Have Muslim countries failed its women due to religious orthodoxy?

Published: December 19, 2016

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 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.

  • Critical

    Its not the tiny minority who are the problem but the silent majority who refuse to take action are the problem…According to stats,only 3% of white Americans owned black slaves,the rest were all poor and struggling to get keep themselves afloat but they never took a stand why blacks needed to be enslaved because they werent having one,so they have a clear conscience…

    Same principle applies here,you cant keep telling its the neighbor’s house thats on fire and why you shouldnt douse it…because it will soon engulf your house too…Recommend

  • srk

    First post from a Pakistani Scholar with some real introspection and intellect. You do justice to your education and experiences abroad.Recommend

  • Fahim

    Quoting from article “Unless and until, the religious orthodoxy is addressed, by reforming the way we interpret religion, the problem will persist.”

    Do author really want to interpret the religion or want to change it ?
    Why don’t author make a new one, if he needs govt. support or foreign country support ?Recommend

  • Umair Akhtar

    Very ojectively crafted article. Recommend

  • 19640909rk .

    Some Arabs give more respect to their Camels than their wives. So figure.Recommend

  • MR.X

    these hypocrites really want to create their own shariah.Recommend

  • wb

    It is not the Muslim countries that have failed their women. It’s the Muslim men and their religious practices that have failed Muslim women.

    In India, muslim women are the most oppressed group. Perhaps their condition is worse than the Dalits. Why, because the Mullahs have kept the men oppressing the women. BElow is the sequence of EIGHT events through which Muslim women are kept oppressed all their lives.

    First, at the age of 8, sometimes even 4-5 girls are thrown in burqas.

    SEcond, women are not given education, so no job, no freedom.

    Third, at the age of 12-14-16 most girls are married off to men who already have 1-2-3 wives. Some of these girls are also married off (of sold off for a dowry) to rich Saudi/Kuwaiti men who use them first as sex slaves and then as maids/laborers.

    Fourth, they’re used as baby making machines. Or sex slaves by these men.

    Fifth, they are made to do menial household chores in utter poverty in despicable conditions. And when they resist, they’re beaten because men have God given right to beat up women.

    Sixth, when they’re not physically attractive enough, they’re told “talaq, talaq, talaq”.

    Seventh, when the woman goes to a Mulla or a Qazi seeking justice, she’s told that it is the husband’s god’s given right.

    Eighth, when the woman goes to a social activist like BMMA, she’s socially ostracized. She’s told that she’s the enemy of Islam and she’ll go to hell and face the wrath of god.

    Now, this women is left with no money, no job, no ability, no marriage, no happiness.

    This is the status of most Muslim woman in India.

    Now, Most Muslims don’t do all of this. But, most Muslims always do, at least one of these.Recommend

  • wb

    If somebody questions you, you’ll call them enemies of Islam and claim them to be agents of kafirs who want to change your great practices or start a new religion.

    Every wondered why 1.5 billion Muslims are the worst kind of failures in this world? Please look in the mirror and you’ll find the culprit.Recommend

  • maya

    “1.5 billion Muslims are the worst kind of failures in this world?”
    Whoa..you are drenched in hate buddy..you need to widen your tunnel vision..hate is very unattractive.Recommend

  • MR.X

    over ExaggeratedRecommend

  • Fahim

    Good and bad times come to every religion, state and nation. Read 1450 years of history and count the number of centuries when the muslims were super power and count all others who were super powers. We know who are our friends and foe. Our enemies don’t need to tell us.Recommend

  • wb

    You have clearly been misguided, misinformed and dis-informed.

    You think looting, plundering, killing, converting, taking someone’s land and occupying and ruling them over IS EQUAL TO (=) being superpower.

    The world thinks “a very powerful and influential entity is a superpower”.

    So, you tell me when you were superpower? Never. Not once. Muslims were never influential outside the land they occupied. And the lands they occupied, they never progressed it. They just looted more, had brutal control and enjoyed their lives.

    And you being a subcontinental Muslim is a convert. You were also similarly converted by occupying Mongols, Turks, Afghans and Persians.

    So, tell me are you an Arab? Persian? Turk? Afghan?

    If not, you were a slave just like me. You were never in power.

    In the history of Muslims, which is 1400 years old, Muslims never contributed anything to the world. You gave nothing. And please don’t tell me you gave basic Al Gebra. If you gave basic Al Gebra it’s because we Hindus gave you the numbers.Recommend

  • Fahim

    When any big powers i.e. spain, Nazi, Ottoman, USSR ended they are usually remembered only as looters by many opponent historians. Same will be fate of USA.
    You said “Muslims were never influential outside the land they occupied.” This is your ignorance. Open your eyes and see that muslim countries are present from Morocco to Indonesia. Mongols who were super power accepted Islam at their peak of power. Chemistry is derieved from al-chemiya. From logrithm to Algebra. Medical sciences to optics. Open all covers of your eyes and then see.
    We are weak but tme will changeRecommend

  • wb

    Man, you still don’t understand what is a super power. China, USA and even India can influence the world in many matters of influence. No Muslim country can influence any other country. Not today, not ever in history.

    Muslims were never influential outside the land they occupied. You tried to disprove my point by writing irrelevant drivel that Muslims are present from Morocco to Indonesia.

    Yes, that’s a fact. But what’s their influence outside these countries? Zero, Nada, Sifar.

    Hahahah…names are driven from al chemiya and al gebra. Names. Only names. Nothing else. Medical sciences? What medical sciences? Please name them and I bet you fail to name one thing that is still relevant.

    Even Sushruta and Ayurveda used to do small plastic surgeries thousands of years ago. Are they relevant today? No.

    But Yoga, which is even older, is becoming ever more relevant and popular today.

    By the way no Algebra would ever exist without us Hindus giving the entire world the number system.

    Hindu number system is the world number system today.Recommend

  • Rex Minor

    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.

    143 grading in economic opportunty and 135 in educaton attainment; the author should go no further in interpretting the statistics or his conclusions, the two being the key causual factors of women misery in most countries including his own. The Ibrahimic religions scriptures have brought homo sapiens out of the dark age, ignorance and primitive cults faster than the vision of the philosophers and the discoveries through science, Todays world of Islam has neither experienced the renaissance, or industrialisation nor the Aufklarung of the religion.

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • Fahim

    You have very low insight in subject of history. Camparing the might of Rashidun, Ummvi, Abbasi, Ottomani caliphate with India is a Joke. What India is capable to influence is a separate story but let me tell you one event from history out of hundreds of event. Once a dance was getting popular in France(I think Waltz) Ottoman Sultan wrote ” I am, who the khan of forty-eight kingdoms, Kanuni Sultan Suleiman Khan. According to report was given by ambassador, I heard of it was danced by your people as cling each other, men and women.
    Because of we are contiguous, I’m worrying which is smudging of this sickness to my lands. İf it smudge and you don’t terminate this sickness immediately, I will come with my victorious army and destroy you.”

    According to rumour, after this letter, There is no waltz in France during hundred years.

    Von Hammer, Joseph. History of Ottoman Empire, 3th volume, page

    For medical I don’t want to copy and paste the medieval contribution of medicine, if you are blind enough not to grasp the might of Rashidun, Ummvi, Abbasi, Ottomani caliphate then how you can digest medical contributions.

    Regarding your numbering theory, all civilization had numbering systems, you just name them mayans, inqa, Egyptian, Babylonians, chinese, hindus etcRecommend

  • wb

    It’s amply clear that you don’t know what influence means.

    Alright, I have very low insight into history. I urge you to read and watch Hassan Nisar who exposed all Rashidun as just barbarian rulers. Their influence was only to the states surrounding them, and that too when they invaded to plunder and loot with their camels horses and swords.


    Today, India can stop F-16 sales to you. India can turn your Muslims friends against you. India can start a Yoga day around the world. India can make other countries consider declaring you a terrorist state. India has changed the way Afghans live in many ways. These are just the tip of the iceberg. Everybody likes India and everybody hates you. Trump calls himself the best friend of India. Hillary calls herself India’s best friend. Israel is India’s friend. Iran is India’s friend.

    Now that’s influence. I’ll not be offended if your feeble mind calls it a joke.

    “According to rumour, after this letter, There is no waltz in France during hundred years.”

    Hahahah…so he was a terrorist who terrorized people?!! Anyway, only a weak mind takes rumors seriously. Unfortunately, pretty much all your claims are rumors, hearsay, conspiracy theories and nonsense.

    The medical contribution of what medieval? Islamic medieval? It’s nada, sifar, zero. I dare you to copy and paste one single thing…ONE SINGE THING that is relevant today.

    Clearly, you’re surrendering and running away like in 1971.Recommend

  • Fahim

    And we are so much influential that a superman from Super power country named India is giving his time to comment on basic issues in hundred of tribune-pk blogs. Talking with a person who is has set his mind based on hatred is no use, so talk is not possible with youRecommend

  • LS

    This is the first blog on any pakistani news site that I have ever been to — that did not mince words or tried to soften the blow by saying customary “nice things”.

    Change in thinking is needed, one step at a time… I whole hardheartedly congratulate Raza H Raja for this piece. Kudos.Recommend

  • wb

    LMFAO…only superman in India at the moment is Modi. I forgive you for failing.Recommend