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Poverty is sexist

The writer is a senior sub-editor at The Express Tribune and tweets @FarahnazZahidi

If you are a woman and you have an education, you are either from a privileged background or are simply lucky. There are 796 million illiterate people on this earth; women comprise two-thirds of them. Each year a girl spends in school can boost her future income by 10-20 per cent. A lack of education, in turn, will translate into lesser economic empowerment.

Let’s get specific. If the women of the world had primary education, there would be 15 per cent fewer child deaths, saving 900,000 lives a year on the planet. Excitingly, if all women had secondary education, child deaths could be reduced by 49 per cent, saving 2.8 million lives. There would be 64 per cent fewer early marriages and 59 per cent fewer early-age pregnancies. But poverty is relentless, especially when it comes to women. Some 800 women die every day the world over from complications in pregnancy or childbirth. In the absence of any reliable data, experts estimate that Pakistan loses 30,000 women every year under the title of maternal mortality.

Rightly considered the most vulnerable community, women, along with their children, suffer most at the hands of conflict, natural disasters, and especially, poverty. Much more than their male counterparts. Even if statistics are to be left aside, a few facts are obvious. From the son being preferred when parents decide which child to send to school to who gets the better piece of meat at dinner, the disparity among the underprivileged strata in Pakistan is obvious. Women, though they carry out strenuous work and bear children, are neglected even in terms of their nutritional requirements being met. A big percentage of our population is unregistered and has no CNICs, the number of females with identity cards is even fewer. This is indicative of a clear social tilt. In the absence of the CNIC, these women have little hope of attaining higher education, being owners of property, having a bank account, or even having a personal mobile phone and access to digital technology. Illiteracy and poverty go hand in hand, and a lack of education breeds a culture of violence against women.

Statistics, however, cannot be left aside. Talking of gender inequality, poverty definitely has a woman’s face. Women, on an average, get 40 per cent less salary at workplaces in the Saarc region than their male colleagues. Pakistan, a developing country of the region, is not among the 48 least developed countries in the world. Yet, Pakistan’s performance in terms of the Gender Inequality Index (GII) is one of the worst. Pakistan has a GII value of 0.563, slipping down to 126th out of 149 countries in the 2013 index. According to an Oxfam study titled ‘Multiple Inequalities and Policies to Mitigate Inequality Traps in Pakistan (March 2015)’, Pakistan ranks last in women participation in the workforce among the Saarc countries. They comprise 42 per cent of the total family labour but are mostly unacknowledged.

While travelling through Pakistan by road, more women can be seen working in fields than men. However, 80 per cent of these women are given no more status but being regarded as unpaid family workers. They work in the fields all their lives, yet own less than three per cent of the land. If the world provides female farmers with the same access to productive resources as male farmers and closes the gender gap in agriculture, it could increase agricultural yields by 20-30 per cent, raise economic output by 2.5-4 per cent, and reduce the number of people who go hungry by 12-17 per cent globally. The world, by recognising the contribution of women and providing them the same opportunities in the agricultural field, could reduce the number of people living in chronic hunger by 100-150 million the world over, says research by ONE, an international campaigning and advocacy organisation, spearheading the “Poverty is Sexist” campaign. The burden of poverty is heavy enough on entire families. Yet women, wrongly called the weaker sex, end up carrying a bigger burden of poverty than the men. The burden must be shared to provide holistic relief to communities globally.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 29th,  2015.

So what if Reham Khan is divorced?

Published: January 10, 2015

The stigma attached to a divorced woman resiliently continues, despite increased urbanisation and standards of literacy. PHOTO: REHAMKHANOFFICIAL.COM

There are occasions when the misogyny and gender-bias that exists in Pakistan becomes more obvious than ever. Imran Khan’s wedding to Reham Khan has been one such occasion that has brought to light the underlying and inherent concept that an “honourable woman” needs to have certain pre-requisites. On the top of that list is this: she must not be a divorcee.

For most men of Pakistan, even the so-called educated ones, the only women of honour are their own mothers, sisters, wives and daughters. Any other woman’s repute, especially that of a divorced woman, is something they can plunder, especially if she is a celebrity. People stoop to the level of digging into a woman’s past and relish anything they can find against her. In our culture, a “divorced” woman is mostly not considered a ‘good’ woman. A 60 plus male relative of mine over a family dinner said to me,

“How could Imran have chosen her? He could have gotten any unmarried woman he wanted. She is divorced… she must be at fault somewhere, right?”

“But he is divorced too,” I replied.

The gentleman obviously felt that was not an issue. Add to it the fact that in this day and age, digital technology keeps track of our deeds more than angels do, and Reham’s modern attire, a snappy wit and nature of work were all over social media. They assume that if an empowered woman is divorced, well, she must have been the reason. As a society, we share compromised photographs and recordings of women, laugh, share, enjoy, and silence our guilt by uttering “taubah astaghfar” (God forbid) intermittently. Through it all, our pre-conditioned bias is at work.

The stigma attached to a divorced woman resiliently continues, despite increased urbanisation and standards of literacy. Leave alone men, talk to women across the board, and seemingly modern women will also say “taubah karo, God forbid” that their unmarried sons or brothers were to marry a divorced woman. Even the religious men and women who want to emulate the Holy Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in every little act seem to forget that other than Hazrat Ayesha (ra), all of the Prophet’s wives were either widows or divorcees. We pick and choose cleverly between the Sunnah (way) of the Prophet (pbuh), and our religion takes a back seat when juxtaposed against cultural pre-conditioning.

There are a few unfair assumptions about a divorced woman and perhaps the most pre-dominant one is that she is someone who does not have her priorities right; that she has a messed up value system.

“Divorces are on the rise because women do not have tolerance anymore” is a common sentiment.

I recall meeting an advocate who confirmed that cases of Khula (Islamic divorce) are steeply on the rise in Pakistan.

“These are mostly human rights-type women,” he said, explaining the term that these are mostly women who are not willing to take it anymore.

Pehle ki aurtain bewafaai bardaasht kar leti then. Thappar khaa leti thi. Abb to Khula lene khari ho jaati hain.”

(Earlier, women tolerated infidelity. Or took a beating. Now they stand in line for divorce.)

If a lack of tolerance means that more women today will not stand injustice and insult, then such a woman, who took such a stand, should in fact be respected more. Somewhere deep inside, women who are most critical of other women who have opted for divorce are possibly envious that they did not have the same guts or chances.

Another painful assumption about divorced women is that they are not chaste women. A seemingly sensible woman said the other day,

Uss type ki aurton ki talaaqain hoti hain

(Those types of women get divorced)

And all I wanted to do was bang my head against the wall. Divorced women experience how even the closest of friends start avoiding meeting them in presence of their husbands, as if they are vultures on the lookout for men.

This is not to imply that all divorced women are tolerant, compromising, giving and saint-like. There will always be all kinds. But sweeping assumptions are extremely unfair, specially bearing in mind that a divorced man is not judged the same way. The divorce of any man or woman is not what defines them. Their actions and intentions do.

Everyone needs a companion and a second chance at happiness, more so when the first experience has been bitter. We should let people be. Everyone around us is fighting their own battles. Let’s not make it tougher for others, or karma may start acting up before you know it.

Apart from the many other healthy precedents that Imran and Reham’s marriage has set, one is that in a culture steeped in gender-bias, a divorced woman is today the wife of the country’s most popular leader and may end up becoming the country’s first lady in the future. Here’s hoping this will open up the minds of our people a bit more.

Real men do(n’t) cry

Published: November 16, 2014

Long before the Madhuri-fame advertisement, as part of a campaign against domestic violence, reminded us, we had all heard, “Larkay naheen rotay.” PHOTO: VIDEO SCREENSHOT

He was sharing some of his deepest secrets about his childhood; his fears, his regrets, his loss – of a loved one, of dreams, of time lost that could have been utilised better, of a life that could have been. I witnessed this man break some barriers in those moments as he dared to bare his soul, something men in our society are not taught to do.

But most importantly, this man dared to cry, that too in front of a woman.

In those moments, I saw bravery. Because he kept saying,

“See? I’m crying. I didn’t even know I could cry so much. Don’t tell anyone I cried, okay?”

This “he” is not any particular man. And the above lines are not any one particular incident. I have witnessed it more than once. And every time I have realised that for a man to cry in our society is a difficult boundary to push. We associate manliness with certain outwardly signs, like physical strength, like a temper bordering on rage, like earning a lot of money and like being not very in touch with one’s emotions.

Emoting and crying is something that is considered an aspect of femininity. We grow up listening to maxims like,

Mard ko dard naheen hota”.

(Men don’t get hurt)

Long before the Madhuri-fame advertisement, as part of a campaign against domestic violence, reminded us, we had all heard,

Larkay naheen rotay.

(Boys don’t cry)

So men eat, laugh, sleep, feel happy and sad, but are not supposed to cry as that is seen as a sign of weakness. Generation after generation of men grow up with this pre-conditioning. When a natural outlet of grief or frustration is not allowed in the form of tears, the next best bet for men is either cruel silence or anger. We keep talking of rights of women, but usurp men of this very basic freedom to express emotions without both men and women not even realising it.

The most courageous of men ever are my role models; the Prophet (pbuh) and ‘Umar (ra) and ‘Ali (ra), and their peers. They changed the world. They won hearts and they won territories. They fought bloody battles like lions, with bravery unrivalled. They buried their loved ones with their own hands, and went back to the work of serving the cause of upholding justice. And through it all, they dared to cry, unabashedly. We have all read accounts of how the Prophet (pbuh) wept profusely, sometimes on the death of a loved one and at other times for the fear of Allah (swt) and for concern for his people. We accept that, and love that, and idealise that.

But today, a man who is moist-eyed is often seen as a weakling.

There is no doubt that women, biologically, are more prone to crying, as testosterone prohibits crying to some extent and that is the hormone that almost defines men; this is perhaps why, on an average, men cry once a month and women about five times a month, especially during the premenstrual phase and after their menstrual period. However, culture and allowances of freedom of expression also have to do with gender disparity when it comes to crying. While excessive crying can be symptomatic of other psychological issues, there can be considerable long term harmful effects of not allowing someone to cry.

Parents, and especially mothers, need to understand this when bringing up boys. Crying is a natural, organic form of human expression and is a right if carried out in moderation. When we stop men from crying at any age, we deprive them of a natural human catharsis. We also rob them of a certain sense of empathy that helps them understand why women or children cry. This is precisely why many men, unable to handle a crying woman, end up getting up angry and ask her to stop crying or ask in frustration why she is crying.

Any human emotion, if stifled unnaturally, will have harmful effects, and will end up being channelised into other negative emotions like anger or emotional disconnect.

Manliness, often translated as strength, is not just about not crying. Some of the things we see as signs of strength, like violence, anger and yelling, are actually signs of inherent weakness. Strength is about a certain amount of emotional intelligence and the ability to communicate with one’s self and with others. It takes strength to show that you are vulnerable. This is what makes us human.