On International Women’s Day, we should always take stock of the good, the bad, and of course the ugliness that keeps women in the dark. Pakistan — a country where 48.8 percent of the population is female — ranks 143rd out of 144 in the Global Gender Gap Index. Some 13 million of the 25 million children who are not in school are girls, making us second in the world in terms of the highest number of girls out of school. Women still get paid 23 percent less than men and hold only 3 percent of managerial positions, while 25 percent of the world’s reported honor killings happen in Pakistan. These are just some of the grim numbers that define women’s lives here.
Yet, in the face of such stark dispossession, and despite the extreme vulnerability, Pakistan’s women continue to be a source of hope and pride for their country. How? Because Pakistani women were never silent. For a long time they were just not heard, but the surge in movements and campaigns for diversity, inclusion and equal rights across the world has given us an opportunity to step back and celebrate the progress we have made and allow us to encourage more women to claim their space and power.
We are witnessing a powerful shift globally, and this time Pakistan is no longer playing catch-up. Pakistani women are slowly but surely shedding their fear of speaking the truth. Our big and small victories were not made in a vacuum. Hope blazed eternal in the lives and struggles of iconic women like Benazir Bhutto who, as the first woman to be elected prime minister of a Muslim country, stood in a league of her own.
Bhutto firmly believed that having women in the corridors of power would strengthen any country’s democracy. Her legacy lives on through the example she set and the generation of young women she inspired to fight for their place and their rights.
In civil society too, a whole edifice of resistance was built by women, for women, by an entire generation of campaigners, from the days of Gen. Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq to today. Asma Jahangir stands tall in that gallery of greats. These mostly urban women fought for the plight of all women who were and are victims of abuse and inequality, as both challenges remain pervasive in Pakistan.
There is still more to do in terms of framing narratives and changing mindsets. Yet, despite the onerous conditions, Pakistani women have been dominating the news cycle in the past decade for all the right reasons. Slowly, more girls are going to school and even outperforming boys, excelling in sports, bringing home accolades from the Nobel Peace Prize to Academy Awards, and are joining politics.
The surge in campaigns for diversity, inclusion and equal rights across the world has given us an opportunity to step back and celebrate the progress we have made.
It is crucial that spaces and opportunities are created for women, whatever work they do. More young girls in this generation are still unaware of their rights and the possibilities that can remove the limits to their power. Young Krishna Kumari’s election to the Senate is testament to the progress Bhutto’s PPP has worked so hard to achieve. Her addition to Pakistan’s Parliament by the progressive Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s leadership has blazed a trail for girls from marginalized communities. When this newly empowered woman takes her oath in Parliament a few days from today, her journey will signal new opportunities for every young girl in Pakistan who dreams of breaking barriers and aiming higher.
The path forward for women in Pakistan and many parts of the world is strewn with minefields. We have to work very hard to navigate the road to empowerment and equal opportunities. There will always be heartbreaking reversals, but moving past them is crucial for a society to reinvent itself and build resilience. Women are still being judged solely on the virtue of being a woman and this is not a problem exclusive to Pakistan.
Women have always had to seize the space needed to exercise their options. The women’s movement, with its different levels of momentum, is a product of women taking their power bit by bit. What matters at this point is that all of us, not just those in power and positions of privilege, are encouraged to move the line forward. That is how social transformation and growth takes place. Now is the time to speak up, resist, disrupt, and break the false glass ceiling.
• Sherry Rehman is a serving senator, vice-president of the PPPP, and founding chair of the Jinnah Institute in Islamabad. Rehman has also served as ambassador of Pakistan to the US and federal information minister. Twitter: @sherryrehman