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December 6, 2017



‘Gender equality critical for a just, egalitarian society’

Gender equality is a basic human right and is critical to achieve a just and egalitarian society. This exhortation was made by Anis Haroon, member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan from Sindh, in her inaugural address to the Fourth Women’s Empowerment Conference at the Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology (SZABIST) on Tuesday morning.

She said Pakistani women had to struggle against massive challenges posed by the amendments introduced by military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq which militated against the genuine rights of women.

Through the Eighth Amendment, these became sacrosanct and impacted really negatively on the religious minorities and women. The Women’s Action Forum, formed in 1981, arrested the damage but the onslaught of extremism proved a big obstacle in that direction, she said.

“The key areas for women’s empowerment are the right to equal education, health, right of women over their bodies, choice of profession, freedom of movement, equal opportunities, freedom from all kinds of violence, economic independence, and political representation,” said Anis, while making it clear that there still was a long way to go.

One of the panel discussions held was titled ‘Facets of violence against women: where do we stand?’ and the speakers were Safina Javed, Aabida Ali, Laila Raza, Komal Qureshi and Amna Sheikh.

Sheema Kermani, who moderated the session, pointed out that rape culture was a global phenomenon but what was worse in Pakistan was that the rapist always went scot-free because the laws were so ineffective.

Talking about feminism, she said that just education was not empowerment and further advocated a secular state. Pointing out the contradictions in the value pattern, Komal Qureshi said that men could do what they liked but if their sisters did the same, it was considered intolerable.

Aabida Ali said that women would have to come out into the open and put an end to the trend whereby laws were being misused to promote violence, be it gender-based or otherwise. In another panel discussion, titled ‘Women’s empowerment and health issues: when are women disempowered?’, moderated by Kauser S Khan of the Aga Khan University Hospital (AKUH), Sumera Ali of the AKUH acknowledged that a clear attitudinal change had occurred and that women could now discuss their very intimate matters with their husbands and mothers-in-law.

But, she said, this had come about after consistent hard work and motivation. Sikandar Mughal from the office of the federal ombudsman explained the service rendered by the office. All women, without the least of discrimination, he said, were most welcome to avail of the services of the office.

His talk, however, was interrupted by a very prominent feminist and social activist who vehemently contested all the claims of Mughal and was frank enough to say to his face, “All that you are saying are utter lies”.

The activist quoted her own case where, she said, the hearing had dragged on for almost a year and just three days before the decision was to be announced, the ombudsman was transferred. This encouraged the other participants to come up with their complaints, with equal vehemence. In response, Mughal tried to establish the authenticity of his claims.

Severine Minot from the Habib University spoke on the subject of emotional intelligence. She defined emotional intelligence as a state when emotion and cognition are inter-related. She disclosed a very vital bit of information in that, on a global scale, 70 percent of the suicides committed were by men. As for the remaining 30 percent she said, of course, a vast majority were women but no exact figure could be pinpointed because there were some transgender people too. Their number, however, was very small.

In his lecture, ‘Women vs cancers: fighting for the future’, Prof Dr Syed Aziz from Canada, dwelt upon the various kinds of cancer women were vulnerable to. It was a highly technical but equally informative keynote talk highlighting the causative factors of various types of cancer and how to keep the scourge at bay. It was accompanied by slide presentations which made it easier to comprehend.

Finally, certain delegates presented brief papers. The first one to read her paper was Farhana Tabbasum. The line she adopted was in direct contrast to what the other speakers had hitherto taken. She threw the ball into women’s court and said, “It is we women who are responsible for all the ills that have befallen us as we are just not aware of our rights.”

Religion, she said, had awarded women total empowerment. It had clearly spelt out all those rights but, she said, we had veered away from them. Talking about the values whereby mothers-in-law and sisters-in-law dominated (read coerced) women in their most personal daily life matters, she said that it was after all the women who were perpetrating the violence on women.

The event also featured a solo tableau by Sheema Kermani, complete with alluring dance steps and poetry. It was a profound presentation expressing the rigours of childbirth and crises she has to go through on account of the patriarchal system and a harsh mother-in-law; how mothers-in-law take over a woman’s life and take away all the freedom from the woman even in cases of her most personal matters. It was a profound reminder of the harsh realities of women’s lives in Pakistan.

The conference was held as a collaborative effort of the Social Sciences Department of Szabist, the Advanced Educational Institute and Research Centre (AEIRC), the Pakistan Medical Association, and the Tehreek-e-Niswan.