Don’t blame the military alone: women’s rights in Pakistan

While religious parties in Pakistan have seldom secured big vote shares, all political parties tow their line. Why? And what is the way out?

The story of sixteen-year-old Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani activist shot in the forehead by the Taliban in Pakistan’s Swat, tragically epitomizes the plight of women in Pakistan. Almost everyday, there is some incident involving the destruction of schools for girls, killings of female teachers, honour killings, and acid throwing. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reports 791 honor killings in 2010 and 913 in 2011.

A target of religious extremists, Malala maintained that education is the key to empower Pakistan’s women and to bring stability in the region. In her speech to the UN assembly, Malala noted: “The extremists are afraid of books and pens. The power of education frightens them. They are afraid of women. The power of the voice of women frightens them … that is why they are blasting schools every day because they were and they are afraid of change and equality that we will bring to our society.”

If education holds the solution to rid Pakistan of its problems, what stops the country from utilizing it? Most blame the military regime of Zia-ul-Haq for facilitating the capture of politics by religious extremist groups who have no respect for women’s rights. While not inaccurate, such an analysis takes away from the mutual dependence of the military and religious classes when it comes to legitimizing and sustaining each other’s power base. The military has long used religious groups for a variety of purposes including projecting its power abroad. In return, it has allowed the religious class to impose its version of Islam on all aspects of life. Women are among the major losers in this bargain. To be sure, it is under Zia’s Islamization project that victims of rape can be prosecuted as criminals under the Hudood Ordinance.

If the military’s alliance with the religious class has undermined women’s rights, did the five years of democratically elected government prove to be any better? On the contrary, in 2012, Pakistan ranked 134 out of a total 135 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index, which measure gender disparities across several dimensions.

Religious groups began flexing their muscles soon after the creation of Pakistan in 1947. Democratic governments, like military regimes, are not above manipulating religion and strengthening religious classes for political gains. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto declared Ahmadis as constitutionally ‘non-Muslim’ in 1974 when called upon to do so by religious groups. Nawaz Sharif attempted to implement the Shariat Bill in 1998. Subsequently, it comes as little surprise that the 2013 “Acid Throwing and Burn Crime Bill” remains stalled in the Parliament.

While religious parties have seldom secured big vote shares, all political parties tow their line. Why? For this, we need to look at yet another powerful class in Pakistan: the landed elite or the zamindar class, which dominates not only all political parties but also exercises a dominant influence on the military’s officer corps. This class' economic power allows it to rule its fiefdoms with its own form of local governance through panchayats and Jirga courts, which are supposed to uphold customary traditions and Islamic laws. In June 2012, the execution of three women in Kohistan was tied to the sentencing of a Jirga court. The women were executed for singing and dancing at a wedding, which the Jirga held to be ‘dishonorable.’ These village-level institutions form the bases of the alliance between the religious class and the landed elite, where both have vested interests in supporting the agenda of the other.

For education to transform Pakistan’s society to what Malala advocates for, the mutual dependence and shared power of the military, the religious class, and the zamindar needs to be dismantled. What measures can be taken for such an endeavour? Will more foreign aid stop the destruction of school buildings, killing of teachers, and attacks on female students?

Trade, not aid, is the way out. Aid will be pocketed by the military and political elites, only to strengthen the status quo. Long-term change will take place if the power of the landed elite is eroded. Transforming Pakistan’s economy, from an agrarian to an industrialized one, is probably the best bet. Strategies to encourage exports even in low skill industries such as garments have long-term political and social payoffs. Exports and industrialization are both indirect and non-threatening means to break the power of the landed elite, as no actor can denounce industrialization, as opposed to secularization, or even democratization. Without such economic transformation, Pakistan will continue its backward march towards religious extremism, accompanied with even more erosion in the status of the Pakistani woman.

Malala is right: empowering women via education will upset the status quo. But this empowerment cannot be realized by giving more foreign aid. It will be realized only by altering the economic structure, which supports the alliance among the fauji (soldier), the mullah (religious cleric), and the zamindar (landlord).

About the authors

Aseem Prakash is the Walker Family Professor for the College of Arts and Sciences at University of Washington, SeattleHe studies environmental issues, international political economy, and NGO politics, and is the author of Greening the Firm: The Politics of Corporate Environmentalism (Cambridge, 2000), and the co-editor of Advocacy Organizations and Collective Action (Cambridge, 2010), and Voluntary Regulations of NGOs and Nonprofits: An Accountability Club Framework (Cambridge, 2010).

Sarah Ahmed is a recent graduate from the University of Washington, Seattle. She did her masters in International Studies: South Asia. Her research focus includes religion and politics, along with an emphasis on women rights.