April 9, 2012.
Interviews with a handful of the country's 88 million women and girls
According to a 2011 poll of experts by the Thomson Reuters Foundation Poll, Pakistan is the third most dangerous country for women in the world. It cited the more than 1,000 women and girls murdered in "honor killings" every year and reported that 90 percent of Pakistani women suffer from domestic violence.
Westerners usually associate the plight of Pakistani women with religious oppression, but the reality is far more complicated. A certain mentality is deeply ingrained in strictly patriarchal societies like Pakistan. Poor and uneducated women must struggle daily for basic rights, recognition, and respect. They must live in a culture that defines them by the male figures in their lives, even though these women are often the breadwinners for their families.
Quietly, slowly, in piecemeal legal reforms, female empowerment is coming in Pakistan. You meet inspiring women daily here. Sympathetic employers sometimes give protection and assistance, as do other women who've fared better. NGOs and charitable organizations try to help empower women, but not all women take advantage of these resources. They fear their husbands, attracting unwanted attention, somehow hurting the honor of their families, or, often, they simply do not know that help exists. With female literacy at 36%, many women are too uneducated to know their rights.
A difficult irony for women in Pakistan is that, should a victim speak up about physical or sexual abuse, she is seen as having lost her and her family's dignity. Many rapes go unreported as the victim fears she will become worthless in Pakistani society. Often, women will turn to their employers; families they can trust. It's a typically unnoticed form of charity but one that can be crucial to their survival.
These are the stories of six poor, working women of different ages, backgrounds, and life experiences in the Pakistani city of Karachi, where I grew up and where I met them. In interviews, which I have translated, edited, and condensed below, they told me about their lives and struggles within a cycle of poverty and, often times, violence.
These women have consented to share the stories and photos so that the world might better understand the challenges they face. For their safety, I have not used their full names.
Read the rest of this article here.
The author Zara Jamal is a Canadian writer studying at
McGill University in Montreal, Quebec.
Comment: This is a compelling article made so by intensely personal narratives that are agonizing and painful.
I worry that the women who are pictured will be victimized even further once the article is splattered across the web. It goes without saying that these sisters are truly heroic in their struggle toward liberation and freedom.
There is also the concern that these narratives will be stereotypically reduced to a western framing or agenda that layers another level of abuse; the kind that has murderers like Hillary Clinton speaking on behalf of oppressed Muslim women - the consequences of which are clear in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It is important that we recognize that women are abused all over the world. It is a universal constant in patriarchy.
Still, I feel an unease that settles over me when I know that in my own Muslim community abuse is hidden or rationalized and much too often women are forced by men and other women to grunt and bear their oppression.
My unease is multiplied when Islam is used, or rather abused, to rationalize why women have a 'place' in society that tacitly includes abuse whether violent or psychological or both.
Some of that abuse is not necessarily outrightly violent but it is abuse nonetheless: I am thinking specifically of an article I read in the Mail & Guardian today by Fatima Asmal-Motala entitled "The Revolution Threatening to Divide SA's Muslims".
Asmal-Motala has taken the brave step to challenge male religious leaders who prescribe a medieval oppression of Muslim women across South Africa and she has been lambasted and called ugly names by a few of them and even some Muslim women.
The part that really depresses me about the subjugation of Muslim women is that what is being prescribed is drawn from cultural influences (Arabian/Indian) that are at odds with Islam. I think of dress codes for example - the Qur'an calls for modesty and nowhere does it prescribe hijab and certainly not nikab.
Asmal-Motala describes how Muslim women are not allowed to pray in mosques in some cases or are forced not to voice their opinion even in matters that pertain directly to them.
And where women take a stand some over-inflated patriarchal tyrant will produce a hadith to explain why women should follow this or that dictum as supposedly passed on by rightly guided companions of the last prophet.
It amazes me that a religion that is built around the literal word of God, the Qu'ran, needs intercessors of the kind that draw direction from hadith, any hadith for that matter.
Is the Qur'an not enough to guide Muslims? I think it is.
The Qur'an is emphatic about the rights of Muslim women. Women are not expected to serve men by being their appendages and they are certainly not expected to endure the kind of abuse described by the Pakistani sisters or Asmal-Motala in South Africa.
It is one thing to recognize that the west plays with stories like these here to superimpose its racist prejudices onto the bodies of all brown and black women, particularly Muslim women in this epoch.
On the other hand, it is entirely another thing to ignore that Muslim women are being oppressed in the name of Islam by men who assume that it is their prerogative to frame and define the bodies of Muslim women.
Inside of the abuse that too many Muslim women suffer in the name of Islam there is only a slight margin of difference between the hands of the actual abusers and those who remain silent.
I do not expect that God would look kindly on men who have their heads attached to prayer rugs in mosques anywhere dutifully begging for entrance into heaven while Muslim women are abused and systematically oppressed.
Until women are absolutely free inside of Muslim communities anywhere, the revolution the last prophet intended remains in its infancy and it is an absolute waste of time to pray for anything else.