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Pakistan – A Nation of Strong Women

LUMS, UCP, University of Lahore, University of Central Punjab,
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September 3, 2020

Pakistan was made by the sacrifices of countless brave men, women and children. Among them is the blind, unwavering support of a sister who stood beside her brother like an iron wall. Fatima Jinnah reflects the strength of our women.

But, what are we doing to them in return?

The appalling stats that represent a fraction of the cruelty that’s taking over our streets are a result of a systematic failure. But, these stats don't represent their potential, it shows our inability to protect and support them. 

Women are leading different industries in and out of Pakistan each day. Post partition, Fatima Jinnah worked tirelessly to keep the vision alive and her presidential election was the first by a woman in a post-colonial Muslim society.

From that to where we are today, it is a long fall.

Despite the continuous lack of encouragement and support, our women have surpassed all odds to make a name for themselves. We have the likes of Begum Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan, one of the leading female figures who founded the All Pakistan Women’s Association (APWA) in 1949 to Major General Shahida Malik (first lady officer in Pakistan Army to have reached a two-star rank) and Lt. General Nigar Johar (first and the only woman in the history of Pakistan Army to reach the rank of Lieutenant-General, and the third to reach the rank of Major-General).

Ayesha Farooq, first female fighter pilot, who now flies missions alongside her 24 male colleagues; Shaheed Marium Mukhtiar, first female combat pilot to embrace martyrdom and Saira Amin, first female to earn a Sword of Honour in any defence academy of Pakistan, all signify bravery!

When it comes to police, we have Rizwana Hameed - first female head of a male police station in KP, Helena Saeed - first female Additional Inspector General of Police in the country’s history, Rafia Qaseem Baig - first female Bomb Disposal Officer and now many more paving the way!

When it comes to politics, Benazir Bhutto became the first woman leader of a Muslim nation, serving as the Prime Minister of Pakistan twice. Today, the likes of Dr. Fahmida Mirza, who has served as the 18th and the only woman Speaker of the National Assembly are making their mark in the government.

Recently a team of 15 women officers received major recognition for being the first all-female group from Pakistan to serve in a UN peacekeeping mission. Similar precedent was set by Maleeha Lodhi, first representative to the United Nations from Pakistan and the longest-serving ambassador to the US.

In the world of literature and media, Bano Qudsia and Fatima Surraya Bajia have left us w/ countless classics. Names like Jehan Ara Saeed, Shaista Zaid and Ishrat Fatima, represent the finest voices of our radio and TV in both, English and Urdu, news reporting.

Who can deny the lifelong contributions of Bilquis Edhi sahiba? She stood by Abdul Sattar Edhi Sb throughout and still furthers the mission of equality as the co-chair of the Edhi Foundation. 'The Mother of Pakistan' defines what it means to live with purpose and responsibility.

Each gender has the right to make their own decisions, have basic rights and a safe environment.

Justice Nasira Iqbal (former Justice of the LHC) and Asma Jehangir, co-founder of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan among other titles, lived a life fighting for justice and equality.

Entrepreneurship and tech are ever-growing industries Seema Aziz – founder Bareeze and CARE Foundation, Jehan Ara - founder The Nest I/O, Sidra Qasim – Co-founder Wear Atoms and Shahida Saleem – Lead Impact Network Pakistan are some leaders catalysing these industries. 

Sports is another field where a culture of discrimination is prevalent, globally. Even then, women like Sana Mir - former Captain Pakistan National Women's Cricket Team, Samina Baig - first Pakistani woman to climb Mount Everest, prove that nothing is impossible.

We also have heroes like Dr. Ruth Pfau who dedicated her life to eradicating leprosy in Pakistan, Dr. Shugufta Feroz - physician and a 'Correct Eating Activist' and Dr. Sania Nishtar who is currently leading the largest safety-net and poverty alleviation program in the country.

On the international fronts, we have been represented by Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy in securing the first Oscar for Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai - the youngest female Nobel Prize laureate and of course, Arfa Karim – youngest Microsoft Certified Professional.

There are some sacrifices that can never be forgotten, like that of Ms. Tahira Qazi, Principal Army Public School, who embraced martyrdom after taking a bullet to her head. She fought till the end to protect her students from terrorists that took 148 innocent lives that day.

Women like Shamim Akhtar,first female truck driver, challenged the transport sector to Dr. Nergis Mavalvala- Pakistani-American Astrophysicist, a key contributor to LIGO, Dean of MIT Science and the first-ever woman in this role, are those who fought stereotypes to make their way.

Efforts made by Nighat Dad, founder Digital Rights Pakistan, towards controlling cybercrime are essential in equipping our women with the right awareness against online harassment.

Our girls and women need these names as role models around them. Societies have been shaped over the years through the influence of media and the internet, whether we accept it or not. When was the last time we propagated stories of strong women for our people to learn from?

From one channel in the 90s to thousands in every phone today, the concept of regulation has vanished. Barbarism has only increased exponentially over the last two decades, out of which only a small percentage is reported. The society is constantly being sold a destructive narrative.

The dichotomy that has seeped into our systems has to be uprooted. If it's not safe for a woman to go out at night, then neither is it for a man. Attacks can result in trauma and death for everyone.

Unless the rules aren't the same, the responsibility won't be the same.

Our numbers are terrifying. There were 3,881 rape cases, 1,359 child sexual abuse cases, 1,126 child abuse cases, 1,758 cases of violence against women, 12,600 women kidnapping cases and 197 honour killing cases reported in 2019 in Punjab alone. And these are just a fraction.

Women make up 48.54% of our population. That's a force of over 100M, who if rightly supported, can drive our future. But only 25% are in the labour force whereas the world avg. is 48.7%. That means 41M between the ages of 15 - 64 aren't being included as economic contributors.

Globally, six countries give women equal work rights as men. Recently Brazil equalled pay and prize money for its men’s and women’s national soccer teams. Whereas only 37 Fortune 500 companies are women-led, and only 19% firms have female managers.

This world has a long way to go. According to the World Economic Forum’s recent Global Gender Gap Report, it'll take another 108 years to reach gender parity. This can't happen unless education, safety, nutrition and clean drinking water aren't a priority for our women and children. We can't compete globally without them.

But, where do we start?

We need to raise our boys better, who know what it means to practice 'positive shame'. How can a man's shamelessness ever be justified?

Those who breakaway and destroy the fabric of our society need to be dealt with the harshest of punishments. It’s ludicrous to shift the blame on the victim.

The rules have to be the same. If a woman is advised to 'not be at the wrong place at the wrong time', then the same goes for a man. Men policing women on what to do is unacceptable and reflects lack of respect for them. The solutions aren't one-dimensional. These are crimes that have ruined entire families and generations to come.

We need to question everything we see, hear and accept as 'norm'. It's these seemingly 'harmless' changes in our environment that turn into these heinous crimes.

Our religion is a benchmark when it comes to gender equality. There isn't a stronger role model than Hazrat Khadijah RA who was known for managing a trading business which was the largest of her time, philanthropy and creating opportunities for the weaker members of society.

Our women are yet to be given their basic rights, safety and respect. Imagine what they'll end up doing for us if given the right endorsements and an environment to grow. A strong message needs to be given to those who even dare to think otherwise.

Pakistan Zindabad!

This blog was originally published as a tweet thread on 13th September, 2020.