Is the state of parental leaves in Pakistan more unfair towards men or women?

Published: August 31, 2016
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What institutional support do working women have in order to return to jobs?PHOTO: REUTERS

Switch on your TV. Pick up your newspaper. How are they selling you what they are selling you? Your favourite tea? Presented to you with the loving hands of your doting wife. Oil? Helps fry the food your wife will make for you when you come home from dinner. What about investing in property? Pretty wife, handsome husband, almost fully grown kids walk into what seems to be a manor – but of course, it’s so affordable!

Oh, look. Your favourite drama is on. It’s all about weddings again. And the problems associated with rishtas and more weddings. Ah, the ads are back. What a cute baby in the diapers ad, smiling happily when their mummy kisses them to sleep.

That’s all very okay, isn’t it? Because that’s what majority of the Pakistani life is like. Man is taught to earn, make a big buck, families find a girl, they get marriedeveryone takes photos, then they have babies, everyone takes photos, the baby grows up, another baby comes, then kids go to school ad infinitum.

What happens outside of these paraphrased images is what’s actually happening to men and women around the country. And it’s a little bit more complicated than a slice of butter on your toast.

What really happens is that a man is educated by his family to find work. Sometimes, despite his family’s insistence, he also finds a mate suitable for him. Sometimes the girl he chooses to marry is his co-worker or someone who is as interested in building a career as he is. Sometimes the girl wants to work as well as be with the person she likes to spend time with.

Now this is where it gets tricky.

When a man and a woman get married, the man goes off to work and resumes his ‘job,’ whereas the woman has a ‘choice.’ She can either stay at home or go back to work – depending how regressive her in-laws are. Notice how I put the words ‘choice’ in inverted commas. The ‘choice’ is a mirage. The choice is a flaw in the system. The ‘choice’ is a myth.

Only 28% of women in Pakistan are a part of the labour force. The rural areas depict more trends of women working – but urban rates are strangely telling a different story. Women achieve doctors’ degrees with government subsidies but don’t work. Most of them don’t. Mainly because their aim behind the doctor degree was to be a doctor ‘bahu.’ If in case they do want to work, their in-laws may find a problem with a woman being away from her ‘duties’ during the wee hours of the night. And then, last but not the least, being a mom.

The Constitution of Pakistan, the Maternity benefit Ordinance, 1958, Article 37, stipulates that upon the completion of four months employment or qualifying period, a worker may have up to six weeks prenatal and postnatal leave. This makes Pakistan one of the worse off countries that allow women maternity leaves.

So before you start blaming women on being begum sahibas and lazing around watching TV – tell me. What institutional support do working women have in order to return to jobs? If they want to work, they only have six weeks that they can take off to have the child, recuperate, settle into a new routine and go back to work. Forget about attachment parenting, that’s not even enough time to wean a baby off breast milk. That’s not even enough time to deal with post-partum depression. That’s not even enough time to bond with your child as a caregiver.

A month and a half. Anyone who has ever been a parent (or has been around new-borns) can tell you a mother and a child at that point of time are as green about it all as ever. It takes no less than six months, at least, to find your groove, know your child, know your own parenting style and be comfortable with leaving your child with a secondary caregiver.

Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote this lovely piece about how women try but can’t have it all. I call it lovely more out of appreciation for the cold hard truth she talks about than the irony of it all. Women are trying to do it all. But they’re shot down. They want to be great mommies and awesome as an engineer but its either people or institutions who just won’t let that happen.

And it’s not just maternity leave either.

It’s about the institutionalised set up of automatically assuming one person (the mom) as responsible for everything. What doesn’t make sense is – it takes a father and the rest of the family that needs to contribute as well. This isn’t the age of the Neanderthal. This is the age of therapy and counselling and coffee-makers and pacifiers and automatic washing machines. Surely the chores can be divided. The emotional roller coaster of being a parent can be divided. The dishes can be washed together and the PTA meetings can be attended by dads too. Everyone is able to participate.

But the truth is, companies want to save their bucks. They don’t find the human capital worth investing into. They’ll find ways and laws to save taxes and have offshore companies and Ponzi schemes. But they won’t offer paternal and maternity leaves. They’ll plan expensive excursions for high-ranking CEOs in private jets but they won’t pay a little extra for the small family struggling to survive pay check to pay check.

The state of parental leaves in Pakistan is unfair and discriminatory. And hence for women, it’s so much more easier to celebrate a wedding than a job promotion.

Mahwash.Badar.

Mahwash Badar

The author is a clinical psychologist, a mum to two boys and permanently in a state of flux. She tweets @mahwashajaz_ (twitter.com/mahwashajaz_)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.