March 8 is commemorated every year as International Women’s Day. The world over, women congregate to advocate women’s rights and highlight the problems they face in diverse societies. With thousands of years of male domination defining human society since the dawn of civilization, it should not come as a surprise that despite enormous gains that women have made in the realm of representation and rights, they still suffer from the hangover of the legacy bequeathed by history.

Adult franchise was not extended to women in even some developed western democracies until late in the day during the 20th century. By now however, there is no country on earth that does not extend this right to women, a principle the early 20th century Suffragette movement initiated. On the occasion of this year’s International Women’s Day, the International Parliamentary Union that tracks the number of women elected to national legislative bodies in 178 countries reports that nearly a quarter of legislators worldwide are women.

In Pakistan too, the now on, now off democratic system has put in place reserved seats for women in the legislatures at both federal and provincial levels. However, in the absence of numbers of women elected on general seats, the reserved seats tend to be doled out by male-dominated political party leaderships, and that too to women either related to or close to the significant leaders of that party.

This cosy ‘in-house’ representation does not quite measure up to the principle of representation, either quantitatively or qualitatively, but the presence of women in the assemblies has improved the atmosphere and culture of thrust and parry that is the essence of parliamentary debate.

The hope therefore is that both aspects of women’s representation would see improvement with time and awareness of the importance of this issue.

The women’s movement in Pakistan has roots in the Independence movement but it really only seared itself into the public imagination when the women of Pakistan took up the struggle against military dictator Ziaul Haq’s benighted efforts to take away even their rights under the law and constitution, e.g., the infamous attempted halving of a woman’s testimony in court compared to a man’s.

Issues such as these aroused the ire of Pakistan’s women and persuaded them to protest against General Ziaul Haq’s antediluvian antics in 1983. That peaceful protest was brutally put down by the Zia regime but gave birth in the process to the Women’s Action Forum immediately and other women’s rights groups with the passage of time.

March 8 therefore commemorates in Pakistan every year not only the worldwide movement for women’s rights but also the birth of the modern women’s movement in our country in 1983.

While all women’s rights groups geared up for the big day, an interesting broad-based coalition of women’s groups held a press conference, in the recently subjected to the anti-encroachment drive, in Karachi’s Empress Market.

They announced an Aurat (Women) March to be held on March 8 and articulated their demands. Amongst others, these included: equal (with men) pay for equal work; equal (with men) respect; to be allowed to make their own decisions regarding such issues as marriage, having, or not having, children; raising voice for missing persons (including women) and their families; fighting the injustice of forced conversions of Hindu and Christian girls; justice for minority communities including compensation for untoward incidents and hate crimes; fighting the widespread phenomenon of sexual harassment; strengthening institutions to provide justice through redress mechanisms and implementation of existing laws and the promulgation of fresh legislation where required; given the venue of the press conference, the inevitable demand to provide alternative places/arrangements for those who lost their livelihoods in the unplanned anti-encroachment drive; and last but not least, a call for men to join and show solidarity with women in their just struggle for their rights.

Mao Tse Tung changed China after the revolution, but did not ignore women in a feudal society, arguing that “Women hold up half the sky.” In Pakistan today, we need to stand shoulder to shoulder with our women holding up arguably even more than half the sky and do our bit for gender equality and full and unfettered women’s rights.

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