South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

Chasing feminism in Pakistan

Back in my university life, feminism, as a discourse, used to fascinate me a lot as a student of Political Science. The reason for the fascination was twofold: One reason was objective in nature and the other was subjective.

Knowing the fact the way the world had been objectively striving to make the states’ economic development models gender inclusive in nature through Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with respect to which Pakistan had very poor indicators, I wanted to understand what were the factors that were impeding Pakistan’s progress towards those objectively defined goals.

On the subjective front, it invoked my interest because its discourse was challenging. It challenged my overall way of looking at the world, keeping in view I belonged to one of the religiously conservative districts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Studying its discourse was nothing less than learning, unlearning and relearning my approach to understand social dynamics of the society I was part of; that is why I even pursued my final thesis about women empowerment in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

After having studied theoretical discourses related to feminism, having discussed its various nuances with a diverse spectrum of students from different backgrounds in Pakistan and having observed Pakistan’s slow pace to catch up with feminist ideals being followed at large across the world, I have come to the conclusion that though the government has been taking steps to meet the criteria defined for women empowerment through comparisons with SDGs by taking steps in legal, economic and political spheres, yet it has hardly been making any substantial efforts in making its discourse heard among masses; as a result, every time the government tries to portray an outlook of pluralist Pakistan to the world, through laws aimed at women empowerment in any sphere of life, it has to face a formidable backlash from the masses. This is what happened recently with many legislations passed at Punjab Assembly for women empowerment.

Almost everyone in the academia promotes the idea of women empowerment, but I have rarely come across someone who seems seriously concerned about the issue and wants to debate its nuances in a critical manner

Although a plethora of human rights organisations are working for women empowerment in Pakistan- through following the mantra of personal-is-political and highlighting case stories of women’ woes in order to not only subjectively aware the masses so that they understand the severity of the issue but also to push the government to take steps for women empowerment through pressure of the global media’s attention — are working hard to make the discourse related to women empowerment perceptible among masses yet it is the sheer responsibility of the government to make sure it utilises every platform, especially academia, to educate masses about various nuances of women empowerment in which the government seems to have utterly failed.

The best platform the government can optimise to spread its message of women empowerment to wider masses is academia. In academia, the government can sponsor research projects related to gender-related issues in the society and can arrange conferences over its various facets.

This will help students engage in meaningful ways and will help mold their minds about the issue in general. Students equipped with nuanced gender discourses will be messengers in their own society. However, honestly speaking, as per my observation, making government a punching bag for not customising academia for the promotion of pluralist society with reference to gender in Pakistan will be a sheer injustice to academia itself.

Almost everyone in academia promotes the idea of women empowerment, but I have rarely come across someone, very few I would say, who are seriously concerned about this issue and want to have debates over its nuances in a critical manner. Deep below their superficial disposition towards women empowerment is embedded pervasive conservatism that has enveloped the society.

Pakistan’s pursuit of pluralist society through women empowerment in actual terms is not possible by taking objective measures in the likes of laws in order to meet the criteria of SDGs. Instead, it needs to engage its citizens subjectively on this issue. And the only way to do so is to educate the masses about the significance of the issue through critical discussions. Incredible things can happen if we start talking about this issue to one another. Since my graduation’s thesis, I have come across students from a vast spectrum. Majority of them were from very conservative backgrounds like me. I was amazed to hear in conversations with them that they also found discourses related to women empowerment thought-provoking. The point in sharing my conversations with students from far-flung areas is that there is curiosity among students for counter-narratives. If they are provided with a counter-narrative apart from popular social narrative which society feeds them about role of women day, they can turn popular paradigms upside down through power of their imagination and can turn out to be harbingers for a gender inclusive society in Pakistan in the near future. Otherwise, their imaginative power will be used by the society for reinforcing its own conservative paradigms.

There is a dire need that an inclusive effort is made to bring gender-related issues into public sphere so that its discussion is not perceived as a taboo anymore. Its discussion is made as normal and as significant as any political issue by masses which it does with a lot of interest. Exposing its masses to critical debates about women empowerment can help Pakistan achieve a pluralist society instead of chasing solely objective measures defined by the world which are out of touch with the challenges in Pakistan for gender mainstreaming.


The writer is an MPhil scholar studying International Relations at Department of Political Science at University of the Punjab, Lahore. He can be reached at [email protected]



Updated On: 11-Oct-17