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Women on the go – How information technology has helped Pakistani women’s mobility

Access to smart phones and internet has played a major role in adding to the mobility of women

Women on the go

It takes 34-years-old Afshan Babar some 90 minutes to reach from her home in Surjani Town to the training centre run by TAF Foundation (TAFF) where she is enrolled in the Cooking and Housekeeping course at TAFF-VTI.  There was a time when she could not have imagined stepping out of the house alone.

Now, the ability to reach from point A to point B has changed her life. “Watching others use public transport is what encouraged and motivated me,” says Babar. She has now joined the millions of Pakistani women, particularly in urban Pakistan, who are daring to be mobile on their own.

The credit for this acceleration in the number of women daring to go where no woman from their family had gone before goes, according to experts, to access to information technology and cellular mobile phones.

For Amber Zulfiqar, a Food and Travel Influencer & Digital PR Consultant, services like smart phone taxi services have eased up travelling for women. “Women are taking inspiration from other women — it grows like a chain. When a woman lets go of her fears of travelling alone, it is because she has heard stories of her friends using it or read encouraging material online.”

Most gender experts like Mahnaz Rahman, Director, Sindh chapter of the Aurat Foundation, agree that cellular phone access is a blessing for Pakistani women. “Technology has shown women a path that is a means to an end. Sitting at home, many women have become entrepreneurs with the help of social media,” says Rahman, adding that as ours is a patriarchal society, men have better access to information technology as more men than women have cellular phones, especially smart phones.

“Nonetheless, access to information technology has helped women get exposure to the world and step outside their cocoons, not just physically but also intellectually,” she says.

“The first step for women is to step out of their homes. Exposure helps them evolve and grow. This mobility is not just travelling from point A to point B — it is also about joining the workforce,” says Sibtain Naqvi, Head of Public Affairs at Careem.

Naqvi echoes the opinion that mobility is a serious challenge in Pakistan. “A mega city like Karachi is without a serving metro system. And the challenge is bigger for women. Even privileged women are dependent on males of the family to go out; women from the middle class who are educated are expected to sit at home simply because getting to work poses a challenge. The vans that women use to get to office and go back home do not provide personal mobility,” he adds.

A woman’s needs are beyond just getting to work or dropping and picking her children, and the urban woman has a lot on her plate owing to fast-paced lifestyles of both spouses. Taxis are prohibitively expensive, often not maintained, with rash drivers and security issues; rickshaws pose their own sets of problems.

Even privileged women are dependent on males of the family to go out; women from the middle class who are educated are expected to sit at home simply because getting to work poses a challenge.

Once urban women of Pakistan got access to cellular technology, smart phone taxi services began to fill the gap. “We are happy to share that 70 per cent of Careem’s customers who ride are females — females from all areas and all economic strata. What apps have done is that they have empowered women to make their own choices — something they do not get to exercise beyond the kitchen,” he says.

The impact of women’s access to technology is not just limited to riding with the help of such apps, but goes beyond. For Quratulain Tejani, for example, being a digital strategist and entrepreneur would not have been possible without access to a smart phone. “A few apps and tools have changed my life completely. Google Maps have made mobility so much easier and convenient. I can go from one corner of the city to another, knowing that I can find my routes easily. Even when I’m driving around and get lost, all I need is 3G and Google Maps to help me find my way,” she says, adding that Google Drive and WhatsApp have facilitated her in her professional life.

For the 200 plus female captains in Careem and for the female entrepreneurs behind the thousands of home-based small entrepreneurships that rely on social media for their marketing, cellular technology is providing opportunities of work.

These impacts are not limited to just upper tiers of society. In TAFF, one of the projects includes training and placement of women from underserved backgrounds in the Domestic Help industry.

“I’ve witnessed a dramatic transformation in students who graduate from our programme. Women who had never stepped out of their houses are now riding buses around the town to reach their workplaces on time. These are women who overcame their fears, including that of travelling on public transport to earn living incomes for their families.

“Most of them are also now part of WhatsApp groups created by TAFF-VTI to stay in touch with both students and alumni which is a testimony that technology is not only being introduced to but utilised as well by our students and graduates,” says Hammad Mateen, Programme Head at TAFF-VTI.

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The mobility, then, is more than just physical. Naqvi observes that generally, technology is associated with the male gender, especially in South Asia; while girls are encouraged to join Fine Arts and Humanities, boys are encouraged to work in the field of IT. But smartphones may have broken this technological barrier for women.

“We are seeing an interplay between women and technology. Even my mother has now moved to a smart phone so that she no longer has to wait for me to take her somewhere — she can just call a smart phone taxi service. This is true both for generations of technology immigrants as well as technology natives like the youth. This change is not just of physical mobility. It is sociologic as well as demographic,” he says.

However, experts like Uzma Quresh, Social Development Specialist with the World Bank Group warn against the vulnerabilities that women are exposed to due to being active on social media and using information technology. She cites examples of cyber harassment and also mentions cases of honour killings where a girl was killed because of having access to a phone or the internet.

“Virtual mobility gives women job opportunities. E-commerce portals and IT-related skills are profitable avenues for women and also give them exposure,” she says, but adds that society has to work not just on facilitating physical mobility of women but also ensure that virtual mobility does not lead to irreversible repercussions and safety threats for women.

“It is not enough to give women access to information technology and social media; we have to work on changing mindsets,” she says. The need, then, is that the collective social thought-process moves from being restrictive to being enabling for women. That, perhaps, will be real mobility for the women of Pakistan.

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International Women’s Day: The tough but unpaid work women do at home

 Published: March 8, 2018

The time has come that not just men, but also women, start recognising the immense contribution of women in the survival of a family and a society. PHOTO: ISTOCK

“So do you work or are you just a housewife?”

I remember being asked this question many times by people I was meeting for the first time. I also remember asking other women the same insensitive question, simply because I too, like so many of us, had been conditioned to only value work that gets remuneration in return.

Looking back, the years during which I took a hiatus from work as a journalist, because I was looking after a home and my family, were the years I perhaps worked the hardest. Even physically.

Imagine for a moment that the women all around us – the mothers, the wives, the daughters and daughters-in-law, the sisters and the sisters-in-law – demanded they be paid for the care and services they provide to their families. Imagine what their bank statement would look like at the end of the year!

Let’s look at the numbers. Around the world, women spend two to 10 times more time on unpaid care work and domestic work than men – work that is not often counted in labour statistics. Countries have valued unpaid care work between 15% and 39% of national GDP. Data shows that women often have a higher total work burden than men when paid and unpaid work is combined.

On March 7, 2018, Data2X launched a new report –“Invisible No More? A Methodology and Policy Review of How Time Use Surveys Measure Unpaid Work” –  with 18 case studies of countries that have started harnessing time use (TU) surveys to measure unpaid work and generate policy change regarding many issues relevant to social development. This is, in turn, making the world look at the tangible value of unpaid care and household work.

The report defines unpaid care and household work as work done by people to take care of their households and others – everyday unsung chores like cooking, cleaning, caring for children, the ill, and the elderly, and many other important tasks.

So many women among us are super women, literally. They do the jobs of cooks, cleaners, drivers, nurses, tuition teachers, psychological counsellors. They manage homes, finances and relationships. Any study of geriatrics shows that it is mostly, if not always, daughters who can be seen serving old parents and even parents-in-law.

TU surveys are important tools to understand where we, as members of the society, spend our most valuable asset – time. TU surveys, as the aforementioned report states, are quantitative summaries of how people spend their time over a specific period and how much time is spent doing each activity. These surveys help collect data that can be used to improve economic and social policies and have been used to advocate for policies that reduce the care burden, including expanding care for preschool children, elderly people, and people with disabilities. They inform and promote child protection policies by highlighting child labour and promoting broader child welfare systems. They help countries better value the contribution of unpaid care work to an economy, relative to GDP. Once we know who is spending time doing what in a society, countries can drive public campaigns to promote shared responsibilities in the home.

Today, we are celebrating International Women’s Day. And these issues can no longer be avoided. In rural areas, the load of carrying water still disproportionately falls on the women of the world because men, traditionally, do work that gets financial support for the family. But imagine if the women in rural Pakistan started charging for carrying the water back home. After all, this disparity does not only cost women time but also energy, and caloric requirements of water-fetchers increase – a requirement which is often not met for women. This is why now emphasis is being placed on highlighting the importance of men sharing the load of household chores with their women.

But what happens practically? The lion’s share of the food is given to the man because, hey, he is the one who earns. Managing a home, giving birth to children and then feeding them – it is a lot of unsung heroic work – one that needs to be appreciated. It’s high time.

As the Data2X report mentions, it is encouraging to see that slowly but surely, measuring reliably and comprehensively the unpaid household and care work traditionally performed by women has risen in prominence as a major challenge for official statistics.

Last year, in an encouraging initiative, the government of Sindh stood poised to adopt a policy for home-based workers (HBWs), making it the first province in the country to implement such a policy. Nonetheless, the fact remains that the list of home-based workers generally does not include the work women do at home.

Data2X’s new report mentions that in 2017, India’s Ministry of Labour and Employment’s Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act recognising women’s time spent in care work, went into effect. Such policies are needed in all developing countries.

The time has come that not just men, but also women, start recognising the immense contribution of women in the survival of a family and a society. Every woman works, even though she may not get paid for it. So let’s not dismiss their contribution, for they are the axis around which a society revolves.

Do you think women should be paid for household chores and care work?

  •  Yes, about time
  •  No, it’s part of their responsibilities

     View Results

Farahnaz Zahidi

Farahnaz Zahidi

Farahnaz is a writer and editor, and has worked as the Features Editor with The Express Tribune. Her focus is human-centric feature stories. She now writes as a freelancer, and works in the fields of communications and media training. She loves literature and traveling. She tweets as @FarahnazZahidi. Her work can be seen at chaaidaani.wordpress.com/

Life after the partner – Being a widow in Pakistan

 http://tns.thenews.com.pk/life-partner/#.WqJpYehubIU

Today a widow is not ready to accept her traditional role in society of being dependent on others for everything in life

Life after the partner

Every family had a few such widows — some young and others older. Their presence was not considered auspicious, and they were supposed to lead listless sedentary lives devoid of any hope for a better future, waiting for stipends and hand-me-downs, with a looming sense of guilt as if that woman was somehow responsible for the death of her husband.

More than a decade and a half since we entered the third millennium, the widowed women of Pakistan find themselves a little ahead of where they once stood on the social ladder yet are still entangled in some deep-rooted traditions, stigmas and restrictions.

More than a decade and a half since we entered the third millennium, the widowed women of Pakistan find themselves a little ahead of where they once stood on the social ladder yet are still entangled in some deep-rooted traditions, stigmas and restrictions.

Farah Kamal, an education and development consultant, describes her journey decade by decade: she grew up in the 80s, got married in the 90s, and became a widow in the new millennium. “For those girls who grew up when I did, we were not raised to lead independent lives. When I became a widow, I suddenly found myself alone. And independent. Thus, for me, the societal attitudes posed the biggest challenge, more than the financial challenge as I was already a working woman and could support myself financially.”

With the loss of her husband, Farah was encouraged by people to start living with her parents and siblings or to get a relative to live with them, a suggestion she did not accept. “We have the stereotypical image of a widow. She should be depressed, subdued, dressed in sober clothes. But today’s widow is not going to sit in a corner dressed in white, dependent on others to give her charity.”

Read also: Journey to legal rights

It is not just the woman who has lost her husband that suffers the impact of social stigma that surrounds a widow. It is also her children. While Ahmer Ali was an adult when he lost his father five years ago, his experience and observing as a son what his mother has gone through has taught him a lot about the plight of a widow. “For my mother and my siblings, both finances as well as the emotional trauma were huge challenges, as were the social taboos. Take a small example that in our society a widow is supposed to dress as soberly as she can. My mother loves to wear bright colors but after my father passed away I observed she begun to avoid clothes of colour. However, I ensured that she wore what she liked,” he says.

Commenting on social attitudes, Ahmer confesses that if the prospect of his mother remarrying would have come up soon after his father passed away, he may or may not have been able to accept it. “Five years down the lane, I say to myself ‘why not?’. People need to understand that widows also have a right to lead their lives as they wish, and have a right to start afresh if they like. In Islam, there is no obstacle in a widow’s remarriage; it is in fact encouraged. The clergy needs to spread awareness about this. But instead of encouraging the widow to move on with her life, people make the one who is mourning cry more. Social attitudes towards widows need to change. It is time.”

For Nazia* (name changed on request), the experience was not entirely negative when it came to how people acted towards her after she lost her husband. “My friends and family were quite empathetic and helpful when it happened,” she says, but adds that the experience has been mixed, “Because on my husband’s first death anniversary, my relatives, and that too close ones, called and expected me to be crying and be really sad. Incidentally, my daughter got engaged two years later on the same date that my husband had died, and even my closest of kin said, ‘why did you do it on the same date?’ I got tired explaining that the boy’s sister was leaving the next day so I did not have an option,” she says. “To date, I feel people observe me intently, and expect me to be sad and depressed,” she adds.

Yet, life has not allowed her that liberty. Gaping challenges faced this mother of two when her husband passed away, leaving them in the midst of financial challenges. “I didn’t really get any time to mourn. I was out of the house on the fourth day for the death certificate. Who else was there to support me and my girls?” As her family did not own a house, Nazia had to arrange a place to live soon after becoming a widow, and started working full-time to support herself and her daughters. “I heard comments like ‘haan haan tum to buhut independent ho, tumhain kisi ki zaroorat nahin (You are a very independent woman, seems you need no one)’.” But she did what she had to in order to survive. “In so many ways, I have become a stronger woman since I lost my husband,” she says.

Another social attitude is the assumption that widowed women are on the lookout for a man to remarry. “My male colleagues stopped visiting me [even for work] because their wives did not want their husbands to interact with me,” says Farah. She poignantly describes the experience of being widowed: “It was like being off-loaded on a dark highway in the middle of a journey.” Her being a financially empowered single woman has proven to be another challenge, as men see such a woman as a lucrative prospect.

Advising young girls, Farah says girls need to be independent and educated to be able to support themselves if such a situation in life arises. She is also of the opinion that girls should weigh carefully factors like health and lifestyle of a man before marrying, because unhealthy lifestyles or diseases of a man may result in his prematurely leaving this world, and the widow being left to suffer.

“I hate when in the ‘marital status’ column, I am asked to write ‘widow’,” Farah says. “This status does not identify who I am. I have also realised that my happiness is my own responsibility, as is my survival. This trial has made me stronger as a woman.”

Comfort zone – Mall Culture in Pakistan

 http://tns.thenews.com.pk/comfort/#.WqJnXOhubIU

For women leading hurried and over-worked urban lives, malls are perhaps more of sanctuaries than merely a collection of shops

Comfort zone

The roads leading to malls are choked with activity and traffic. Dolmen, Packages, Centaurus — these are household names and second home to Pakistani urban families.

When experts look at the demographics of those who frequent malls in Pakistani cities, the number of women is much larger than men, an easy double figure apparent even to the common observer. Mall culture has definitely arrived with a bang in Pakistan, and women are the reason why malls are the hub of hustle and bustle.

For people like Mehek Masood, it is simply more convenient to go to a mall as one can find all the brands under one roof. “Malls give us a totally different shopping experience. Not only are they facilitating us in the form of parking but food courts are also a big reason.”

For people like Mehek Masood, it is simply more convenient to go to a mall as one can find all the brands under one roof. “Not only are malls facilitating us in the form of parking but food courts are also a big reason.”

For young working women like her, shopping at a mall is preferable “because I can just hop from one shop to another. Whereas if I visit Zamzama or any other place, not only is it difficult to find parking in all that clutter, but I also feel that I am somehow rushing my buying decision,” says Masood who calls shopping at a mall a “recreational activity”.

Most women would agree that a mall is more than just shopping — it serves as a public space for families and friends in a country where safe and comfortable places are simply not enough. Malls also happen to be air-conditioned, and women, along with children, throng to malls for the comfort of lowered temperatures when mercury rises.

For Rushna Shamsi, a mother of four, it is the place of preference when she thinks of an outing with her children. It’s safer, more convenient, and provides one stop shopping. As a mother of young children it is an ideal choice. “My teenage boy enjoys the food court. My pre-teen girl loves shops with accessories. The toddler fits herself at the play area for kids. I love the food, the shopping, the ambience — all of it. But with kids it does get heavy on the pocket if visits are frequent,” she says, adding that for her the fact that malls provide a hygienic public space is also a factor that ropes her in.

However, looking at it from the perspective of the entrepreneurs and retailers that have shops in malls, women coming to malls might form the largest body of visitors, but are not the most serious buyers.

Ayesha Mansoor, the driving force behind popular brands for women’s clothing — Mausummery and Origins — says that women go to malls for the overall entertainment experience. “They are not serious shoppers. The visitors to shops in malls that come in are usually there for an outing or an eating spree. Malls are becoming popular as entertainment spots. Eating, grocery or even just window shopping are the main attractions,” she says, adding that retail sales are not doing well in malls due to high overheads. When asked why all brands still have shops in malls, her answer is simple: “to have brand presence”.

Not all women are fans of the trending mall culture. One such woman is Beena Imran. “In my opinion, with the busy lives that we lead nowadays, going to a mall is nothing but a waste of time unless you have nothing better to do. If I know what I want, and have jotted it down, I’d rather go to an individual shop than going through the hassle of reaching a mall, spending a good 15-20 minutes in reaching my desired shop and mostly not getting what I went for in the first place,” she says.

Yet, even women like her who are not big on malls acknowledge the reasons why malls are becoming popular. “They provide a recreational place for people from all walks of life. Some of them just go to the mall to sit and kill time. It may be a source of happiness for them and could help them forget their worries or problems in a lively atmosphere.”

For women leading hurried and over-worked urban lives, then, malls are perhaps more of sanctuaries than merely a collection of shops.

Did Yasra Rizvi deserve to be trolled for her unconventional mehr?

Published: January 7, 2017

Yasra’s unconventional mehr was something many had not heard of. PHOTO: FACEBOOK.

When actress Yasra Rizvi set out to marry Abdul Hadi, little did she know that her claim to fame will be that she married a man 10 years younger and her mehr, which her husband agreed to, is Fajr prayer (obligatory morning prayers for Muslims). The couple was scrutinised harshly through the lens of a magnifying glass, and was trolled on social media for one simple reason – they dared to do something against the norm. And nothing scares us like what we do not understand.

People are still familiar with the older-woman-weds-younger-man scenario, even though they see it as abominable, even those who harp on about how important following the example of the Prophet (pbuh) is, forget that it is also his Sunnah that he married a woman 15 years his senior at the prime of his youth.

But Yasra’s unconventional mehr was something many had not heard of. We, as a nation, have common misconceptions about this Islamic tenet, stemming from a lack of awareness. Yasra, thank you! You taking this step out of the norm may just have triggered a debate that could result in some authentic information regarding the concept of mehr trickling into our collective narrative.

Here are just a few very basic facts about the concept of mehr. While these are just a few pointers, I hope this will encourage us to talk about mehr and help expose some myths:

Mehr (also called haq mehr) is a mandatory payment of tangible assets, currency, property or an intangible, conditional commitment or understanding that both parties agree upon.

Yes, a mehr can be intangible, as is in Yasra Rizvi’s case. The best example of an intangible mehr comes from the Sahabiya Umm Sulaym Bint Milhan al-Ansarriyah (ra) who agreed to marry Abu Talha (ra), and the mehr was him accepting Islam.

Islam has not fixed an upper or lower limit of mehr. It will depend upon the financial standing of both the man and the woman.

While no amount or limit has been prescribed, it shouldn’t be an amount so extravagant that the man cannot afford to pay (and is just fixed to portray financial or social standing). Nor should it be so miniscule that the tenet appears to have been taken lightly. However, once again, no sum or limit has been set, neither upper nor lower.

The amount is to be decided upon after mutual consultation between the man and the woman tying the knot. This is one more reason why the couple entering into the contract read through and understand the clauses of the nikkah nama, and the terms are mutually agreed upon. If elders of the family help with the consultation, it should be made sure that the man and the woman are on the same page and are aware of the agreement.

Mehr is an absolutely obligatory clause of the contract of marriage for Muslims, no matter how big or small the amount.

Mehr is designed as a means of security and protection for the woman. It will be the sole property of the woman and she will have discretion over how and when to spend it. It is therefore a part of the nikkah, and its payment is not conditional with or tied to the incidence of talaaq (divorce). It is therefore strongly recommended that it is paid at the time of the nikkah. However, if there is a genuine reason why it cannot be paid at that time, mawajjal/muakhhar (deferred/promised) rather than mo’ajjal/muqaddam (immediate/prompt), then it should be paid as soon as the man can afford to pay it. Till such time that he pays it to her, it is considered a kind of debt that he owes to his wife. Islam makes clear that if he cannot pay it at that given time, he should intend on paying it at the earliest.

Upon a man’s death, all that he leaves behind as inheritance for his heirs may not be distributed among the inheritors until all payments or debts he owes to anyone are paid off, which includes the mehr.

No man who wishes to marry a woman is exempt from mehr. Thus, the custom of asking the wife to “forgive him the mehr” is not in line with Islamic tenets.

Knowledge gives one the power to make informed decisions. Yasra used that power. Instead of wasting time judging her decision, it’s best to learn more so that we, too, can make informed decisions.

Information shared in this write-up is based on authentic Islamic traditions.

Farahnaz Zahidi

Farahnaz Zahidi

Farahnaz is a writer and editor, and has worked as the Features Editor with The Express Tribune. Her focus is human-centric feature stories. She now writes as a freelancer, and works in the field of marketing and corporate communications. She loves literature and traveling. She tweets on @FarahnazZahidi. Her work can be seen at chaaidaani.wordpress.com/

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

http://blogs.tribune.com.pk/story/44707/did-yasra-rizvi-deserve-to-be-trolled-for-her-unconventional-mehr/

Are Pakistan’s “still unmarried” women the leftovers?

Published: April 15, 2016

A painting by Cynthia Angeles titled Grief

The best ones get taken first. The ones that are second choice get taken next. Those who are still not taken are considered ‘left overs’ – something must be lacking. No we are not talking about the kurtas on sale at a pret store, nor the shoes on the rack of an international shoe store. We are talking about women. Talented, smart, intelligent Pakistani women, each uniquely beautiful, irrespective of whether she is poised to be a home maker or a working woman. It is shameful that this is how society perceives them if they are still unmarried.

Being engaged or ‘in a relationship’ buys one a little time before the pressure begins to build up. But this is not just about the pressure on single women in Pakistan to get married. This is more about the blows to their self-esteem when the world seems like a market place (excuse the crass but apt analogy), and if no suitor has expressed a desire to marry you, you are a lesser being – the unwanted woman.

I got married young, so I never faced the unwanted stigma. But even then, one question used to spring up in conversations; shaadi se pehle kitnay rishtay aaye the? (How many proposalsdid you get before you got married?). Your worth, somehow, is associated with how many men wanted to make you their life partner, or how many mothers saw potential in you.

Sadly not much has changed; intelligent, enterprising and highly educated Pakistani women find themselves in a lurch. The late 20s, early 30s women who spent a lot of time in education, once done with their studies, find themselves in a tricky spot, especially if they studied abroad, and now have too much self-worth to allow themselves to be showcased. It is a shock to them that years later, social attitudes in Pakistan are still the same. Many of them go back abroad as the constant judgment that comes with being single is too much to take.

Every action has a reaction. The culture of measuring a woman by the number of proposalsshe receives has ignited a strong reaction within women; one that makes them sick to the idea of marriage. The trend is not a healthy effect, and we may call it a side-effect of women gaining too much independence, but decades of harming women’s self-esteem is the real cause.

A collective sentiment that may not be pronounced as yet, but is slowly and steadily growing among Pakistan’s urban and financially independent women are ‘why marry at all if one has to go through so much scrutiny, humiliation and even rejection?’

Which raises other valid questions like: Why should it be the woman who serves the tea trolley when the potential suitors and their families come to see her? Why should she face the rejection; and on what basis?

Asian cultures across the continent are jarringly similar. A recent advertisement in China aimed at empowering women has gone viral. It talks about how young single Chinese women are literally called the leftovers.

Pakistan may not have a specific word for it, but this is what is implied. And in the rishta (proposal) market, the most valuable currency is, of course, the physical aspect.

A multitude of TV ads perpetuate the same sickening thought process: Be thinner if you want to marry, be fairer if you want to marry, use bleach creams, and have flowing dead straight hair, look and dress a certain way if you want to marry.

If a man in his 30s is unmarried, nobody will blame his paunch, thinning gray hairline or his height, weight or complexion. He will be given the benefit of doubt and excuses will be made FOR him – he was busy studying because he is so brilliant; he was busy building a career because he is so responsible; he was waiting for his sisters to get married because he is so noble.

But for a woman, it seems how her outward appearance is all that she is worth. She must be young enough to bear children and good looking enough to appease the man. Come to urban Pakistan and in addition to this, she should ideally also have a degree from a decent university – a degree which, in all probability, she may not ever use.

Marriage is a very important milestone in a person’s life. It is a promise of a long term partnership and a more well-rounded life, and is something most men and women aim for. It is a commitment that needs adjustment, it’s not a fairy tale, but is worth the trouble. Having said that, no one deserves to be made to feel inferior for not having been chosen by suitors.

Today’s single Pakistani women are not necessarily leftovers – many of them simply don’t want a man who is shallow enough to choose or reject them, only on the basis of how they look. They feel they are better off being without such a man. So spare a woman the pity when you see her happening, single and in her 30s. She doesn’t need it.

Intolerance or Awareness? Thousands of Pakistani women opting for Khula

Khula: A woman’s right to divorce with dignity

Published: April 1, 2016
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PHOTO: REUTERS

PHOTO: REUTERS

“There is more to life than just a man,” says Sajida*, explaining her decision to file for Khula. A working woman in her 30s, she is one of the thousands of women from Karachi who opt for it every year. “For my mother and women from earlier generations in my family, even thinking of Khula as an option was impossible.”

Khula is prerogative of husband, not courts, says CII

Where Khula – the right of a woman to seek divorce – is concerned, Pakistani women, today, are on the brink of a major social change. The numbers of women opting for it is growing at an unprecedented rate in Pakistan’s urban centres and data retrieved from family courts confirms this.  Within the first 10 days of 2016, 36 applications for Khula were filed in Karachi alone. On December 31, 2015, 12,733 cases of Khula were still pending in family courts of four districts in Karachi – South, East, West and Centre districts. In recent years, Malir seems to have the highest number of registered Khula cases among all localities of Karachi. On December 31, 2015, there were 700 filed cases in Malir. Within 45 days, another 200 were added bringing the average to about five new cases a day in this area alone. “If 10 cases are resolved or disposed, 50 new ones are added. The numbers keep growing,” says Urdu journalist Arshad Baig, who has spent years reporting court stories in Karachi.

The Council of Islamic Ideology’s recent declaration that it is un-Islamic for courts to use Khula without the consent of a husband to dissolve a marriage triggered heated debate on the subject. Yet, with Pakistan’s family law allowing it, women are now more ready to use this right when a marriage gets too much to bear.

According to Pakistan’s family law, in the law of Islamic jurisprudence, Khula remains a woman’s unequivocal right. “The court cannot deny the woman the right of Khula,” says lawyer Summaiya Zaidi, adding that Khula is when the wife applies to the court for dissolution of the marriage contract. While Islam encourages the family unit be kept intact, provisions of Khula and divorce have been given to both genders to be able to free themselves if a marriage fails despite trying on grounds of solid reasons.

The Pakistani women risking it all for their rights

In Zaidi’s experience, the most common grounds for women seeking Khula are domestic violence, physical and/or emotional abuse, inability of husband to provide for her financially and lack of love or affection given by the husband. “It can also be just general unhappiness or hatred for the husband. The provision for Khula is found in the premise that Islam concedes the right to a wife to free herself from the contract where life becomes a torture for both.” However, Zaidi explains this is not an absolute right but is controlled by the court. “A successful exercise of this right is dependent on the Judge reaching the conclusion that the spouses cannot live together within the limits of God,” she says. In most cases of Khula, as permitted by Islamic law, the woman agrees to let go of the Meher (dower) that the husband has to give to her and may also agree on further monetary negotiations to work her way out of a marriage.

Mufti Muhammad Zahid affirms it is a right Islam has granted to women. Like many mainstream muftis (Islamic jurists), he believes both spouses must agree on the act of Khula. “One sided Khula initiated by the wife with the husband not agreeing to it, is unreliable,” he says. But he also agrees that the Qazi, which today amounts to the Judge of a family court, can nullify the nikaah on solid grounds.

Fight for rights

Khula is different from Talaq-i-Tafweez, explains Zaidi. The latter is the power to grant a divorce; this right, though, belongs to the husband, yet it can be delegated to another such as his wife or a third person either absolutely or conditionally, limited by time or permanently. “The person to whom the right has been delegated can then pronounce Talaq accordingly. In essence, this means that the wife can divorce herself. Such a Talaq, once exercised, would be effective after expiry of 90 days unless revoked by husband or wife,” says Zaidi. The nikahnama carries this optional clause and with rising awareness an increasing number of women have begun to check the box of Talaq-i-Tafweez in the marital contract.

For women like Sajida, Khula is what she calls a lifesaving decision. While reasons for Khula vary from couple to couple, in Sajida’s experience it was her ex-husband’s lack of responsibility, taking her for granted and considering her useless. “He was very jealous and unkind. I cooked for him and looked after the house and even contributed financially but he never valued anything. If I were not an educated or working woman I would have committed suicide,” she shares with a shudder.

Khula was not the first option for her and she tried to make things work for almost a decade. “I just wanted him to respect me but he never did. He told me many times that I am fat and ugly,” she says. Sajida’s ex-husband, who suffered from bipolar disorder, let go of her very easily. “We didn’t have any kind of physical contact since years, so he felt guilty. I feel it was the main reason he easily let me go,” she says, and shares that she considers herself lucky to be out of a life of confinement.

‘Khula’ without husband’s consent is un-Islamic: CII

For some of Sajida’s contemporaries, however, the options are less relenting and women are forced to live in marriages where the reasons for opting for Khula would be more than valid, such as impotency, mental or physical disorders, and abuse or even infidelity.

Time to accept

While Khula is undeniably a right and the acceptance levels may have increased, it is never taken lightly. The first reaction of most people Sajida encountered was that this is the price urban Pakistani women are paying for economic empowerment. ‘Yeh human rights walay aur TV dramay aurton ke dimagh karab kartay hain (human rights activists and television dramas have corrupted our women)’ is a common reaction when the increased rates of Khula are brought up.

Women’s rights activists fiercely defend a woman’s right to be able to liberate herself from a crippling marriage. “But it’s never a good thing that a family gets broken. Unlike what people assume, human rights activists like myself, who support women’s rights, do not encourage women to seek divorce and make it their duty to listen to both sides of the story. We try to reconcile their differences,” says Mahnaz Rahman of the Aurat Foundation.

But sometimes the differences are irreconcilable. Such was the case with Naila* who stayed in an abusive marriage for 26 years but never considered seeking Khula. Instead, her marriage ended with her husband divorcing her on his second wife’s pressure. “I am from the generation when mothers taught their daughters ‘Jis ghar mein shareef aurat ki doli jaati hai, wahan se uska janaza uth ta hai’ (a decent woman’s funeral is in the same home where she goes as a bride). This doli-to-janaza mentality was so firmly driven in a girl’s mind that she chose to suffer in silence,” says Naila. She could not take that leap of faith as she felt staying in the marriage was for her children’s better future. The onus of protecting the children from the effects of a broken home sat squarely on the mothers and women would also brush issues under the rug for this reason, confirms Naila. “But sometimes children are better off when they do not see their mothers tormented,” she adds.

Reasons cited in cases of Khula vary but experts agree that economic empowerment of women is translating into the fact that they are no longer willing to live in a perpetual abuse or neglect. “With economic independence comes a sense of self-worth.  A sense of rights and women wonder why they should tolerate unjust behaviour,” says Rahman.

“We are witnessing fairly rapid social change in cities across Pakistan with regards to gender norms and as Pakistan is one of the most rapidly urbanising countries in the world, these changes are significant for the country as a whole,” says Nida Kirmani, who teaches Sociology at Lahore University of Management Science and is a gender activist. In Kirmani’s opinion, migration to cities opens up possibilities for women to move away from the restrictions of extended kinship networks, which sometimes allows them more room to challenge social norms.

More and more girls in urban Pakistan are getting equal opportunities of education. They are topping the grades and getting good jobs. “See Karachi: Two generations of boys in this city have gotten pre-occupied with political activities, their education and careers took a back seat. The girls filled that gap, and excelled, and went ahead,” adds Rahman. But she agrees the levels of tolerance among women have receded. “The overall climate of intolerance in our society is effecting the institution of marriage too,” opines Rahman.

Wind of change

Khula may be a woman’s right but is not always a smooth ride. Based on the cases Zaidi has handled, she advises women to make sure they get all their valuable belongings out of the house before they leave. “Leave first for a safe secure home and then apply for Khula,” she says, explaining how a woman applying for Khula can make the man vindictive and even harmful. “In most cases the potential drama of divorce is unveiled when one reads the grounds for Khula as stated in the Plaint by the woman. Even if a man was willing to grant the Khula, once he reads the allegations against him he may become defensive; it affects his ego,” mentions Zaidi. She believes it works both ways: If a woman were to read such allegations against her, her ego would also be hurt. “It is never nice to read in official documentation that one was an awful spouse,” she adds.

“It was a shocker when I received that brown envelope from the court informing me that my wife had applied for Khula,” says Salman*, a resident of South Karachi, who confesses that the document was the wake-up call which made him amend some of his ways. “Our families got involved because our three children’s lives were at stake and convinced her to give me a second chance,” he shares. It was then he agreed to go for marriage counselling with his wife. “If this had not happened, I know I would have continued beating her. I am not a bad man. I love my family. But I never thought her threats of leaving me could ever be true. I never took her seriously,” he says. Eventually, the couple did not get separated. According to his wife, “No one changes completely but now he knows he can’t cross certain limits.”

While Khula may be a liberating option for women not all women are innocent or fair in how they file the cases. Revenge is a very real factor both in cases of Khula or divorce and both genders indulge in this very basic human emotion.

Zaidi has worked on cases where the man needs defending. She cites the example of a case where the man was not guilty of the reasons specified in the Suit against him, which were cruelty, mental torture and lack of financial security. “If we didn’t defend him he would have to pay her maintenance,” she says.

Undoubtedly, more Pakistani women today feel empowered enough to leave unhappy marriages. “Most people would argue that this is cause for concern,” says Kirmani. “But I think this is a welcome change as many women suffer too long in silence.” But for single mother Aisha*, who opted for Khula and remarried few years later, this trend is neither good nor bad. “If previous generations suffered, with more awareness of women’s rights hopefully future generations will progressively get better. It’s a part of progress, of life moving forward.”

*Names have been changed to protect identity.