PAKISTANI liberals and conservatives are politically more alike than they think. In their respective journeys to claim the high moral perch, both groups are easily outraged by sex, religion and politics. Both are on a rescue mission to save the nation, democracy and Islam. In their competitive tussles, the most invaluable capital for both is women’s rights — the zeitgeist of modernity, cultural purity, international image and the nation’s progress.
On International Women’s Day, this political contest plays itself out through public celebrations, seminars and well-funded chatter. The liberals say, ‘we want women’s freedoms’ (relative but not absolute). Similarly, the religio-culturalists say, ‘We respect women’s rights’ (not to be free but differently equal). They recall the discrimination and tyranny observed by imperial powers but only in the form of Islamophobia — not sexism, racism, homophobia.
Then, in the midst of their talk-shops in hotels and many gigabytes of selfies, both groups respectively cut a cake, missing the proverbial irony of eating cake while bemoaning how the masses have no bread. A day marked for the struggles of women workers for fair wage and gender rights on the factory floor has become a narcissistic love-fest. To promote women’s causes on all occasions is to be commended and supported. To reduce this opportunity to birthday-like celebrations with repetitive content and empty slogans is just a wasted opportunity.
International Women’s Day needs revision and reframing.
Neither groups challenge or scrutinise the economic conditions of women in any substantive way. The dependency of liberal women’s groups on international funding has limited their activism within a neoliberal framing. At best, they support some income-generation schemes for women. There is no national campaign to lobby for laws and policies to tackle women’s unemployment or the hazards and insecurities experienced by women in the informal sector. There is no sustained movement for equal wages or to support a ‘surge’ from home-based work to the market. In light of the national obsession with CPEC, activists do not even ask, ‘what’s in it for women?’
Multinational firms and corporations shamelessly peddle women’s causes for publicity. Yes, women should promote their cause on all platforms but feminist activists have become incidental guests to ‘sex up’ these events, rather than organisers and drivers of its content. Sponsored ‘festivals’ are designed for repetitive, anecdotal discussion and entertainment, instead of relevant, radical or strategic purposes. Women’s groups must reject such imposters who masquerade as supporters of women’s rights.
Women’s empowerment, development, and upliftment are vague, diluted concepts that are no longer objectionable to anyone. Religiously-inspired NGOs now compete for donor funds from the same ‘Western’ sources that Islamists used to deride. Even the corporate sector has learned to commodify women’s religious needs and developed corresponding products to meet such demands. The market is profitable, the message is compelling: buy halal.
International Women’s Day needs revision and reframing. It should be an opportunity to discuss the stabilising of women’s economic categories, radically restructuring the informal sector beyond safety nets and cash handouts and, for recommending an emergency policy for women agricultural workers. This largest women’s labour force needs critical attention.
Anti-imperialists cry hoarse against the horrors of America’s anti-migration policies but are silent on the poverty-inducing burden of internal migration on women agricultural workers. No one cares about the irony of not knowing how to apply the sexual harassment law for this largest group of female labour in the country.
Similarly, the widespread practice of trafficking of women is a straightforward economic issue.
The Benazir Income Support Programme has empowered women in unexpected ways. But protective policies need to be replaced by proactive economic incentives and subsidies of services for working women in the informal sector (transportation vouchers, daycare services, skill improvement). The office of the ombudsmen for sexual harassment at the workplace could be supported by additional mechanisms to deal with complaints by women who face discrimination in wages, promotions and gratuity in the formal sector.
Women’s movements should aim to revolutionise women’s economic integration. We need to ensure a carefully gendered census. We need a plan that prioritises women agricultural workers, Fata’s tribal women, women in the informal sector and which prevents the trafficking of women. Research and strategic thinking, radical policies and activism must break the mould of producing repeat studies and advocacy efforts and centralise the economic agenda, now. Then, women can cut their own cakes if they want.