Have Muslim countries failed its women due to religious orthodoxy?

Published: December 19, 2016
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An angry mob of Muslim men shout slogans in a Christian neighbourhood in Lahore, Pakistan. PHOTO: AFP

A few months ago, when Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy won her Oscar, I got into a heated argument with one of my friends. His contention was that people like her were ‘maligning’ the image of Pakistan by unnecessarily inflating some isolated incidents. In his opinion, her efforts were just creating negative stereotypical images of Pakistan and which made ‘enemies’ of Pakistan feel comfortable in their hate. In his opinion, Pakistan’s gender related issues were not systemic and were blown out of proportion.

“It is just a tiny minority which is indulging in honour killings and it is unfair to present Pakistan in such a negative light”, he argued.

Is he correct? Now, one can justifiably argue that honour killing, which Sharmeen highlighted in her film, is not massively widespread. But one can also easily counter argue that the mentality which gives rise to a horrific crime like honour killing is extremely pervasive. Honour killing is merely an extreme form of the same basic patriarchal thinking. This mode of thinking equates ‘honour’ of the family with female chastity and if a female member of the family is perceived as transgressing some limits, then it creates ‘embarrassment’ for the family which in turn leads to a range of possible reactions, of which honour killing is the most severe one. Honour killing in some circumstances has also taken place for extremely mundane reasons such as women singing in a mixed gathering.

But female chastity and its reflection upon a family’s honour is only part of the larger problem of gender imbalance in Pakistan. The reality is that, in Pakistan, gender imbalance is systemic in nature and extends across several dimensions. Women in Pakistan have a much lower share in employment, far less is spent on their health and education, and the legal infrastructure is highly skewed against them.

Some of these aspects of gender imbalance have been captured in the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index, which has ranked Pakistan as the second last out of the total 144 countries evaluated in 2016. Only Yemen (which is a war-torn country) was placed below Pakistan. What makes this ranking even more embarrassing is the fact that Pakistan is placed below countries whose per capita income is lower. Extremely poor countries like Ethiopia, Nepal and Ghana have been placed above Pakistan. Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan, has been ranked at 72, showing that perhaps they made the right decision by separating from us.

This index measures gender parity across several dimensions including economic opportunity, educational attainment, health, and political empowerment. Within the above subcategories, Pakistan is ranked 143rd in economic opportunity, 135th in educational attainment, 124th in health and 90th in political empowerment. Pakistan is in a relatively better position regarding political empowerment considering it had a female prime minister in the past and a somewhat sizable number of female legislators. This objective criterion – since it merely measures the numbers of female legislators – does not capture the real imbalance of political power that exists in the society. Moreover, Pakistan’s dismal rankings in other subcategories also reveal that the mere existence of female legislators does not essentially translate into improvement for women in other areas.

And this Gender Gap Index does not capture the social problems which women face such as rape, honour killing and work place sexual harassment. It also does not reflect the everyday misogynist and sexist behaviour which any Pakistani woman can vouch for routinely facing.

Rather than calling people like Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy and Malala Yousafzai, who point towards an obvious reality, as ‘enemies’ of Pakistan, maybe we need to take a good hard look at the way half of our population is treated. Maybe we need to understand that fake national pride aimed at presenting a glorified and misplaced image of Pakistan in the international arena is not the answer. If anything, we need to introspect and understand that there is a problem with the way we treat women. Pakistan has a systemic gender problem and denial is not going to help us.

However, I also think that gender imbalance is an issue for Muslim countries in general.  If we observe the rankings closely, we will find that Muslim countries are right at the bottom.

For example, out of the 144 countries ranked in 2016, not even a single Muslim-majority country makes it into the top 50. Kazakhstan is the top among Muslim countries (51st), and out of the 30 Islamic countries which have been ranked, 25 are in the last 50 (90-144). In fact, the last 15 countries (130-144) are all Muslim -majority countries. This is an astonishing figure and clearly points to an across the board problem in the Muslim world.

Of all the factors, the fact that a country has a Muslim majority is perhaps the strongest predictor of a country’s position in this index.

What could be the reason behind that? In my opinion, the reality is that Muslim countries by and large are time-trapped and have failed to evolve due to religious orthodoxy. Religious orthodoxy can be seen in the country’s legal code which is skewed against women and also in the society’s general mind-set which is patriarchal. To quote, Lisa Beyer:

“While it is impossible, given their diversity, to paint one picture of women living under Islam today, it is clear that the religion has been used in most Muslim countries not to liberate but to entrench inequality.”

The gender problem in Muslim countries needs to be addressed and frank acknowledgement is the first essential step towards that. Merely repeating that “Islam gives equal rights to women” is not going to solve the problem. Unless and until, the religious orthodoxy is addressed, by reforming the way we interpret religion, the problem will persist.

Of course, this does not mean that orthodoxy is the only reason why gender imbalance exists in a given society. Let’s not forget that literally every society in the world has gender imbalance. The difference between societies is only in form and extent. However, religious orthodoxy is an important and critical causal factor, which is making the problem in Muslim countries more acute.

raza.habib

Raza Habib Raja

The author is a recent Cornell graduate and currently pursuing his PhD in political science at Maxwell School, Syracuse University. He has also worked for a leading development finance institution in Pakistan. He is a freelance journalist whose works have been published at Huffington Post, Dawn (Pakistan), Express Tribune (Pakistan) and Pak Tea House. He tweets @razaraja (twitter.com/razaraja?lang=en)

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