by Kiyomi Ran, a Chinese-Japanese-American International Relations student, who is currently interning at the Embassy of Pakistan in Japan.
No one denies what happened to Qandeel Baloch was an act of horrific tragedy that no women should ever go through. The Pakistani celebrity who walked a thin line between being provocative, being fresh, and being disrespectful to the country met a fate no one imagined – or at least, no one in the west did. But to suddenly attack Pakistan’s seemingly-backward policies towards women’s rights like many of the people and news outlets did is also simply wrong, as it only exaggerates Pakistan’s failures. Instead, it is important to remember that this act of honor killing is a cultural practice and like any cultural practices is met with resistance when the voice for change is raised. Of course, that does not mean it should be justified, but with this case, once again the international has denounced the women’s rights activism in Pakistan. And yes, while Pakistani society has systemically subordinated women, there are cultural limitations that exist that are unknown to the outside.
In fact, Pakistan has a huge rich and poor, urban and rural divide. The women in more modernized cities like Lahore and Karachi enjoy more freedom than before. Yet, most of the 182 million people in Pakistan live in the rural, tribal areas where violence against women exist the most. This divide is a major issue in Pakistan, as the difference in the level of modernization makes changes forceful if the government seeks to implement and execute laws in the tribal areas.
In a country that carries numerous problems, the government needs the support of the people in the tribal areas in combatting other issues like terrorism, poverty, and literacy. This gives the government difficulty in trying to implement change while also gaining respect and trust from the people. For example, the jirgas – or traditional assembly of tribal leaders – in these areas that convene on matters of territorial security and terrorism organized by the national military are still only limited to men, though there is a reason to that. According to Colonel Zulifqar Bhatty, Army and Air Adviser at High Commission of Pakistan in London, the Pakistani government need to recognize and respect these traditions first in order to gain trust, which can then lead to a better, collective solution to terrorism. In fact, the north-west border of Pakistan has been perhaps one of the only successful attempts to eradicate terrorist threats owing to these efforts.
Pakistan is a faith and culture-oriented country with diverse groups; many developed countries have wiped away culture, but it would be unfair to radically demand that to Pakistan, so the problem of women’s rights should not focus on how “malicious” the culture is and how to change the culture, but rather on what else can be done to improve the issue.
And like many developing countries, important infrastructure like roads and hospitals and social programs such as healthcare and education, are still limitedly available to over 100 million rural population of Pakistan, which pose a problem in trying to enforce and change the mindset on gender subordination. While non-governmental organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch denounce the increase of honor killing cases in Pakistan, this is because more cases have been reported due to the better infrastructure and technology. In fact, there has been a decrease of violence in places where infrastructure has been developed as it gives easier access to law enforcement. Furthermore, education can be the key to decreasing the number of violence. Education can not only teach young children a changing mindset, but also allow them to possibly travel to more urban and developed areas of Pakistan to see the change themselves. Education can also alleviate poverty in a society in the long-run. Development in healthcare can help the victims with both physical and psychological traumata to not continue the negative cycle of violence providing them with support groups and safe havens.
This proves that if the western media really wants to see change, they should invest more on these infrastructures rather than simply condemning the government’s inability. If they don’t want to, that’s fine too – changes are more effective when they come from within anyways.
Apart from making sensible cultural considerations and developing infrastructure, there also needs to be a stricter application of law. In Pakistan, there are already many laws that protect women from all kinds of violence. For example, the Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Bill was signed into law in 2011 unanimously by the Parliament holds acid attackers to face life in prison.
The Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act 2015 passed in 2016 marked a great victory for women’s rights activists in Pakistan, where the country’s most populous province vowed to respond to any form of abuse towards women. Recent initiatives include setting up a direct helpline, increasing female protection officers, creating housing for victims, and providing financial support to these women. There is also a movement to rewrite the law on honor killings with the loophole allowing the killer to be acquitted if the family forgives him. These bills serve as an important step towards prevention of violence against women in Pakistan.
But again, there were far more articles written on Qandeel Baloch than on any bills that support internal changes in women’s rights.
Of course, again it is hard to enforce laws in rural areas where these crimes occur the most, as there is less information and less access to these regions, and the western media doesn’t really report these positive changes. But the historical Act passed in 2016 has already been received by much public praise, though was very limitedly reported outside the country, and it will take some time before the full effect finally sinks in. Pakistan needs time to adopt, to adjust, and to enforce.
Cultural considerations, infrastructural development, and law application are all initiatives that could bring positive change to women’s rights in Pakistan – and they all indeed come from within Pakistan. With the recent Qandeel Baloch case, Pakistan was once again under international scrutiny for its failure to protect its women. Yet, these outside outlets give only a negative rapport to the country’s image and does not give enough credit to the positive aspects.
For example, there are more females represented in the Parliament than many developed countries such as Japan, the United States, and Liechtenstein, and the highest ranked female general in Pakistan has more stars than in the United Kingdom. The country has also recently created an initiative to increase the number of female police officers in the most conservative part of the country. Then, to blatantly say that Pakistan has horrible women’s rights is misleading. Like any developed country, Pakistan is struggling to cope with the division among the people, and it has done so much to try to amend it. The international scrutiny is nothing but another punch to Pakistan’s confidence, as it only deprecates the changes the country has tried to instrument. Therefore, changes can only come from within, as it is more effective coming from those who actually know the limitations in trying to modernize. One thing for sure, is that the women’s rights in Pakistan is only moving forward, and never backward.