By Chris Crowstaff, February 2011
"No nation can rise to the height of glory unless your women are side by side with you; we are victims of evil customs. It is a crime against humanity that our women are shut up within the four walls of the houses as prisoners. There is no sanction anywhere for the deplorable condition in which our women have to live."
Mohammad Ali Jinnah, 1944 - first Governor General of Pakistan, often referred to as the 'Founding Father'.
Women tend to be worst affected in an emergency, more than ever.
This came swiftly into focus in Pakistan when devastating monsoon rains at the end of July 2010 swept the country, causing massive flooding from north to south. Millions of people fled their homes to seek shelter in crowded temporary camps, saving little more than the clothes on their backs. Whilst such conditions would be hard for anyone, they have been especially difficult for women. Forced to cohabit in ways against the social norms, and often unaware of their rights, they have been left especially vulnerable.
The flood camps are culturally shocking for women and girls. Many have never been around a man who isn’t a member of their family. Now they are amongst hundreds of men who are complete strangers.
Apart from the religious notions of covering up and not mingling with males outside one’s family, in Pakistani society, women are considered to be the custodians of male and family honour. This notion of honour is linked with women’s sexual behaviour so their sexuality is considered to be a potential threat to the honour of family. Therefore, the systems of sex segregation - purdah - are used by the society to protect the honour of the family.
But in the camps there are no provisions for purdah. Young boys and girls have to sleep in the same room, at times next to each other. Most mothers and families do not feel it’s safe for their daughters, especially in the current circumstances.
One major challenge women have faced is a lack of identification cards, an essential lifeline to aid. In many families such cards are held only by the husband, but without an ID card women are unable to claim many of the benefits they are entitled to, including government compensation. This has become an especially important issue for female-headed households and those whose documents were washed away by the floods. The simple fact alone that shalwar kameez, women’s traditional dress, doesn’t have any pockets meant that far more women than men lost their documentation when the floods hit.
'Flood doctor', Dr. Shershah Syed, is dedicated to improving the health care of women in Pakistan. After witnessing women dying and suffering during and after childbirth, Dr Syed committed his life and work to bringing change and raising awareness for women's health, often attending to flood-affected areas.
Historically, in the 19th century, feminist-sympathetic movements within the South Asian Muslim community tried to counter social evils against Muslim women through the custom of purdah (where women were forcibly isolated from social contact, primarily with men). Other Muslim reformers such as Syed Ahmad Khan tried to bring education to women, limit polygamy, and empower women in other ways through education. The founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah was known to have a positive attitude towards women. After the formation of Pakistan, women's groups and feminist organizations started by prominent leaders like Fatima Jinnah to form that worked to eliminate social injustices against women in Pakistan.
The Pakistani women were granted the suffrage in 1947, and they gained the rights to vote in national elections in 1956. The provision of reservation of seats for women in the Parliament existed throughout the constitutional history of Pakistan from 1956 to 1973.