 to be dismissed as one of those occasions for the annual round of rituals and rhetorics which come to nought? The cynics are quick to point out that fiery speeches notwithstnding, the plight of women continues to be as dismal as ever.
True, the struggle for equality of status and the emancipation of women in Pakistan still has a long way to go. Women have not be accorded the basic rights or given the social recognition that are their due as human beings. They have not been integrated in the mainstream of national development. Hence their economic and educational backwardness. Of late, they are also being denied equality of legal status and the few rights they had managed to win are now under attack from the fundamentalists.
This should, however, not lead to despondency — at least not as long as the women’s struggle is alive. March 8 is important because its observance clearly establishes that consciousness-raising — an essential element of any struggle or movement — is slowly picking up in Pakistan.
Today there is greater awareness of women’s rights and status than before. Even when the Establishment speaks of female rights and pays lip service to the concept of promoting the welfare of women, it is in effect conceding that all is not well in the women’s sector. It has thus inadvertantly become an agent of consciousness-raising.
How the Women’s Day was observed this year is significant. In 1977, when March 8 was adopted by the UN as International Women’s Day, not much note of it was taken in Pakistan. In fact in 1978 and 1979 the only function to be held in Karachi, which was reported in the Press, was in Friendship House.
Even when the day came to be more widely observed annually its significance was confined to a few women’s groups in the major cities. But this year the message of the Day was conveyed to a more diverse cross-section of the population. Meetings were held in low income localities such as Isa Nagri and small towns such as Muzaffargarh. Even the conference arranged in Karachi by women’s groups under WAF’s umbrella attracted participants from the interior of Sind.
Government institutions such as the National Centres also joined in to observe the Day. Their tone differed from that of militant feminists. But the message of female deprivation did not fail to get across.
The media’s role has also registered a slight shift previously the mass-circulated Urdu language Press preferred to either ignore women’s issues or keep its coverage of them in a low key. It is now showing more interest in the problems of women.
Even though the point of view projected might not always be the progressive one but the potential role of the Press in initiating a public debate on the question is no longer in doubt. People like Dr. Israr Ahmad also serve a purpose. They provide a focus to the women’s struggle by helping to keep in public view the threat women face from chauvinistic quarters.
In a society steeped in superstition, ignorance and backwardness, consciousness-raising is vital for the success of any campaign which seeks to change social attitudes. Be it literacy, health, populationplanning or the uplift of women, the need for self-motivation is al always there. In that context, the International Women’s Day has a role to play.
But creating consciousness should not be the end all and be all of the women’s struggle. As the public awareness of women’s rights and deprivation grows, the next step will prove crucial. That is to provide a direction to the struggle for female emancipation.
It is here that the pitfall lies, recognising the force of unleashed female opinion, the fundamentalists and obscurantists in our society — both men and women — are trying to channel female emotions and energies into a direction where they will not be in a position to challenge the status quo. Since these elements use religion as a point of reference their hold over people is not to be underestimated.
Hence now is the time for the women struggling for their rights to define their specific goals and mobilise all women on a common platform for the achievement of these aims. The basic issues must be identified and the directions set.
If this is not done it will not be possible to mobilise a large number of women who will be led into believing that the female struggle has no relevance for them. Worse still, the fundamentalists would cash on the success of the women’s groups in rousing consciousness and hijack the movement for their own ends.
Source: Dawn 21 March 1986