Allowing women to venture beyond the threshold freely is aligned with that oft-noted missing element in Pakistan: tolerance for diversity

Voices Friday, June 06, 2014 - 05:30
By Sabahat Iqbal It recently occurred to me (not for the first time) as I looked around the Benazir Bhutto International airport departure lounge for a seat, that Pakistani men can come and go as they please occupying every inch of the public sphere while we women scurry back and forth between the nooks and crannies we've scratched out for ourselves over the past six decades. Airports, hotels, restaurants, offices, and tourist spots are almost completely bereft of women. The environment created by male stares combined with a dearth of an equal and opposing female presence means women wind up imposing limits on themselves. But what amount of salwar-kameez-dupatta-chador-hijab-burka combo will suffice? The female workforce participation rate clocks in at a paltry 24% but this is progress from the 16% in 2001. The more commercially-minded have noticed this trend; there is money to be made by those who facilitate women’s enjoyment of the “independent” life. Today, there are female only pick-and-drop vans and women-only gyms. In a neat, but illusory, reversal of patriarchal norms shopping malls forbid single men from entering during certain hours. Or at all, in some cases. While staying at the Avari Hotel in a leafy corner of Lahore, I was whisked into the inner sanctum known as Lady Avari. According to the brochure, this is “a premium concept…aimed at the single lady traveller (hey, that’s me!) providing cocooned comfort, privacy, and security.” It was more instructive about what the hotel’s marketing team think Pakistani women want: after slipping into matching pink kimono and slippers, we sip diet drinks, order from a “customized low-cal menu” and, judging by the packets of isabgol, are subsequently constipated. Well-meaning efforts like this only serve the idea that women in Pakistan need to be squired away into protective bubbles under the care of Men Who Treat Women With Lihaaz. I suspect that a better education system would mitigate some of the strangeness currently attached to women in public spaces. And maybe there just isn'ta critical mass yet of the middle-class educated to allow those who would send their daughters out to feel comfortable doing so. But I also suspect, as is often the case in social conditioning, many reasons feed this problem. Women themselves can cling to the “chains”; a young lady, known to my family through a cousin’s marriage, refused a bank job after the manager offered to seat her in the back where she could feel comfortable, he thought, taking off her burqa (but not her hijab). Yet others don the burqa to prevent tanning – a vanity fed by our national obsession about acceptable skin colors for women. Then again, at least three women I know wear burqas out of sheer laziness, as a coat in winter or, and perhaps justifiably in Karachi, to prevent potential robbers from seeing jewellery. Unfortunately, it promotes an unhealthy public sphere in which women - by adhering to rules that allow for a spectrum of “invisibility” - bear the entire burden of their safety. Allowing women to venture beyond the threshold freely is aligned with that oft-noted missing element in Pakistan: tolerance for diversity. Disparaging others for having a different point of view is a national pastime that manifests in the Sunni-Shia split. But at a more granular level, within extended families, girls or women who break away from norms even slightly are gossiped about. And if they persist, can acquire a reputation for being stubborn and therefore unable to live in a shared housing arrangement: necessary for any bride. A four-year-old girl once asked me why I was wearing children’s clothes because the sleeves of my kameez did not go to my elbows. The conclusions that we can draw are that men and women might share an equal amount of blame, that causes and solutions have intertwined so much over the past decades as to make them indistinguishable, and that education can only mitigate part of the problem. Even as almost every segment of Pakistani society recognizes this problem in one form or another, the solution so far is not to ensure equal access but rather to create elaborate rules and procedures that construct the illusion of independence and safety. For those willing to pay. Sabahat Iqbal is a development professional currently based in Islamabad. The opinions expressed in this articles are the personal opinions of the author. The News Minute is not responsible for the accuracy, completeness, suitability or validity of any information in this article. The information, facts or opinions appearing in this article do not reflect the views of The News Minute and The News Minute does not assume any liability on the same.
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