Since time immemorial, patriarchy has been the societal norm. Patriarchy however has been conveniently annexed into catch-all terms, such as ‘religion’, ‘culture’, and ‘tradition’.Apart from a handful of societies, which are considered matriarchal and/or practice polyandry, women either tend to play a prominent role from the shadows, or little to no role at all outside of domestic affairs.
Having grown up in both Pakistan and Australia, I was able to see women play a spectrum of these roles, which has shaped my worldview greatly.
In recent years, I have been travelling through Pakistan, which on its own, is a country of many paradoxes (it is regularly featured near the bottom end of the gender equality indexes in many white papers yet many have forgotten it gave rise to the first female prime minister of a Muslim majority country).
Driving through the rural areas of Sindh province, I noticed that women are generally the breadwinners, with the agricultural fields being filled with women during the rabi and kharif seasons (the two major cropping seasons in Pakistan), whilst many men sit at the roadside tea stalls, waiting for their quarterly cash transfer payments from the government or local feudal.
As I moved further north to Punjab, the largest and most developed province of Pakistan, women continued to play a prominent role. In Punjab, however, it is more out of choice than necessity. Higher literacy rates have led to many women working alongside men, whilst maintaining domestic obligations. In the urban areas, the taboo of females in the workplace is giving way to gender mainstreaming, and male sensitization of the role women play in a more productive and wholesome working environment.
Further north into the areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), women are suddenly hard to come by. Being a traditional society, the lion’s share of women remain indoors, making cottage industry products which Pakistan’s rural areas are famous for. The last decade however, has seen a steep rise in women from KPK joining the mainframe of society. The belt of KPK & FATA has been home to both universal faces of female empowerment, such as Malala Yousafzai, but also stories of local acclaim such as Maria Toorpakai Wazir, Pakistan’s top female squash player, ranking in the global top 50. Hailing from a very conservative area in FATA, Maria had to dress like a boy for the first decade of her life to pursue her passion. Only after her passion and skills were discovered, was her talent truly harnessed. As I moved through these parts of Pakistan, I could very well imagine the barriers she had to face, and the unwavering commitment she had to espouse.
Finally, as one moves further north west, towards Chitral, one will find the women of the Kalash Valley. A far cry from the rest of Pakistani society, a more liberal approach prevails towards women, and conventional gender norms. This is influenced greatly by the uniqueness of the culture. The Kalash worship a pantheon of gods and goddesses and hold exuberant festivals inspired by the seasons. Women can declare their love for a suitor and end their marriages, as long as the community knows about the impending split in advance. They may even elope. The Kalash however do have some conventional societal norms such as segregation of duties, but notions of respect reveal themselves in profoundly different ways from mainstream Pakistani society.
As I drove from Sindh to KPK, I found myself juxtaposing the role of women, to that of those I had noticed in Australia. Australia being an OECD country, is much further up the food chain in terms of gender empowerment indicators, but still has significant progress to make. Even though their issues may not be as potent, they are just as deeply entrenched.
The Australian female employee has to work that much harder than the male to climb the professional ladder. Even though there are global leaders such as the Nordic countries in creating an enabling environment for gender equity and female professional representation, our economic system still doesn’t monetize domestic work. Women conduct a much larger chunk of domestic work, which having no notional financial value, leaves them uncompensated for their efforts. They therefore have less physical and emotional capacity to deliver on the professional front, which results in the attrition of many when it comes to management positions, and representation on boards.
A woman in Reykjavik (Iceland topping the 2016 study on the global gender gap) or in KPK, faces countless hurdles in achieving self-efficacy in whatever realm of society. In the global north, they have to juggle familial duties, whilst fighting off male machismo in the corporate space. In the global south, it may go as far as dressing like a boy. However, the overwhelming sentiment I have gauged from my TCK travels, has been that of female persistence towards breaking those barriers. I am heartened that women continue to show tenacity with the cards firmly stacked against them.
*Gender mainstreaming: Gender mainstreaming is the public policy concept of assessing the different implications for women and men of any planned policy action, including legislation and programmes, in all areas and levels. Mainstreaming essentially offers a pluralistic approach that values the diversity among both women and men.
*OECD: The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is an intergovernmental economic organisation with 35 member countries, all of which are democratic in nature, committed to the market economy and having mid to higher level human development indicators.