Spirit of Sisterhood


By Zubeida Mustafa

THE  FOURTH WORLD Conference on Women held in Beijing in September was like the proverbial elephant and the blind men. The reactions it evoked were conditioned by the perception of each observer. It was billed as the “largest gathering ever for a UN conference on women” by Newsweek and a gathering of women who “suddenly loom as a great force” by Betty Friedan, the author of Feminine Mystique and the founder of the American feminist movement in the sixties.

The cynics dubbed it an exercise in futility. If there were people who were not too happy with the UN meeting the reasons were not always convincing.

  • It was wasteful and extravagant — nearly 84 million US dollars went into the holding of the conference — and this amount could have been better spent, they said.
  • The western media focussed on what it called bad management and poor organisation. The fact that the Chinese were required to handle a deluge of seven thousand official delegates and 40,000 NGO representatives was not sufficiently taken note of and the inclement weather which brought slush and water in its wake was not the hosts’ doing.
  • Many delegate’s, including Hillary Clinton who represented the land that claims to be the bastion of freedom, used the occasion to hit out at China for its human rights record. The government also came under fire for what was seen as its efforts to stifle dissenting voices in the NGO forum.
  • The orthodox and religious fundamentalists who would like to put away the women in wraps condemned the conference for being dominated by Western, liberal feminists whose values were branded as anti-Islamic and immoral. In Pakistan, demonstrations were held against the conference and some columnists in the Urdu press denounced the delegates from this country as wayward women unrepresentative of the people’s cultural values.
  • The critics said that apart from a lot of sound and fury, the conference produced nothing. The Platform for Action adopted at Beijing carries no meaning unless it is implemented. Few governments will bother to translate into action the measures proposed and there is nothing to give it teeth.
  • BUT THOSE WHO attended the conference as well as many other independent observers of the scene do not share the views cited above. There is always another side of the coin. The main achievement of the conference is not tangible and cannot be measured. Nevertheless its role in reinforcing the global sisterhood of women is invaluable. The spirit of this sisterhood was launched at Mexico City in 1975 with the convening of the first conference on women which inspired the women’s decade. The Copenhagen (1980) and Nairobi (1985) conferences carried the process further. What is significant is that the thrust of the world’s women’s, movement, unlike the beginnings of the feminist movement in the West, is not anti-man. It is directed towards winning the rights of women which were recognised in Beijing as being human rights too.   91-03-10-1995-A                          Why the need for this? The UNDP gave the answer on the eve of the conference. In its annual Human Development Report which this year carried a special chapter on gender equality, the agency vividly highlighted the lower status of women the world over. Using the two criteria it devised to measure a society’s treatment of its women, the UNDP reached the conclusion that no country treats its women equally with its men.                                                                                                      The gender-related development index (GDI) which uses yardsticks such as share of earned income, life expectancy at birth, adult literacy, and school enrolment ratio indicates that even the highest ranked country, that is Sweden in this case, falls short of total equality.

Some of the data is astounding, the progress achieved notwithstanding. Worldwide women are discriminated against. Thus even in the industrialised countries where women live in less exploitative conditions and where human rights and labour laws enjoy greater sanctity the disparity between men’s and women’s earnings is enormous. In Sweden, for instance, their respective share of earned Income is 58.4 and 41.6 per cent. In Canada it is 70.7 and 29.3 per cent. The Third World with its dismal record of the treatment of women is much worse in terms of disparity. In Afghanistan the female share of the earned income is only 7.1 per cent. It is 5.3 per cent in Saudi Arabia and 7.5 per cent in Algeria.

In the gender empowerment index (GEM) which takes account of women in parliament, in administrative and managerial positions, in the professions and their earned income, the female half of the population fares no better. Sweden with its highest ranking has only 33 per cent of the seats in its parliament occupied by women and only 39.9 per cent of the top managerial positions are held by them. In Kuwait and the UAE there are no women in parliament (they do not have the vote) and only 5.2 and 1.6 per cent of managerial positions are held by women.

All the evils which afflict women flow from their lack of empowerment. It is in this wider context that the Beijing conference should be viewed. The Platform for Action identified the measures that can help in this respect. It does not ensure that they will actually be adopted. But what is certain is that the awareness that has been generated will sow the seeds of change. This is something that cannot be measured in specific terms especially because of its multiplier effect. Beijing helped mobilise the women activists who were present there. It also provided the opportunity for networking which is very essential if people working for a cause are to receive the necessary stimulus and encouragement. Isolation can kill the best of enterprises.

What has the Beijing conference done for Pakistan? The best thing to emerge from it was the clarification of the government’s stand on women’s rights. Given the anomalies and ambiguities which shroud the official approach to women, it was heartening that the Prime Minister proceeded to register her presence at the conference and delivered a keynote address. This in itself was significant because the obscurantist forces who tend to control political decision-making in this country had been vociferous in their opposition to the moot. Ms Benazir Bhutto’s speech made a tremendous impact especially because of her moderate interpretation of Islam.


The Beijing conference has at least pushed Islamabad into deciding to sign the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) which had been signed by 139 countries until January 1995. But the reservations made by Pakistan (the provisions of Convention would apply within the framework of the Constitution of the country) could neutralise many of the obligations embodied in the Convention. Pakistan’s accession to the Platform of Action is also conditional. This in effect leaves it at the discretion of the government as to how it will treat its women. The country has on its statute book many laws which are discriminatory and positively damaging for women, such as the Hudood Ordinance and the Law of Evidence.

The Human Development Report paints a sorry picture of women in Pakistan. In the GDI the country ranks 103rd out of 130 while in GEM it is a lowly 114 out of 116. The share of earned income of women is 10.1 per cent, female literacy is 22.3 per cent and only 16.3 per cent girls are enrolled in educational institutions. In terms of their share in power, only 1.6 per cent seats in parliament are held by women, 2.9 per cent administrators and managers are women, and 18.4 percent professional workers are female.

Given this dismal state of women in the country, Beijing was important in the struggle for women’s .rights in Pakistan. But the Platform of Action even minus its controversial sections on sexuality and reproductive rights of women will not find easy implementation. The financial constraints are there. But more than that are the barriers of social prejudices any government has to put up with. To fight them, those in office must have a strong commitment and political will to raise the status of women. Do they?

Source: Dawn  03-10-1995