Pakistan, much like the rest of the world, marks International Women’s Day on March 8 as a celebration of the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. Unfortunately, despite paying lip service, the country has failed to safeguard the rights enshrined for women in its Constitution. In the latest salvo, the government of Azad Jammu and Kashmir made the hijab mandatory on all female students and teachers at co-educational institutions of the region, recalling the restrictions women face in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and theocratic Iran.
Women in Islamic societies often get a raw deal. Fundamentalists question their participation in public life, demanding they stay at home in the form of chattel with rights subordinate to those of men. This oppression is supported through the use of religion, with an emphasis on Islam being the “only religion” that gives women their rights. This is rarely reflected in ground realities, with rural women—many of them uneducated—suffering the most, as the educated, urban class is restrained with questionable religious instructions. Some men—and women—also argue in favor of the hijab, by claiming that its opposition is a Western import. This was readily seen in pre-revolution Iran, when women were encouraged to rebel against the “Western dress” popular during the Shah’s rule.
Pakistan’s views on women’s rights are primarily inconsistent. Despite celebrating the first woman prime minister of the Muslim world, its law often discriminate against them, with many women being denied their due share of inheritance. Even those who can avail it are bound by shariah, which calls for a daughter to inherit half the share of a son. A woman with no siblings, meanwhile, is only eligible for half the share of her father’s property, while two daughters would receive a third share each. A widower receives a fourth of his deceased wife’s property, while a widow receives an eighth—though this is increased to a fourth if she has a son.
Under Pakistan’s Constitution, “there shall be no discrimination on the basis of sex alone.” This is rarely practiced. Despite accounting for 49 percent of Pakistan’s population, women receive just 18 percent its labor income. The annual Aurat March regularly advocates for greater participation of women in the labor force, stressing that financial independence is key to a more progressive society. This, however, comes with its own issues, as women—especially home-based workers—are routinely denied legal protection and social security, leaving them easy prey for toxic employers.