Nathalène Reynolds: Pakistan – Women’s rights, civic society and Benazir Bhutto

Introducing Nathalène Reynolds

foto ReynoldsDr Nathalène Reynolds obtained a doctorate in the History of International Relations (Panthéon-Sorbonne, Université of Paris I), after finishing her masters in International Relations (Paris I) and Political Science (Paris II). She currently works as Research Associate at the Centre for Asian Studies in Geneva. Furthermore, Ms Reynolds works as Visiting Fellow at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute in Islamabad.

In this interview, Ms Reynolds gives her views on the position of women on Pakistan’s society and the achievements of Benazir Bhutto in this respect. In a related interview, Ms Reynolds gives her views on the emergence of the Jammu-Kashmir conflict, the role of national identities and the prospects for a resolution of the conflict.

Interview

Questions and Answers

To what extent does the position of women in society differ among states and between urban and rural areas?

Events in Pakistan provide – to use a euphemism – plenty of food for thought; it is difficult to give a clear-cut, concise response to the issue raised. By way of anecdote, one can look at the gradual changes in Islamabad, the capital of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, that was long, in a sense, a haven.

Until recently, for example, most women living there tended not to cover their hair with a veil, the sign of modesty demanded in rural areas and most cities. Such a ‘freedom’ appears on the way out. In fact, there are two explanations for this phenomenon: changes in the socio-economic make-up of Islamabad’s population, as a result of an increase in the number of inhabitants in the less prosperous parts of the city; and above all what one might schematically refer to as the extension to neighbouring parts of Pakistan of the conflict in Afghanistan since the American intervention in October 2001.

This is not the place to dwell in detail on events that are no longer limited to the North-West Frontier Province as well as North and South Waziristan (Balochistan being a case apart). Nonetheless, one can but be concerned by the impact of two parallel phenomena: the increase in the influence of a vision that is, to say the least, rigorous in terms of the status and the code of modesty it advocates for women; and the terrorist attacks that have taken place in Pakistan, notably since the siege of the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in summer 2007. The life of the residents of Islamabad and Rawalpindi, respectively the national centres of military and political affairs, continue to be frequently marked by such attacks, as indeed, do various other cities of the country.

Rather than examining the origin – rural or urban – of women with a view to determining their status, one should adopt a perspective based on social class. Family and clan networks serve to offset the failure of the legislative framework, as well as the judicial and police systems to provide but scant protection to citizens. Women of a background of at least modest prosperity can hope to benefit from a solid support; their husband and in-laws will generally take this into account. Even so, they still owe respect to a moral code that can be very rigid in some regions. Thus Sindh and especially Punjab are considered progressive areas in which women, in comparison with their sisters even in a city such as Peshawar, enjoy a mobility that, for example, permits them, given the means, to hire a taxi.

Such is not the case in North-West Frontier Province or the tribal areas such as North and South Waziristan, nor in most of Balochistan; doubtless these parts of the country abide more closely to severe rules that are usually referred to as the ‘honour code’. Thus Pakistani researchers and activists writing on gender rightly emphasize that women remain forced to play the role of depositaries of an honour that is essentially male.

One should also stress that economic conditions have an influence on the rules of purdah (literally ‘curtain’, which implies – to simplify – an indoor life for women) and on the practice of wearing the burqah (veil covering the whole body). Women from a more well-to-do milieu may – with the tacit agreement of their family – take up a significant salaried post, even in the face of social pressure to prioritise their role of wife and mother.

In rural areas, women work in the fields in the company of men from their family; both genders wear one of the traditional garments of the North of the sub-continent, the shalwar-kamiz (loose trousers covered by a long tunic), with the women adding a wide shawl (dopatta) that covers both head and chest. Any other, more restrictive, garment would not let women carry out their burdensome duties. Markets are included in the public sphere – by definition off-limit to women. It is only men who sell the harvest, retaining the revenue, something which probably contributes to the received idea that ‘women do not work’.

How influential are women in civic society?

Prior to replying to this second question, I will digress a little. It is useful to recall that generally speaking relations between men and women are regulated by what feminists – rightly – refer to as the sexual ideology of culture.

This phenomenon is of varying intensity in ‘developing countries’: the gaps between rich and poor are significant, while states make little effort – such as by improving access to affordable services – to reduce them. Rural dispensaries (which still treat the majority of patients) are – when they exist – in a precarious state. In June 2008, the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme estimated that 28.3% of the population of Pakistan was below the poverty line, a figure that perhaps understated the real situation given the difficulties of obtaining reliable figures in rural areas.

There are other dimensions to the unequal division of available spoils, especially in poorer communities: men eat first; women, many of whom suffer from anaemia and risk death with each childbirth, usually feed their sons better and more than their daughters. Furthermore, it is still considered right that, devoted to the family interest, women renounce – notwithstanding a number of timid legislative efforts – any inheritance that is their due, even though, by virtue of Koranic precepts, their part is in any case twice that of a women’s.

In addition to this socio-economic context that we have endeavored to outline, it is important to consider the transformation at the end of the 1970s of customs – which already strictly circumscribed the existence of women – into laws, the religious character of which was in parallel proclaimed, when they played a role in regulating morals. In the view of many Pakistani observers, this has had a ‘perverse’ effect: the rise of what are frequently termed ‘crimes of honour’.

The political goal of full women’s citizenship imagined by the founder of the Republic of Pakistan, proclaimed Islamic back in 1956, is yet to be realised. In effect, the country seemed to have descended into a parody of these goals with the promulgation in 1979 of the Offence of Zina (Enforcement of Hudood) Ordinance. This instrument, emblematic of the intrusion of the state’s repressive power into the private lives of believers, requires the courts to base their decisions on a specific interpretation of the injunctions of the Quran and the Sunnah[1] when returning verdicts after men and women have been found guilty of zina (i.e. to have voluntarily engaged in sexual intercourse outside of the legal framework of a marriage – or nikah – duly authorising them to engage in such acts).

Until the introduction of new legislation[2] during the period of rule of President Musharraf, female victims of rape had to have the support of four male witnesses of irreproachable religious piety who were present during the act of penetration…who presumably made no effort to prevent the offence. If these conditions could not be met, reporting the crime was a perilous undertaking: the victim herself risked receiving a severe punishment, as she could be suspected of having ceded to ‘temptations of the flesh’. The 1979 Ordinance erased all distinction between zina (generally translated as ‘fornication’ or ‘adultery’) and zina-bil-jabr (rape), while children who had attained puberty were considered to be capable of criminal responsibility.

One can imagine, even taking only these few elements into account, the difficulty for women to play a role in a civil society that remains narrowly-based. It is still but a small group of courageous women, generally from prosperous backgrounds, who express themselves on behalf of the whole sex. Their task is far from easy: not only may they suffer the negative comments of their own families who may also exert considerable pressure, but they must struggle against the stern resistance of the dominant ‘conventional wisdom’.

Moreover, the rule of President and General Zia ul-Haq (July 1977-August 1988) and the Afghan conflict that followed the Red Army intervention (December 1979) had a disastrous effect on Pakistani civil society , as the Islamabad government, including the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), sought to promote a radical Islamist resistance to the Soviet presence. Islamabad had multiple objectives: it was a question of giving new life to Pakistan-US cooperation. Apart from adhering to what one may term a very particular interpretation of Islam, Zia ul-Haq also sought to stymie the dynamism that had been developing within Pakistani civil society[3].

Since then, the latter has struggled to regain its earlier position, all the more so due to the unfavourable political situation that followed the Zia’s sudden death. It goes almost without saying that it is periods of democratic stability and prosperity that favour the blossoming of civil society as well as the interest that it accords to the issue of women’s rights. At other times, the question is very much a non-starter.

Did Benazir Bhutto’s position help to increase the political power of women?

Referring to South Asia in general, the Indian academic Kamla Bhasin notes that: “When some women do assume important political positions (Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto, Khaleda Zia), they do so, at least initially, because of their association with some strong male political personalities, and they function within the structures and principles laid down by men”[4].

In the country that concerns us here, Pakistan, the task for Benazir Bhutto was particularly challenging. Drawing on the popularity in many quarters of her late father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, she no doubt enjoyed a certain aura. Nonetheless, the country had been through a lengthy period of dictatorship that had also deeply marked collective attitudes.

Benazir Bhutto’s opponents, proponents of an Islam without concession, could thus try to criticize her entry into political life as being in a sense equivalent to undermining public morality. Moreover, other issues appeared to be of greater urgency at a time when the fabric of society had been torn apart by sectarian violence between Sunni and Shia Muslims in Punjab and NWFP, and the ethnic conflict in Karachi opposing the Mohajir community, Muslim migrants from India at the time of independence, to the pre-existing residents of the Sindh as a whole.

A further dimension is related to the long domination exerted by the military over political life, in which the ISI assumed an ever more significant position. Many officers doubtless accepted the return to barracks only very reluctantly. Whatever she might have wanted, Bhutto was not in a position to address the sensitive issue of the position of women during her two periods in power (December 1988-August 1990, October 1993-November 1996).

Cut off from the everyday experience of the masses by her elevated social status and prolonged stays overseas, one may wonder to which extent she was aware of the condition of women in her country. Her reign was sullied by accusations of corruption made against the husband widely considered to manipulate her, Asif Ali Zardari. The couple’s efforts to rebut such charges convinced few.

It is significant that it was during the rule of another general, Pervez Musharraf, who had come to power through a coup d’état that the Offence of Zina (Enforcement of Hudood) Ordinance was, if not abrogated, then at least amended. Seeking to restore the international credibility of his country, he cast himself in the role of promoter-in-chief of ‘enlightened moderation’.

Footnotes

[1] The definition offered by the site www.islam-sunnite.com is as follows: “Sunnah: path or practice. The usual practice of the Prophet […] including his words, actions, behaviour he tacitly approved or disapproved – what is also qualified as Hadith. The adepts of Hadith add his personal traits (including his physical characteristics) to this definition” (cf. Qu’est ce que la Sunnah? Réponse du Shaykh Gibril F. Haddad – What is the Sunnah? Reply of Shaykh Gibril F. Haddad).

[2] The following: The Protection of Women (Criminal Laws Amendment) Act, 2006 (Act VI of 2006), the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2004 (Act I of 2005), and the Code of Criminal Procedure (Second Amendment) Ordinance, 2006 (XXXV of 2006).

[3] Another aim was to ensure that the future government of an Afghanistan liberated from the Soviet presence would not question the border (the Durand Line) separating it from its Pakistani neighbour. The border had been delimited in 1893 for a period of 100 years; Kabul had never formally accepted the demarcation.

[4} Kamla Bhasin, What is Patriarchy ? Gender Basics, New Delhi, Kali for Women, 2006, 42 p., p. 11.

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