What does it mean to be a woman in Pakistan?

8 March 2018 marked the International Women's Day around the world. To celebrate this day in the ENA (Ecole National D'Administration) and the French Foreign Ministry, Bina Shah, President of the Executive Committee of the Alliance Française de Karachi, filmed a video testimony about the state of women's empowerment in Pakistan.

It is a privilege for me as a writer to witness and document the struggle for women’s empowerment in my country. I want to let you know that revolution has already arrived in Pakistan, and it is a women’s revolution.
— Bina Shah

Read the full text in English:

What does it mean to be a woman in Pakistan today? My name is Bina Shah. I’m a writer and journalist living in Karachi, Pakistan. I devote a large period of my time and writing to women’s empowerment, feminism, and women’s rights.

Life in Pakistan is not easy for women. The vast majority of Pakistan’s women is made up of the working class: agricultural laborers, factory workers, domestic servants, child carers — and the lower middle class: homemakers, students, teachers, nurses. In the middle classes, women are becoming doctors, engineers, computer programmers, even joining the armed forces.

Women in Pakistan fight daily for their basic rights: access to education, health services, nutrition, clean and safe drinking water. They struggle to be treated fairly and equally by Pakistan’s justice system. They face domestic violence, emotional abuse, child marriage, sexual harassment. They fight for access to public space, freedom of mobility, and safe transportation. Most of all they fight the societal expectation that they are and always will remain second class citizens, compared to men.

Because of illiteracy, many women don’t know that as citizens of Pakistan, they have the right to life, freedom, a future. They need to learn they are equal citizens, that their hopes and dreams are legitimate, that they have a choice to decide how to live their lives. Then they can fight to claim their rights, to demand justice from the legal system, and accountability from their leaders. It’s a type of political action that involves a lot of grassroots work at the community level.

For decades the movement to empower Pakistani women has addressed issues of health and education. This means teaching women in the villages about hygiene and nutrition, or training midwives to wash their hands and disinfect their equipment at childbirth. Convincing villages to allow their girls to go to school, or to build a high school close enough that older girls can stay in school and avoid becoming child brides.

Women also fight to become financially recognized in Pakistan. Every woman in Pakistan does some kind of work, formal employment, informal domestic work, or agricultural work. Women must learn that what they do is not “chores” but “work”, and that their work should be recognized by the state and renumerated properly. They must have access to their wages, not to have them taken by the men of the family. They have to be involved in financial decision-making in their families.

Finally, the scourge of violence against women. You may have heard about the most horrible types: honor killings and acid attacks, violent sexual abuse of girls in forced marriages. But violence against women occurs on a daily basis behind closed doors. If you ask a woman if she is happy with her life, she will say: “I have a good husband. He doesn’t beat me.” We must fight to raise awareness that a woman has the right to expect safety and security in her home.

Despite the problems, Pakistani women are strong, courageous, and the center of change in our society. Thanks to NGOs and grassroots action and activism, women are becoming economically empowered, increasing their worth and status in their communities. Schoolgirls resist child marriage by convincing their parents to let them stay in school for two extra years until they are at least 18. Women are taking part in the political process, getting registered so they can vote in the next elections. It is a privilege for me as a writer to witness and document the struggle for women’s empowerment in my country. I want to let you know that revolution has already arrived in Pakistan, and it is a women’s revolution.