I am the working woman of Pakistan. I am not my mother or my grandmother who were only allowed to do certain jobs such as producing and rearing me. I am a part of a generation that flies fighter jets and fires assault rifles as elite Special Services Group commandos. We make laws in Parliament, run government from Secretariats, bring you Pakistan from newsrooms.
But has all of this made me any different from my mother who was told that she could only achieve anything in the shadow of a man? Behind every successful man is a woman and so the latter flourished vicariously through the toil of the former. What does greater visibility mean in real terms of empowerment in a society mired in misogyny? What does this mean beyond the images that states, especially those in the Global South, parade about as if to persuade that they have moved beyond their darker pasts?
The other day I noticed jokes posted about women in a chat group of my batch of civil servants that includes men and women. Its men, in the sunsets of their careers, some serving as ambassadors, provincial or federal secretaries, inspectors general of police, were constantly posting anti-wife jokes. One that stood out said: “To find a woman you need, it costs time x money. Since woman = time x money and time = money, so woman = money x money. And because money is the root of all problems, woman = problem x 2.” When I asked if these gentlemen realized that there were women colleagues on the group, there was silence. No one responded. Most of them are good men, who are normally passionate about rooting out corruption and evil, except that they are blind to their own misogyny. I suddenly understood the behaviour of the Aga Khan Hospital doctor who did not find it amiss to send a patient a Facebook friend request. While a majority of people focused on the arrogant-sounding outcry of the patient’s older sister, little attention was paid to the fact that when a doctor poaches personal information about a patient it falls in the category of harassment.
When I went to work in the naval headquarters as the director of naval research and asked for a toilet I was told it was difficult to allocate a toilet to a female civilian officer
No matter how exciting the stories we do about strides women are making, the fact is that the environment for a working woman is extremely challenging. India’s former foreign secretary, Nirupama Rao, made a lot of sense when she recently tweeted: “…I was born into a man’s world and in the autumn of my life it is still a man’s world. In a man’s world women are patronized, barely tolerated, dominated, or just manipulated…” Rao’s formula for change was: “I say open the universe much more for women. Beam us up. World we need a ticket to ride.” This is not just about increasing numbers but recognising female presence.
Society’s perception of female presence is reflected in the indiscriminate abandon with which abusive words are bandied about. I refer to the ones whose insult is derived from ‘mother’ and ‘sister’. Now the purveyors of such fine linguistic fare do not even care if a woman is within earshot. Up until the 1970s, when I grew up, men still showed decorous restraint. I went to a co-educational school in Lahore where we learnt coexistence and disabused ourselves of any inhibition regarding gender. Girls were girls and boys were boys. There was no fascination or fear. I carried this attitude with me to the civil services academy in 1988 and discovered that even my female batchmates with different educational backgrounds did not have any issue mixing with men.
A decade and a half later the situation had changed. When I went back to the civil services academy around 2012 to lecture, female probationer officers were glued together in the front seats visibly separated from their male colleagues. The socio-cultural shift was rooted in the 1980s when Gen Zia ul Haq government’s societal re-engineering. Gender binaries were boxed separately and more firmly than before. This was accompanied by attacks on hard-won emancipation. Writers such as Ashfaq Ahmed, who dominated the airwaves and traditional media, began to work his audiences on believing that women’s powerlessness was imaginary because a woman is truly powerful as she manipulates all decisions at home and scares men around her into submission. The number of jokes shared about wives and women reflects a hardening of the separate imaginary.
Choice of language is not benign. It is not just a reflection of a mindset but has deeper manifestations. Take the thinking that a woman who has stepped outside the confines of her home is fair game. This is true in all patriarchal societies and prevails among both the illiterate and literate. Thus, I was not surprised to read a blog post by a young journalist about her encounter with a prominent anchor who made it clear during the first job interview that she would have to mold herself to his needs. This included sitting on the same sofa and drinking the beverage of his choice if she wanted to get the position. As she walked out of the room that day she was met by the probing eyes of the security guard, who had probably indirectly witnessed other women exposed to the ‘casting couch’. While this one escaped, others could not.
This was just one of the many untold stories from Pakistan’s bloated electronic and to some extent print media. Many talk show hosts and editors have turned into Harvey Weinsteins. It doesn’t matter if they appear to be conservative or liberal. The cultural balance is stacked against women. And now we are being told that we are responsible for enticing men into harassing us. We should have stayed at home and done what our mothers and grandmothers were meant to do. A woman covered from head to toe in a Muslim society or who stays at home is supposedly more secure. Who has ever bothered to hear stories of working women who keep themselves covered?
I am reminded of a conversation with a few male lawyers regarding the need to block the appointment by the Pakistan People’s Party government of a financially and morally dishonest man as the Auditor General of Pakistan. Besides his lies due to which he is currently in jail, he was accused of sexually harassing a female officer. There was written evidence to the effect that was conveniently ignored by the then Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani and the case was quashed. I was equally disappointed with the lawyer friends, who have a reputation of being stars, as they had little sympathy for the case. They wouldn’t extend a hand until the case turned into breaking news and the officer volunteered to make a big show of her case. The demand was that if Mukhtaran Mai could be so brave then why not her? My argument was that becoming like Mukhtaran Mai for a middle class working woman is not always easy. Did we even forgive Mukhtaran? I have sat with literate men, some of them university professors, who have spoken about how they thought she didn’t deserve sympathy because of the foreign funding she eventually received. The underlying suggestion was that she was duly compensated for her gang-rape so there was no need to sympathize. In a society where a woman’s honour belongs to a man, going public about it being ‘compromised’ attracts the kind of attention that most women would want to avoid. Luckily, a few years later this officer mustered the courage to go to court and was given justice. But what about those who are not as lucky?
Any woman joining the workforce or coming into a space dominated by men, is turned into a medal that society wears. The jet fighter pilot or the police officer is talked about because she is abnormal-not because she is normal
This is not to say that all men are supremacists and wild. There are many who are kind and sympathetic. This is actually about a patriarchal environment that does not empathize with a woman. Often it turns women into men because such transformation is seen as the final test of her ability to move forward in her career. Actually, there is nothing as dark as a woman trying to be a man and surrendering her agency voluntarily. Such behaviour is ridden with a deep consciousness of woman’s inferiority. So, it didn’t even occur to us, the six female officers posted in the large military accounts complex in Lahore during the mid-1990s, to ask for a separate clean toilet for ourselves. Whenever any one of us needed to go to the toilet we would call each other, get together and then go as a group to the office of a senior male officer, pretending to do a social call but actually meaning to use the toilet. A couple of years later when I went to work in the naval headquarters as the director of naval research and asked for a toilet I was told it was difficult to allocate a toilet to a female civilian officer. It was an even harder battle to get a house to live in even though this was the only demand I had made for agreeing to work for the navy. It didn’t matter for the bosses that mine was the odd case of a woman moving her family to a new city. I soon realized that my gender and the fact that I was a civilian were my two sins that were more burdensome for the management than the fact that they had asked me to work, not the other way around.
The general office space in most public sector organizations or even in the private sector is not sympathetic to women and their presence. For instance, it doesn’t occur to the male members and seniors of the wing of Pakistani left-of-center groups and a political party in London that bars might not be the most convenient places to meet from the perspective of female members. The indirect signal to women members is that you come at your own risk and you’d better become part of the gang—get in line or fall by the wayside. Thus, no amount of discussion of Marx and Revolution has managed to erase the inherent patriarchy which is also feudal and authoritarian in character.
Against such a patriarchal backdrop, any woman joining the workforce or coming into a space dominated by men, is turned into a medal that society wears. The jet fighter pilot or the police officer is talked about because she is abnormal—not because she is normal. Trained and employed as a fighter pilot, she brings accolades to the organization without ever being able to tell that she is mostly confined to administrative work. Women in the workforce have to become a normative rather than a mental distraction. During my own civil service years I remember how conversations would change if a female officer walked into the company of male officers. It would shift from serious official conversation to something lighter.
As mentioned above, men alone are not responsible for this bias because many a women would hide behind their gender to get concessions or softer responsibilities. But ultimately, this is a matter of changing conditions that will not vary just by adding more numbers. The woman at the work’s universe will only change when it is sufficiently ‘de-masculinized’. It is not about men becoming woman-like, but turning sensitive to the presence of females at the workplace and society at large.
Societies don’t progress or change in a day. Taking a step forward means increasing numbers but also recognizing a woman’s right as a complete human being comprising of emotions, intellect, desire and capacity to contribute to a nation and a society’s progress. It is about not treating her as half a person. Her presence in the male domain has to become normal. This would require serious sensitization of both men and women which is certainly not a day’s job.
Note: This article originally published here.