Pakistani civil society activists carry placards as they march during a rally to mark International Women's Day in Karachi on March 8, 2018. Photo: AFP/Asif Hassan

The debate in Pakistan currently is focused on the Aurat March that coincides every year with International Women’s Day. Annually on March 8, Pakistani women display slogans against men who do not believe in gender equality or feminism.

The issue came to the fore recently on a talk show when a well-known TV drama writer, Khalil-ur-Rehman Qamar, used abusive language against human-rights activist Marvi Sirmed. A strong advocate of feminism and women’s rights, Sirmed was blatantly attacked on air by Qamar, who is a strong critic of feminism and believes that women in Pakistan already enjoy equal rights and much better lives than those in Western and developed countries, where gender equality is considered a fundamental right.

Qamar is not alone in his delusions. Most Pakistanis live in the hallucination that women are meant to live according to the traditions and religious interpretations defined by men. The bottom line of this mentality is that women should respect the traditions set by the mullahs and the insecure conservative segment of society and must not express their desires to make their own choices about sex, dress, and the right to education and right to work, and refuse to be submissive to a male-dominant society.

Every year International Women’s Day brings forth controversies in Pakistan, as women raising their voices for gender equality and for the protection of women’s rights are often abused and shamed by misogynists like Qamar.

The theme for International Women’s Day this year is “I Am Generation Equality: Realizing Women’s Rights.” Much of the world long ago realized that gender disparity between men and women not only affects economic conditions of society as a whole but also is a form of theft, snatching away the rights of women in the name of religion, values, and traditions. In Pakistan when it comes to giving equal representation to women in every walk of life, most people see women’s rights as a threat to the patriarchal sphere of society.

Women who demand freedom from rotten traditions and false religious interpretations and ask for sexual rights are either considered women of bad character or agents of a Western agenda to destroy the social fabric of society. Many believe that life in Pakistan is superior for women because Western societies have no concept of families.

The ill-informed masses who are largely subject to the propaganda of the mullahs and religious and right-wing political parties are convinced that Pakistan is far superior when it comes to women’s rights, as confining women to their homes or marrying them off against their will or at minor age is considered good for them.

Yet most of these interpretations are influenced by the Saudi Arabian school of religious thought, that women must not be allowed to choose a life of their own as they do not have the same intellectual level as men. This medieval-age thinking has become part of the daily routine of most Pakistanis, and hence domestic violence, harassment against women, and marital rape are not considered crimes.

In most cases of domestic violence where women are subjected to torture by their fathers, brothers or husbands, no one blames the male members of the family, and women are always advised to remain submissive to their family’s menfolk. Likewise harassing women is not considered a sin, and whether through social media or everyday life, girls and women are regularly subjected to harassment.

On social media males often send pictures of their penises to women and consider it an act of heroism, while girls going to college or university or to work are subjected to verbal harassment in public places, and often on public transport, their private parts are touched by male passengers.

Marital rape is not considered a sin at all. A woman after getting married is supposed to satisfy the sexual lust of her husband at any time, and if she refuses to do so she is either considered a sinful woman or is divorced.

Divorce remains a taboo here, as not many people have realized yet that it is a hundred times better to leave a toxic marriage and save their children from the consequences of an unhealthy and violent relationship.

Most of the Urdu media have bought into the popular narrative and as a result, Urdu literature, talk shows, and television dramas aim to show the supremacy of men and infiltrate the minds of younger generations with the concept that a good woman is the one who bears mental and physical torture and yet never raises her voice against such oppression.

So in a society that prefers to live in the dark ages and where women exist primarily for the sexual pleasure of men and are considered machines to produce children and do the cooking, low-caliber intellectuals and writers who themselves are ignorant of the modern-day world and its dimensions are fooling the masses by mixing religion and so-called traditions in their TV dramas and their books.

Most of the political parties are also happy to align with the conservatives and try to suppress those voices who want to change the tradition of suppressing women and their rights. Jamiat Ulma-e-Islam Fazal has announced that it will stop the Aurat March this coming Sunday at any cost, as the annual women’s march promotes vulgarity by raising slogans for women’s rights.

JUIF leader Fazal-ur-Rehman’s hypocritical style of politics is no surprise, as he enjoys the support of a cult religious vote bank. However, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, which claims to be the champion of democracy, is also against the Aurat March, and most of its leadership and vote bank think that women are living comfortably in Pakistan.

The PML-N seems to have revived its policy of exploiting the right-wing vote bank by going with the popular sentiment against women’s rights, but the question remains how a party that is banking on a woman, Maryam Nawaz, to lead it in the future is so unaware of the ordeals suffered by the women of our society.

Only the Pakistan Peoples Party has shown the guts to stand against the mullahs and traditional mindset, as its leader Asif Ali Zardari has openly announced the Sindh provincial government’s support for the Aurat March, while his son and PPP co-chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari is as vocal as his mother the late Benazir Bhutto was on the issues of women’s rights and human rights in general.

For the women of Pakistan, the agony continues, as not only do they have very little support from the mainstream political parties but they are hostage to the ignorance of the mullahs and misogynists like Qamar, who continue to exploit them in the name of religion and tradition.

As the famous Urdu fiction writer Saadat Hasan Manto said, “A man remains a man no matter how poor his conduct. A woman, even if she were to deviate for one instance from the role given to her by men, is branded a whore. She is viewed with lust and contempt. Society closes on her doors it leaves ajar for a man stained by the same ink. If both are equal, why are our barbs reserved for the woman?”

Unless the rotten traditions and exploitation of the religious card for short-term gains by the mullahs the political parties are stopped, women in Pakistan are unlikely to win their fundamental rights of living freely and the right to work and education.

In Pakistan, where gender equality remains a dream, events like the Aurat March are necessary to make society realize that women are just as entitled to life in all its colorfulness as men are.

More power to women in Pakistan, and across the globe.

Imad Zafar is a journalist and columnist/commentator for newspapers. He is associated with TV channels, radio, newspapers, news agencies, and political, policy and media related think-tanks.