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Women in Pakistan - Finding Themselves a Niche

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    Women in Pakistan - Finding Themselves a Niche

    Despit the biased views of many of Pakistan's doomsayers regarding the treatment of women. It is encouraging to see that Indian women like Manoshi Mitra have taken time out and gone to Pakistan to find out the real situation of women.
    And found that Pakistani women are increasinlgy confident in fighting and acquiring their social and economic rights.

    Women in Pakistan
    Finding Themselves a Niche


    WHEN thinking of women in Pakistan, the images that often spring to mind are either of beautiful, bejewelled begums, imprisoned in purdah, or women subjected to karokari and other forms of patriarchal domination and restriction. However, there are other faces to these women, many of which are unknown to us in India. While engaged recently in field research in rural Pakistan, I met some of the brightest and most energetic young women, from middle class rural and mofussil backgrounds, who were highly educated and extremely motivated to carve out a niche for themselves.

    Contrary to popular perception, the parents were highly supportive towards the desires and ambitions of their daughters, facilitating and encouraging them to take up demanding jobs. These were young women who were out to change the world and who chose to work with non-government organisations and research institutions. They took their first major step towards independence when they left home to study in universities, often in other towns.

    The next big step for these young women came when they became the first girls ever in their families to take up paid employment and not opt for marriage right after college. Young women strongly preferred working with NGOs. NGO employment is not preferred by men on account of its temporary nature, as well as its relatively low ranking in terms of prestige. In any case, the nature of work with an NGO is very different from anything that is in the nature of acceptable types of jobs for young girls, such as in teaching, medicine, etc. I met young women from small Pakistani towns who had never travelled alone by bus, prior to joining NGOs. However, the norms set by NGOs include travel by local means of transport so as not to create further gaps between the NGO staff and rural communities that form their area of work.

    One young woman recounted, " I had never been in a bus before. The first time I went, I felt really afraid of the likelihood of accidental physical contact with men on the bus. The next time and thereafter, however, my courage grew, until I could politely but firmly tell men to keep their hands to themselves." To girls travelling every day by bus to universities in Indian towns, this must seem a familiar story.

    Young women working as agents of social change find themselves face to face with the landowning elite of villages who still dominate the socio-economic structure in the area and quite often, provide the only source of employment, credit, housing, access to land, etc. One young woman narrated her remarkable experience of working in a landlord-dominated village. The landlord owned all the cultivable land and all the service households were his sharecroppers or daily wage labourers. The women of the village worked on the homestead of the landlord, processing agricultural produce and doing domestic work. The homesteads of these households were owned by the landlord.

    There was no school for the children of this village. When the NGO established contact with the village, it was welcomed by the landlord who felt that he would gain support among the labour population, by allowing the NGO to set up a madarsa, which he would control thereafter. However, the women of the village were not agreeable to a madarsa being set up; they wanted a regular, secular school for their children. The NGO representative, a young woman, backed the village women's demand and this led to open confrontation with the landlord. The young woman representative of the NGO had to travel daily to the village by horse cart, the only mode of local transport between the bus stop and the village.

    The village landlord, infuriated by the challenge to him, openly threatened to have her kidnapped if she did not desist in her support to the village women's demand for an English school. Although she was afraid, she managed to reach the village where the local women formed a procession to the wife of the landlord. That lady was ashamed of her husband's behaviour and forced him to apologise for his actions.

    It was not just these educated, urban young women, however, who impressed with their determination and courage. While doing fieldwork in deep rural belts, I met women who went against the stereotypical notion of the oppressed and unresisting rural Pakistani woman. During a series of meetings with rural women on the issue of women getting organised to deal with problems of drinking water scarcity, as well as equitable access to irrigation water, one enthusiastic elderly woman stated, "If women in Kashmir can run the jehad, why can we women not get organised and solve our water problems?" Rural women in west Punjab in Pakistan are as closely involved in agricultural operations as their counterparts on this side of the divide. They are fully involved in all activities except ploughing.

    There exists a great deal of controversy as to whether women are involved in irrigating fields. Men universally deny their role in this, and stress that irrigation is men's work. Women also deny working in irrigation, if asked publicly. Privately, however, such women admit to being fully involved with irrigation tasks. Women work at irrigation along with their family members even during the nights. They attribute this to their desire to reduce their menfolk's workload. There are also female-headed households where women have to perforce perform such work.

    We do hear a lot about restrictions on women's mobility as a limiting factor in terms of their access to employment opportunities. A lot of this is indeed applicable. However, it is also true that poor women have perforce to be mobile in order to find work. In several villages, I met women who walked long distances to neighbouring areas in search of work. They travel in groups and are not necessarily accompanied by male relatives. They often negotiate their work contracts with landowners independently. Women are also forced to be mobile in order to meet the drinking water needs of the family during times of scarcity. Fetching water is women's work universally and in Pakistan too, this has to be done by women and girls, irrespective of their having to travel outside village boundaries for this.

    (The author is a social development specialist)


    Any idea on how I can speak directly with Manoshi?



      Muzna I guess you could write to the Times of India for her contact details?

      Why? Just curious?

      [This message has been edited by Malik73 (edited October 11, 2000).]


        Thanks dude....found her email addy. I can't believe how much we can actually find on the net if we put our minds to it.