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Asia

Pakistani women continue to fight gender inequality

More and more women in Pakistan are fed up with gender inequality. They have started to demand more rights. In 2006, a law was passed to improve their situation, but the legislation has yet to be implemented.

Pakistani human right activists chant slogans during a rally to mark International Women's Day, Thursday, March 8, 2007 in Hyderabad, Pakistan. Thousands of women demonstrated in nation-wide rallies on International Women's Day, demanding freedom, equal rights and an end to discriminatory laws in this Muslim nation. (AP Photo/Pervez Masih)

Demonstration für Frauenrechte in Pakistan 2007 Frauentag

When women in Pakistan open a bank account, apply for a visa or want to buy a house, they are asked to provide information about their father, brother or husband.

"That has become part of our life," Zavi Fatima, a young news anchor from Pakistan, told DW. She has more rights than other young women in Pakistan because she is from a well-to-do and educated family. Having a career is almost normal for women from the upper classes. Successful female politicians such as Fatimah Jinnah, sister of the country's founding father Mohammed Ali Jinnah, and Benazir Bhutto, the first head of government of an Islamic country, speak for that.

Zavi Fatima

Zavi Fatima enjoys more rights than a lot of women in Pakistan

But they only represent a minority. The majority of women in Pakistan do not enjoy so much freedom. They live in a system that is far from equal and most of them can do nothing other than deal with it.

Girls - more of a burden

Traditional values play an especially important role in rural areas, where girls are often seen as a burden. They require a dowry when they want to marry. And after marriage, they have to move in with the family of their husband. Parents of married-off girls thus often feel having girls is a wasted investment.

"That's why in rural areas, men often make very unfair and even cruel decisions for the women in their homes," Zavi explained. "In the southern province of Sindh, for example, women are even forcibly married to the Koran." Women married to the Koran cannot be married by any man. The woman's land and belongings stay in the family.

Pakistani human rights activist Asma Jahangir addresses the media during a press conference in Srinagar, India, Saturday, March 8, 2008. Asma is on a two days visit to Jammu Kashmir to meet political and separatist leaders. (AP Photo/Mukhtar Khan)

Asma Jahangir says activists have helped improve the lives of women

But the problem did not only lie in tradition, she said, but was also due to a lack of education.

"Women often do not know that traditions are interpreted falsely," for example, the Islamic concept of waldiyat, which translated means fatherhood. "Waldiyat itself is not bad, it only means that a woman should ask a male family member for advice before making important decisions. But in many places, 'advice' is interpreted as 'force.'"

Women's rights and national laws

Pakistani women athlete Rabia Ashiq with her male colleagues during practice session. Photo: Tariq Saeed/DW.

Pakistani women are allowed to play sports but have to cover their bodies

The unfair treatment of women in Pakistan is also due to the country's legislation, which, throughout the years, has greatly restricted the rights of women. Even upper-class women feel the effects of such laws. Jehan Ara, who is over 40 years old and CEO of an IT company, complained that she needed written permission from her father to get a visa for Indonesia.

Gender equality was guaranteed in the country's constitution in 1973. But the implementation of that leaves much for want.

There have been a number of defeats in the fight for gender equality. General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq, who was in power from 1978 to 1988, implemented laws in 1979 that were much more misogynistic than Sharia law. In Pakistan they are referred to as the Hudood Ordinance or Hudood Law. Among other things, they forbade women from playing sports and also prescribed the use of the so-called purdah, a type of clothing similar to a burqa which was created to isolate women from their surroundings and must be worn in public.

Even Benazir Bhutto fought for women's rights but during her two terms in office from the end of the 1980s to the mid 1990s, but she failed to pass legislation guaranteeing the protection of them. It wasn't until the year 2006 that the Pakistani parliament under the leadership of General Pervez Musharraf passed the Women's Protection Bill, which was supposed to repeal some Hudood laws.

It will take time

Britta Petersen

Britta Petersen says Germany also took time to realize women's rights

"The current government is also trying to improve the situation of women in Pakistan. But many of the problems persist because of old customs and traditions," Britta Petersen, director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation's Pakistan office in Islamabad, told DW. Women were stepping up their fight for equality. Yet the implementation of the laws was still difficult, even in big cities, Petersen pointed out.

"You have to have a police force which is trained and motivated to prosecute certain crimes if you want to enforce a law. On top of that, you have to be able to find witnesses willing to make statements."

Women's and human rights activists had accomplished a lot the past three decades, according to Asma Jahangir, a renowned lawyer and women's rights activist in Pakistan.

"We have accomplished much more than we expected, but it will still take time before all women in Pakistan profit from that."

"We must not forget that it wasn't that long ago that in Germany men had to give their approval if a woman wanted to open up a bank account,“ Petersen pointed out. And just like in Germany, it would take some time before the transition was complete in Pakistan.

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