News & Events

The Status of Women in Pakistan

Several readers of Uncovering have asked about the status of women in Pakistan: Is there a women’s movement? Is it just in the northwest areas of the country that strong conservative beliefs about women’s role prevail? How prevalent are the conservative voices? I’d like to use the example of the celebration of International Women’s Day 2020 to address these questions.

The Women’s March

Women planned a series of rallies for Sunday, March 8, 2020 in the three major Pakistani cities of Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad. These events, called the Aurat March or Women’s March, were set to mark the day, hoping this year to focus on economic equality. The CNN report of the day[1] explains several complaints, “…as Pakistan grapples with issues including incest, rape, child abuse and female genital mutilation, the feminist cause is important. Pakistan ranked 151 out of 153 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index Report 2020. In 2019, Pakistan Human Rights Watch (HRW) found that over 5 million primary school-age children in Pakistan were out of school, ‘most of them girls.’ Another HRW report said that ‘early marriage remains a serious problem, with 21 percent of girls in Pakistan marrying before the age of 18.’ The United Nations Population Fund has reported that Pakistan has one of the highest maternal mortality ratios in South Asia.” All of which suggests that, if women are to reach their goal of equality with men, there is a great deal of reason behind these feminist marches.

Women in Islam

But there were objections to the very idea of such a march, well before the day it was scheduled. Conservative lawyers in Islamabad and Lahore asked the courts to ban the affair, arguing vociferously against a sign sometimes seen in earlier marches: “My body, my choice.” The slogan was declared to be against the “norms of Islam.” Both cases were dismissed.

A Rival March

The cleric at the conservative Red Mosque in Islamabad mobilized the students at the mosque’s female madrassa Jamia Hafsa. (You may remember these institutions from Uncovering). Teachers and students organized a rival “modesty march.” According to Diaa Hadid, reporting for NPR,[1] “dozens of the seminary women turned up at the counter rally, clad in long black robes, headscarves and face veils (see picture below), segregated from dozens of men who stood in a nearby park. They stood in military-style rows, their fearsome appearance only jarred by blue, green and pink bows pinned to their shoulders, to identify which bus they should return on, explained one 25-year-old, who only gave her first name, Rubina. ‘We don’t want women to make choices for their bodies. The choice rests with God,’ she said.”

Islam and Feminism

And there were others objecting as well. Diaa Hadid again: “Demonstrators belonging to Islamist groups attacked an International Women’s Day rally in … Islamabad on Sunday, hurling rocks, chunks of mud and even their shoes. … As the protest was winding down, dozens of men tried to push through the police barricade… According to a video uploaded to Twitter by a BBC reporter, police used batons to push them back. Still, for the next few minutes, they hurled projectiles that scattered the women’s day protesters, as journalists huddled behind concrete road dividers.”

Feminism and Islam

CNN also reported that one of the organizers of the Islamabad March, Tooba Syed, said, “Feminists are seen as bad women because talking about the body is so taboo. It’s a politicization of the private sphere of family life—any discussion about taking women out of the confines of the home causes a backlash.” … “Syed added that in Pakistan it is still controversial to even use the word body because ‘bodies are controlled, reproductive rights are controlled, traditional gender roles in society are controlled’ by men.”

2020 is the third year of a women’s day march, suggesting there is a strong push from women to organize and press for reforms.. They continue to move forward to initiate societal change through peaceful means, following the rule of law (or arguing that the laws be amended). But there doesn’t seem to be great public will for such changes, and the conservative religious establishment throughout the country is strong and vocal. Government chiefs and law-makers must continual define the fine line they will walk to enforce their rules of law and yet honor the fundamentalist beliefs of many of their citizens. The country is, after all, The Islamic Republic of Pakistan. The issue is the interpretation of Islam that should be followed.


[1] They plan to march for gender equality. In Pakistan, that has caused outrage.
By Sophia Saifi, CNN; Updated 10:14 PM ET, Sat March 7, 2020. Available at:

https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/07/asia/pakistan-womens-marches-intl-hnk/index.html

[2] International Women’s Day: With Shoes and Stones, Islamists Disrupt Pakistan Rally. March 8. 2020 2:18 pm ET, By Diaa Hadid/NPR. Available at:

https://www.npr.org/2020/03/08/813443312/international-womens-day-with-shoes-and-stones-islamists-disrupt-pakistan-rally

What happens after the book ends?

One of my readers asked if I intended to write a sequel to Uncovering. I don’t. So, she asked, “What happened to Shahnaz?” I thought it would be fun to speculate, given what I know and love about this character—and some of the others in the story.

First and foremost, Shahnaz remains committed to doing her utmost for the health of Kashmir’s mothers and babies. She continues to work for Peace (which is a fictitious non-governmental organization) or other NGOs in the area who sponsor and train Lady Health Workers and visit with women in their homes. Unfortunately, even now, 12 years after the setting of the book, there is a great deal of resistance to vaccination, and areas in Pakistan are at the top of the world’s list of outbreaks. All too frequently, people administering vaccines are killed. So far, Shahnaz is in good health, but she always travels with a team when the purpose of the visit is vaccinations.

Second, she and her husband Naseer agreed that she should have a full health workup with Dr. Humayan to uncover the reason for her multiple miscarriages. He started with a 2-D pelvic ultrasound and discovered that she had a septate uterus, one in which fibrous tissues divides the organ in two and there isn’t sufficient room for the placenta to grow. It took minor surgery (a hysteroscopy) for the doctor to remove the excess tissue, and not long after, she conceived and bore a son. Thirteen months later she had a daughter. And the couple decided two would be enough.

pakistan reconstructionThird, life in their multigenerational home whirred on with joy. Noshaba loved having more babies to care for. This young woman, not quite liberated, happily watched over Shahnaz’s babies along with her own two daughters. Zainab and Riffat adored their young cousins, and the home was continuously alive with laughter and the antics of young children.

Between 2008, when Uncovering ended, and 2020, the household has changed in a number of ways. With Maryam, Shahnaz, Naseer, and Jamil working, the younger siblings could finish school and the house was repaired from the earthquake. Nooran, the eldest of Naseer’s sisters, finished medical school in Muzaffarabad and transferred to a hospital in Islamabad for her residency in anesthesiology. She fell in love with a fellow medical student, and when they appealed to Maryam and Naseer for permission to marry, it was readily . Soon after, mother and eldest son found a young woman for Jamil to wed, and this couple, too, settled in Islamabad as Jamil found work at a bank that allowed him a good salary to set up his own household. Sadia, the second sister, became a primary school teacher. She married a cousin and lived not far from her family’s home. Rizwana, the youngest of the girls, is still in a Master’s program in biology. It’s not yet clear where this will lead her. She is content to live at home. And then there is Qadir. More than ever, he spends his time writing poetry. He’s had several arguments with Naseer about this. The now-eldest brother believes every male must earn money, so Qadir is also writing periodic articles for several news outlets, some online, and sneaking in his days of poetry-writing whenever he can.

I’m sorry to say that Rabia’s marriage has not worked out particularly well. She and her husband did move to London, which initially made her very happy. But her ambitious husband often left her at home, and she did come to miss having her family around. Her Ammi and Abu visit every year or so, generally after each new baby. So far, there are three. Shahnaz has yet to make the trip, but she conscientiously speaks to Rabia on the phone once a week.

The elder generation is aging gracefully. Maryam has finished her books under that 2008 contract and has decided to try retirement for a bit. Shahnaz’s mother and father, now retired, have moved to Muzaffarabad and may often be found playing with their grandchildren.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this trip into the characters’ future. I’ve been taking walks each day of this COVID-19 pandemic, often thinking about my characters and what I want to have happen for them: a life not without its issues but one that is generally contented and often very happy.

Women’s Fiction Writers Association podcast on Uncovering

Lorie was featured as a debut author on the WFWA podcast in October 2019. On this podcast she discusses how the book came to be, the processes of writing and publishing, and the hiccups in these processes. To listen to this inspiring podcast, please click here.